The notion of "painful news" is a common metaphor, but this Israeli study suggests there might be literal truth in the cliché. In a study of chronic-pain patients, it found that those who reported increased suffering were likely to share a common trait: They had watched a lot of news about a recent spate of missile attacks on their region.
In fact, a statistical analysis of the patients' reports about their troubles found that having watched missile-related news was a reliable predictor of increased physical pain in later weeks. Surprisingly, actually knowing someone hurt in the attacks was not an indicator of increased pain. It seems media reports of violence have a bad effect that even direct contact with the injured doesn't.
Sheera F. Lerman and her colleagues were already studying chronic pain in a group of patients in Beersheba when, in late December 2008, a rain of missiles from Gaza began to fall on the region (the attacks lasted for three weeks). As they point out in their paper, soon to be published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, they realized that they had a rare opportunity to study the effects of war on body and mind: Most such studies take place after a horrific event, and so lack data about people's mental and physical health before they were traumatized. So they asked their study participants to report on their perceptions of pain in the aftermath of the attacks, and about what they had done and felt during the campaign.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway) media exposure seems to be associated with a worsening in physical pain, but not with other griefs. People who were depressed before the offensive were depressed after it, but those who weren't did not get sadder. Nor did the missile campaign seem to cause any increase in anxiety or in the negative emotions and general grousing associated with a chronic pain. The one clear result of the analysis is that the missile campaign caused an increase in the perception of physical pain—in people who watched a lot of news about the assault.
Why did people report more physical aches and pains, but not negative emotions and a sense of impairment? One possible explanation, write Lerman et al., is a sense of communal solidarity. "Television and news- papers in Israel were filled at that time with advice on regulating distress in the face of the threat, and this was conceptualized as a national challenge, thereby increasing a sense of belonging and social support, important buffers against the effect of stress on emotional distress," they write. "However, there was minimal mention of the effects on physical health, which might have caused individuals with chronic health conditions to feel alone and isolated[…]"
Another possible explanation, they say, is that pain can become a kind of language for people who experience it constantly: Where others might speak of anxiety, stress and fear, perhaps people who feel pain all the time express their distress through those sensations, rather than alongside them. Which may point to a population that needs special care when mass violence strikes.
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby