Unfortunately, incidents like the recent Colorado massacre have become far too common and the sheer horror of the graphic accounts can sometimes overwhelm our ability to cope. When coupled with the 24/7 presence of the media which provides a constant source for exposure to toxic news, a serious problem can develop.

Emotionally we are drawn to tragic stories. They both fascinate and terrify us. We feel sympathy for the victims and their families and are touched by the tragic losses. We also can become sucked into their grief as some of the details of their stories can parallel pain and loss in our own lives. When this happens some folks can experience a stress reaction I call Tragic Story Overload (TSO) which can include depression, anxiety, unreasonable fears, obsessions and panic.

The issue we’re discussing this morning is how to watch the news reports of shocking horror and not get sucked in? Today I have some tips to help you 1) Know if you’re vulnerable to TSO, 2) How to know if you’re beginning to have a stress reaction. 3) What to do if you are.

While we can’t control the bad things that happen in life, we can control the time we spend paying attention to heartbreaking events which we experience through the media. Here are three frequently asked questions:

Q. How to Determine your Tolerance for Bad News in the Media.

A. Know your own personal history of trauma and loss. The key to preventing a stress reaction related to watching tragic stories in the media is to limit one’s exposure to it. Knowing how much is okay and how much is too much is difficult to calculate precisely because each one of us is different and has a different capacity to tolerate noxious events. Nonetheless here is a helpful yard stick.

If you are a person who has experienced a lot of loss or have had serious trauma recently, then it is probably wise not to over indulge in the media coverage of tragedy. Even though it may not have been recent, it is a good idea for everyone to know their own personal history with trauma and loss.

Besides the amount or frequency, certain topics can be difficult due to personal prior experience. For example, a person may be OK with an auto accident but not so good with a cancer related story. Likewise, know your own personality. How easily are you upset by bad news ?

I you find that you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life or if the topic of a news report is especially distressing, monitor the amount of time you watch it. Set reasonable limits to your exposure.

Q. How to spot the first signs of a stress reaction.

A. Pay attention to your own body’s “organ of distress”. When a person begins to become stressed, his/her body reacts with muscular tension before one is even consciously aware that s/he is upset. This happens in different places for different people. For example it could be a headache, back pain, tightness in the chest or throat. It is very helpful to know where your “organ of distress” is because, when you feel tension there, you have a window of opportunity to react to the fire alarm and prevent a full blown stress reaction from occurring.

Q. What to do if you feel overwhelmed by the news of a tragic news story.

A. Don’t wait, stop the exposure. If you notice a signal from your body that you are getting upset, you have some time to take aversive action — but not long. If you’re watching TV, change the channel or turn it off. If you’re listening to the radio, same thing. If you’re having a conversation in person or on the phone, change the subject or excuse yourself.

All of us are affected by the onslaught of bad news from the media, but some of us are more vulnerable than others to its negative effects. By following these simple tips you can safely be informed of what is going on in the world without becoming incapacitated by the disturbing events.

Indeed, tragedy provides us with unpleasant but important reminder about the nature of life. It can help us to appreciate how dangerous, unpredictable and fragile life is.