Major Effects a Data Breach Has on Your Health
Call it "psybersecurity"—keeping your data private is getting harder, and anyone who's experienced a breach knows what a cybersecurity expert told us: "It can be a traumatic experience."
We’re in the midst of a “scamdemic,” says the Identity Theft Resource Center. According to the US-based non-profit, there were 422.1 million victims of data breaches in 2022, an increase of 41.5% from 2021.
While you hear news of cyberattacks in the media regularly, there’s not enough attention to the mental health costs of having your data stolen, says Amir Tarighat, co-founder and chief executive officer of the cybersecurity startup Agency. When it comes to straightening everything out after a data breach, it often doesn’t just take a day or two—it can take months, or longer. “People have to completely stop their lives,” he says. “It can be a traumatic experience.”
A report from IBM shows companies take an average of 277 days to identify and contain a cyberattack. So if your data is wrapped up in a breach, that’s a lot of time for things to go wrong before you’re even aware of what’s happened—that’s if you find about it in the first place. One 2021 study published by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that 74% of people didn’t realize they’d been affected by a recent data breach prior to the study.
Why are data breaches so difficult to deal with?
“The biggest trend I’ve seen in the last decade in cybersecurity is this massive shift, where criminals and hackers have shifted their focus from traditional targets, like company systems, to individuals in their private lives,” Tarighat explains. He says this is an easier way for cybercriminals to make money, and it’s a great way to attack companies. “So individual people are objectively under attack more than before.”
He says typically, the first thing that happens when data is stolen is that the attackers dump it on the Dark Web openly to deny that they stole it. Once it’s there, it’s accessible to anyone. Getting that information removed is crucial, but that can take time. Tarighat points to one incident where a data theft victim replaced their bank cards only to have the information stolen again, again, and again. “So they went through three cycles of this before we could identify exactly where the information was being stolen from.”
The stress, time, and money spent handling the fallout of a data breach are tough enough, but Tarighat says there’s a clear psychological toll he sees victims experience. “The first thing is that I see people are really ashamed,” he says. “They don’t want to tell anyone else what’s happened to them—people don’t talk about it.” In turn, data breach victims feel even more isolated, vulnerable, and anxious.
Here’s what data breaches do psychologically
Anytime a negative event takes place in our lives, the brain goes into overdrive to determine the cause and possible remedy for the situation, says Dean Aslinia, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and Associate Dean at the University of Phoenix College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Psychology and Human Services.
“The brain will present all sorts of different scenarios for us to accept,” he says. “Often that includes feeling responsible for the lack of care that may have contributed to the data breach—perhaps with items as small as not updating passwords or keeping them too simple.” As these self-blaming thoughts build, they easily lend themselves to feelings like guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
But there’s also uncertainty to cope with, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with South County Psychiatry. It’s common to feel like you’ve lost control over your life as “you don’t know who is holding your data and how it will be used,” she says.
Past research has shown how uncertainty disrupts normal mental processes that guide our decision-making, forcing us into a state of hypervigilance. This means we start seeing threats where there are none and experience unusually overblown emotional reactions. In fact, according to a 2016 study from the University College of London, uncertainty causes such anxiety that participants who didn’t know if they’d receive an electric shock experienced more stress than those who knew the pain was coming.
As Tarighat explained, data breaches can have long-term consequences with long-term solutions—so living in this constant state of uncertainty and fear takes a major toll on your mental health. “[People] struggle with powerlessness, lack of trust, and vulnerability,” Dr. Schiff says. “For some, the aftereffects may manifest as symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)—with every reminder and exposure you have to it, you essentially get retraumatized.”
How to cope after a data breach
Our brain’s first response to a data breach is fear and distress over potential negative outcomes, Dr. Aslinia says. “This sudden rush of fear and anxiety triggers the body’s fight or flight system.” Some people freeze and become unsure of what to do, while others go into fight mode to try to remedy the situation. “Either way, a significant amount of cortisol is likely to rush into your bloodstream to control the onset of the stress.”
This is a natural response to a perceived threat, but too much cortisol for sustained periods can cause low immune system function, weight gain, sleep problems, and much more. “What becomes most important during this initial fight or flight response is to remain calm and seek the help of others to guide you on the best way to repair any such breaches to end the constant feelings of a threat,” Dr. Aslinia says.
In the aftermath, it’s important to acknowledge, accept, and express your feelings, Dr. Schiff says. “Denying or suppressing these emotions can actually make them worse.” Tarighat says that the stigma behind cyberattacks—that we did something wrong and should feel guilty and ashamed—gives attackers more power. “People feel alone, and if we talk about it, share our stories, others will learn they’re not alone and that they can do something about it.”
Because ultimately, focusing on what you can control helps you feel more empowered after a data breach, Dr. Schiff says. “You cannot control the fact that your data was stolen and there was a breach, but you can control how you respond to it and what steps you take next. You can also control how you can better protect your data in the future.”
To leverage that control and do away with uncertainty, Tarighat’s company Agency offers a free Dark Web monitoring tool to check whether your data has been compromised.
Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with South County Psychiatry
Identity Theft Resource Center: "Identity Theft Resource Center's 2022 Annual Data Breach Report Reveals Near-Record Number of Compromises"
IBM: "Cost of a data breach 2022: A million-dollar race to detect and respond"
USENIX Security Symposium: "Now I'm a bit angry:" Individuals' Awareness, Perception, and Responses to Data Breaches that Affected Them"
Journal of Anxiety Disorders: ""But it might be a heart attack": Intolerance of uncertainty and panic disorder symptoms"
Nature Communications: "Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans"