How to Protect Your Mental Health When the News Is So Stressful

Are you consuming the news—or is the news consuming you? Here are some ways to care for your headspace during upsetting times.

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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.

How We Consume News

"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

  • Limit your time engaging with news. As in, literally set a timer if you have to. "Leaving your TV on or streaming live news broadcasts while completing tasks can take an emotional toll on you," Frederick says. "Rather than having the news on as background noise, give yourself about 30 minutes per day total of social media scrolling and news exposure combined."
  • Carve out a specific window for it—but never before bed. "Taking in too much information can ultimately be overwhelming and detrimental to your mental health," Frederick says. Designate times throughout your day, or one larger time, when you check trending headlines, open the paper, or turn on a news podcast—and try to be really disciplined about it. This will help you avoid intermittently looking at your phone or letting things catch your eye and steal your attention. If you see an interesting story, flag it and know you can come back to it during your next news briefing slot.

    But both experts agree that pre-sleep news consumption (especially right now) isn't wise. "Before bed is not a good time, as violent or disturbing images could cause sleep trouble or nightmares for some," Hafeez explains.
  • Choose the least disturbing form of media for you. If watching live footage of tough events affects you deeply, avoid the TV. If it's gruesome images that get you, find outlets that don't publish visuals, listen to a podcast instead, and avoid social media accounts that might feed them to you. "On your social media feeds, there are ways to hide posts that show images you don't want to see or hide posts from friends who are glued to one disturbing topic in the news and posting about it daily," Hafeez says.
  • Subscribe to a curated newsletter or podcast. There are countless (free) subscription newsletters as well as news podcasts available these days. Find one or two that curate and synthesize need-to-know info in one place so you're not scrolling different channels and sites aimlessly. Frederick adds that subscribing to a daily newsletter or podcast "automatically limits time and content for you."

    (Personally, we like The Flip Side, a free daily email newsletter that highlights multiple points of view—left, right, and center—on the most important headlines of the moment.
  • Have a trusted friend fill you in. "If watching the news triggers chronic symptoms of anxiety or depression, no exposure at all—at least for some time—may be best," Frederick says. "Instead, ask a friend or loved one to filter the news [and fill you in]. Then make time to check in a few times per week with the most critical updates."
  • Avoid friends or colleagues who are "doomsday" thinkers. Don't let their catastrophizing rub off on you! If you need to deflect a dinner invite because it'll trigger your anxiety, that's OK. It's only temporary while the news is so fraught.

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.

  • Volunteer, donate, advocate. Avoid feeling powerless by doing something positive and proactive, whether it's donating to the cause you're concerned about, volunteering locally, or reaching out to someone in need of support.
  • Read or watch something positive to offset the negative. "Don't feel guilty about reading, watching, or listening to something light or silly to get your mind to a better state," Hafeez says. "It's true that laughter is the best medicine." And since we often gravitate naturally toward negative content, we have to make an active effort to consume happy things, too. Not only is it pleasurable in the moment, but it reminds our brains that there's always joy and goodness to be found in the world.
  • Schedule "worry time." "Scheduling 'worry time' each day is a common strategy for managing symptoms related to anxiety disorders," Frederick says. Choose a time "far enough away from bedtime," when you're allowed to worry, look at the news, and have yourself a nice little existential crisis. "After the worry time is over, put the news aside, remember that it's not time to worry right now, and allow yourself to move on to other things," she says. "As your brain gets used to this new routine, it will let worries go more quickly.
  • Catch yourself catastrophizing. "Stay out of the 'what if' mode of catastrophic thinking," Frederick advises. When you get into the worst-case-scenario headspace, pause and remember that this is rarely a realistic outcome.
  • Stay busy in a healthy way. Self-care habits—whatever works for you—are essential. Exercise, meditate, journal, paint, go outside, take a bath, garden, pet your cat—these are not only healthy behaviors in general, but they're also healthy distractions from sitting and stewing over current events.
  • Talk to your doctor or therapist. If you notice existing anxiety or depression symptoms getting worse or are otherwise having trouble managing your mental health, don't hesitate to reach out to your primary care doctor or mental health professional for help.
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