How to Protect Your Mental Health When the News Is So Stressful
Bad news is nothing new, but these days we seem to be dealing with more upsetting headlines, information overload, and doom-scrolling rabbit holes than ever before. The sheer number of distressing, coinciding events to keep up with right now is troubling and anxiety-inducing in its own right, but we've also never had more access or exposure to information than we do right now thanks to the internet, social media, and the 24/7 news cycle. It's a blessing if you need to research a fascinating subject—it's an overwhelming, head-spinning, and sometimes depressing curse if you're just trying to keep up with the times.
"There's an even bigger link [between the state of the news and our psychological well-being] than ever before," says Sanam Hafeez, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City and the director of Comprehend the Mind. "Pre-internet, smartphones, and social media, we could simply click the TV remote or turn the dial on the radio when we wanted to tune out."
Now it feels nearly impossible to compartmentalize. "We're bombarded with news," Hafeez says. "When we open our phones or social media accounts, we can't control the first item we see." The latest headlines appear in your Discover feed when you open the Google app to search for a chocolate frosting recipe. Disturbing images surface on your Instagram feed when you're checking out a friend's proposal photos. There are no boundaries. Plus there's so much pressure to stay up to date on everything from foreign affairs to TikTok challenges. We feel obligated to consume, otherwise it looks like we don't care about what's going on in the world.
Unsurprisingly, consuming upsetting news of any kind and in any amount can be emotionally upsetting. So it makes perfect sense that consuming even more upsetting news—for an even longer period of time—impacts us even more. "The constant stream of news we're exposed to daily, hourly, and even minute by minute can bring on stress," says Joanne Frederick, EdD, NCC, LPC-DC, VA, LCPC-MD, a licensed professional counselor and the author of Copeology. "Whether we notice it or not, what we watch on the news sneaks into our subconscious and affects our lives in surprising ways, and it can increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety."
And this is especially true when a traumatic or tense event lasts for a long time (insert: COVID-19, racial unrest, natural disasters, climate change, foreign conflicts, September 11th). Since global coverage has never been as accessible as it is today, "it's possible to take part in a collective trauma from anywhere in the world, as though it were happening next door," Frederick adds. "This is undoubtedly a challenge for our mental health."
Humans also tend to be wired to pay more attention to doom and gloom in the news. This negativity bias, Frederick explains, "is thought to have evolved to protect us from danger and helps explain why a person's flaws are more noticeable than their assets, and why losses weigh on us more heavily than gains." Then add to the pile that the media take advantage of this natural negativity bias by promoting negative news in order to draw a captive audience. "This constant flow of bad news and gruesome images can lead someone to take in too much information and quickly feel affected by what they're seeing," Frederick says.
It can be a vicious and ironic cycle: You think reading another (and another) article will arm you with clarity and certainty and calm your anxiety, but this doom scrolling only brings diminishing returns. "It is important to be informed, [but] overconsumption and repetition of the same narratives and images are not productive, especially if you're a particularly empathetic and sensitive person," Hafeez says.
So what are you supposed to do about it, throw your phone in a gutter and cancel the WiFi? Never speak to another person again? "Staying informed is not just responsible, but critical to our safety—the key to staying healthy is taking everything in moderation," Frederick says. "Stay informed, be compassionate, but don't overconsume to the point where you're having nightmares or becoming obsessed."
Here are some concrete strategies to help you do that.
Consume News in a Healthier Way
Manage Your Mental Health When the News Is Distressing
Frederick says that generally taking steps to minimize stress during a difficult time is essential for physical and mental health. If the news cycle is taking a toll, here are some ways to take care of your mind and body.