March 15, 2011— -- The earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan are the latest in what seems to be an unending string of crises throughout the world.
Before the news from Japan, the wave of revolt against decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt and Libya dominated the headlines. The anti-government unrest continues in Libya, where forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi are lashing out violently against protesters. But that news now seems to be playing a much smaller supporting role to the events unfolding in Japan.
To psychologists, that shifting of media focus from one part of the world to another means most people will likely lose interest in the struggle for control of Libya. Because of the multitude of world crises that have happened in a short period, people could also become desensitized to these events.
"If events are not kept in front us in the media, they fall in priority unless there is a personal connection," said Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "It's all about Japan right now. There's trauma after trauma, and it's horrific."
With so much media coverage on Japan, Klapow said the only way the situation in Libya will continue to get attention is if people have a personal connection to it. Other experts say a similar loss of interest happened after the earthquake in Haiti last January.
"There was a lot of hoopla, and now, we're four disasters later and Haiti's been sort of forgotten, but it's still a mess there," said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"We only have limited attention, so for people who tend to worry and focus on disasters, there could be a negative impact," said Simon Rego,director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in NewYork. "Other people witnessing these public events, however, may have a much more positive outlook and therefore choose to make a positive impact."
In addition to the Middle Eastern unrest and the earthquake in Haiti, there was the massive BP oil spill, an ongoing war in Afghanistan and the lengthy economic downturn that has sent Americans reeling to name just a few recent major events that have dominated news coverage.
'Crisis Burnout' Common
"People do get crisis burnout when there's too much to wrap their heads around," said Klapow. "People will shut down and turn off the TV or not read as much. Unless there's a personal connection, people will tune out."
How people cope with so much tragedy depends on how they're genetically wired to handle certain stressors.
Some people, Nemeroff said, may be deeply affected by multiple disasters.
"Eventually, it can wear you down and you may finally have trouble coping and functioning in the world," he said.
Experts say people may also go into denial and believe these tragedies will never happen to them, or they will channel their shock and horror into action and donate money, volunteer or help the cause in some other way.
Different incidents evoke different reactions as well. People may feel more of a connection with one event than with another. On the West Coast, for example, many people felt more stressed by the tragedy in Japan because of warnings that a tsunami could hit them.
"And also with what happened in Japan, seeing pictures of people without homes could trigger reminders of Hurricane Katrina," said Emanuel Maidenberg, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and clinical coordinator for the UCLA Anxiety Disorders Program in Los Angeles.
People may also become numb to disaster after seeing the aftermath time and time again.
"The question is, does one become desensitized after seeing tragedy after tragedy? It starts to take on an unreal quality," said Nemeroff.
Even if that happens, experts say it's only temporary.
"With each new event, at least for the first few days, our radar gets lit up again," said Rego.
Despite the death and devastation caused by the onslaught of major disasters throughout the world, some say they can have some positive impact.
"I think it makes us more aware of the fragility of life and our own current security," said Dr. Redford Williams, director of Duke Universisty's Behavioral Medicine Research Center in Durham, N.C. "I think it might help us to be grateful for what we have."