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Sandy coverage may cause PTSD in anxious children

The current media coverage on natural disasters like superstorm Sandy can show some devastating and frightening images, especially for young children. A new study shows that children who have anxiety may be more susceptible to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just by watching disaster coverage on TV.

Previous research has suggested that there is a link between watching traumatic events on TV like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina and PTSD. PTSD symptoms can include hyperarousal, feeling tense, anxious worrying that the significant event will happen again, re-experiencing the event and being "keyed-up" tense. Emotional "numbing" or having a lack of interest in everyday things can also occur. The anxiety disorder normally happens to individuals who have experienced or seen the something that threatened their safety or caused death. Treatment involves "desensitization" through having the patient remember the traumatic event, support groups and some medications that can help reduce anxiety.

Carl Weems , a professor of psychology at the University of New Orleans, and his team followed 141 children who had lived in areas hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, looking at their PTSD symptoms 24 and 30 months after the event. They followed up with the kids one month after a different Hurricane, Gustav, made landfall on Aug. 31, 2008 and asked them about how much TV they had watched about the hurricane.

Though Gustav was nowhere near as devastating as Katrina, it did prompt the evacuation of almost 3 million people that live in the storm's path, including many Louisiana residents.

About one-fourth of the children said they had watched "a lot" of the Gustav coverage on TV, while 31 percent said they watched "a whole lot."

The main factor that researchers found determined who was more likely to experience PTSD from watching Gustav coverage was whether or not the child had symptoms of the anxiety disorder prior to Gustav. For children who displayed PTSD symptoms before the storm, the more Gustav coverage they watched, the more they were to experience PTSD again.

While all these kids had experienced the devastating effects of a hurricane before, Weems said that the experiment showed that kids who have a history of anxiety may be more likely to experience PTSD just by witnessing the event, even on TV.

"The study shows us who we should be targeting," Weems explained to "Maybe these kids shouldn't watch too much coverage, and we should really monitor the TV watching with them."

Weems said as with all disaster coverage, parents should talk to their kids and not let their kids watch too much.

"Don't be glued to the TV, but don't hide your kids from it either," he said.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services said this week that caregivers of children who lived through a disaster should create a safe place, provide comfort, create predictable routines and talk about what happened and will be happening with age-appropriate words. Avoiding repetitive media coverage can also help a child heal from a traumatic event.

Weems added that for kids, even those who are just watching TV, listening to their fears and reassuring them of their safety helps. The most important thing is to help the child realize that their family has a plan to keep them safe, he said.

"Use it as a time to talk about the family's own plan in case of an emergency," he suggested.

However, not talking about it and ignoring it is something that families should not do.

"The take-home message shouldn't be we should avoid the things that we fear," Weems explained. "We should ultimately try to face our fears. Helping kids face their fears is good, but with guidance."

The research appears in the Nov. 2012 issue of Psychological Science.

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