When it starts to seem like all news is bad news, it can be very difficult to resist getting bogged down by all the latest updates. It is easy to see how a news cycle which is now updated 24 hours a day, and readily accessible on smartphones wherever we are in the world, can have a big impact on our mental health and leaves a lot of us feeling anxious.
Suzy Glaskie, Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and founder of Peppermint Wellness, explains that how news is delivered makes us consume more. “Because news is now updated minute by minute – even if there isn’t anything of any substance to report – we feel we have to keep consuming it,” she says.
“Every time we glance at Twitter, there’s another report or comment or perspective on a report so it never ends and we get caught up in the cycle of being consumed by consuming news!”
News media makes up a significant part of our environment and takes up time in our every day. Whether or not you are a news devotee and tune in to see Huw Edwards every evening at 10 o’clock, it is likely to be a part of your usual routine – breaking alerts pinging onto your phone, regular bulletins on the radio, snippets caught on tv, stories popping up on Facebook and even office chatter all bring it into your life.
Increasingly, this is making us feel a little overwhelmed, stressed and even depressed. In fact, recent studies found that 68% of us have news fatigue and are simply feeling worn out by all the information out there. When negative news seems to dominate every headline, it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed by it. So, why does paying attention to all that is going on in the world make us feel this way?
Most news is bad news
Partly this fatigue is down to the nature of the stories which fill headlines. Bad news tends to get more coverage so most of what you see, read and hear will have a negative element running through it.
This is closely linked to something scientists call ‘negativity bias’. As humans we are hardwired to seek out and remember bad news – we naturally look for the negative. We have evolved this way in order to respond to potential threats, seeing bad news as possible signals that we need to change what we’re doing to avoid danger.
Why does news leave us feeling stressed and depressed?
Studies have shown that when we hear bad news, we worry about more than the content of the news story itself. A study into the psychological effects of television bulletins revealed that negative news coverage causes us to worry about issues in our own lives too.
Therefore, some sad news from far away, about things we have no control over, could cause us to worry about relationships much closer to home.
But there is more to it than this. Suzy Reading, a psychologist who specialises in wellbeing, explains, “There are so many sad and traumatic things unfolding in the world – events and reported research that deeply worry us.
“Even though we all know that news is often sensationalised, and the extreme stories are featured, we want to be informed, connected and plugged in. It can be hard to stay informed without that experience taxing our nervous system and stressing us out when so many of these things feel beyond our control.”
What are the psychological effects of bad news?
Feelings of uncertainty, doubt and helplessness have long been associated with anxiety and, unfortunately, are also a regular result of news consumption. There is long-standing evidence to suggest that news has a direct impact on our mental health.
Research conducted in 1997 found that news broadcasts with a negative slant make people sadder and more anxious than neutral ones, and are also more likely to bring to mind our personal anxieties.
Another study, conducted in 2015, confirmed that increased consumption of news media can lead to greater feelings of anxiety. In fact, viewers watching the news more than usual, as is often the case in times of great change, were 1.6x more likely to report at least one anxiety symptom, ranging from uncontrolled fear to sleeping difficulties and physiological hyperarousal (essentially increased alertness and inability to rest).
There is also evidence to suggest that women are more likely to feel stressed by bad news. This is down to two factors: women seem to experience better memory and recall of negative news, and experience an increase in reactivity to any subsequent stressors after being exposed to such coverage. So, engaging with negative news stories can make other areas of our lives feel more stressful too.
Do I suffer from ‘headline stress disorder’?
News stories are overwhelmingly about things we cannot influence and ultimately this leaves us feeling unable to help or make change. Instead we develop a sense of powerlessness which Steven Stosny, an American couples’ therapist, says is central to ‘headline stress disorder’, a term he first coined following the 2016 US election.
He explains that, “for many people, continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media, and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end.” Consuming news, and particularly bad news, can therefore come to feel like an attack on the comfortable worlds we build around ourselves. Consuming too much makes us feel bombarded and results in increased stress levels and an almost constant sense of unease which can lead to rising feelings of anxiety.
Feeling low, helpless and stressed are, it seems, common side effects of news consumption. Weltschmerz, a German term which translates literally as ‘world pain’ and describes a sense of world-weariness, should perhaps be used more often to define this feeling.
However, Steven explains that there are several ways to relieve ‘headline stress disorder.’ Aligning ourselves, and our actions, with our deeper values can help us to see past negativity in the news – our attempts to be the best person, partner or friend we can be spread positivity instead.
It is also important to remember that feelings are temporary and some things are just beyond our control. As Steven says, “they cannot last very long, unless you keep focused on them or fail to act on their motivations.” Therefore, when news alerts shout at you from the page or screen and it all feels too much, the best thing to do can be to simply turn away and focus on something else. Being realistic about how you can make a change, or how any news story really impacts you, is an important step in overcoming feelings of overwhelm.
Why do we feel anxious when engaging with bad news?
If engaging with the news is causing you stress, it is also causing the body to release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These can have an impact on the immune system and even cause headaches and disrupt sleep.
Suzy Glaskie experienced some of these problems first hand when stories in the news began to cause her anxiety. “For many years, I used to wake up to Radio 4’s Today Programme and was immediately plunged into bad news from the second I opened my eyes at 7.00am,” she explains. “This can kick off your morning with a sense of anxiety and colour your whole day, signalling to your body that it’s not safe and that it needs to be on high alert. These days, I want to have more control over what I let enter my psyche first thing in the morning so I set my radio alarm to classical music instead.
“Similarly with TV: I used to watch very disturbing imagery of wars, famine and terrorist atrocities and those images would then get lodged in my mind. The immediacy of those images triggers panic, anxiety and depression: the brain can’t differentiate between what is happening to us in reality and what we are viewing on a screen.
“In the wake of 9/11, I was severely emotionally affected – I suffered nightmares for a year and had flashbacks every time I went in a lift, a stairwell or a plane. And yet I had been nowhere near the actual events – I had watched it from my home in Manchester and then continually read very upsetting accounts of it for several weeks afterwards which just perpetuated the distress. It affected my work, focus and relationships.”
How to cope if the news is making you anxious
Taking steps to ease this stress and feelings of anxiety may appear difficult to achieve when it seems the whole world is focused on one endlessly unfolding story, but there are many ways to get started.
Anxiety UK recommend using the ‘Apple’ technique whenever you come across a news story which makes you feel worried or stressed. First ‘Acknowledge’, then ‘Pause’, ‘Pull back’, ‘Let go’ and finally, ‘Explore’.
Acknowledge – Notice uncertainty and anxious feelings as they come to mind.
Pause – Focus on your breath and take a moment to clear your mind.
Pull back – Tell yourself this is just the worry talking, it is only a thought or feeling, and not everything you feel is true. Remember, thoughts and feelings (which tempt us to catastrophise) are not facts.
Let go – Imagine your negative thoughts and feelings floating away. You don’t need to respond to them.
Explore – Explore the present moment. Use mindfulness techniques to shift your focus to the environment around you. What can you hear? Smell? See? Touch? Focus only on the here and now and let any other thoughts drift away.
How can we stop stressing out over the news?
When Christopher Hebert, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, decided he needed to reduce the amount of news he absorbed, he cut it out completely. From the night Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Christopher implemented a news blackout and maintained it for a full year.
At the time he said, “Ignorance is far easier than I thought. I finished two or three audiobooks a week. I read novels instead of newspapers. Five months into my blackout, I was happier than I ever was back in the days when I was informed.”
It may sound like a charmed life but ultimately, he wasn’t sure that a complete blackout over a sustained period of time was the right answer to the stresses of a life in the know. Some news is useful but when it causes you to feel angry, stressed, low or upset, it can damage your wellbeing. Plus, it is useful to bear in mind that just getting upset doesn’t change anything.
Suzy Glaskie took a different approach. Rather than cutting out news media entirely, she’s become more mindful about what she consumes. She says, “I prefer to read a daily newspaper where I can choose which pages to read and which to gloss over. That way, I sit down to read it once rather than constantly getting news updates on my phone which pull on my attention and stoke anxiety.”
Choose how you consume your news
You don’t need to cut out all news media in order to stop it getting you down. Really it is all about making the right choices for you.
Suzy Reading has some great advice. “Pick and choose your sources of information and the times at which you check in. Make sure you are balancing out your visual diet with uplifting stories too,” she says.
“I love reading about positive psychology and regularly pick up magazines about health and mindfulness to ensure I am also imbibing positivity, stimulating awe, creativity and curiosity.”
As well as balancing the news you consume with lighter, more stimulating media, choosing to engage with only the news stories which are relevant to you is a simple way to cut down on news and reduce the anxieties around it.
Think about what is relevant to you – does this story affect your life? Are you genuinely interested? Is it something you can change? Try to avoid getting caught up in a cycle of the latest news and instead focus on the news which is most important to you.
6 ways to stop the news affecting your wellbeing
Note your mood
Be aware of how the news is changing your mood, behaviour and thoughts as you watch, read or listen. If you keep finding that one topic or outlet is getting you down, make the decision to move away from it – being aware of what is causing us stress and low mood is the first step towards change.
Turn off notifications
Switch off all breaking news notifications on your phone to stop them interrupting your day. Why not delete news focused apps altogether? This will mean you have to be more deliberate when seeking out the latest stories.
Switch off and do something different
Take Suzy Glaskie’s advice and, “have stretches where you just switch off from the whole circus. It will still be there when you get back to it! Use that time you would have spent watching the same news updates on a loop to do something that makes you feel good: whether it’s putting a mindfulness app on, going for walk in nature, playing with your kids, cooking a nice meal or soaking in a bath. Remind yourself that this is not happening to you and that you are safe. Taking long deep breaths, with a longer exhalation, will reset your nervous system and signal to your brain that you are safe.”
Ban news from the bedroom
Avoid checking the news, or listening to bulletins, first thing in the morning and right before bed. This will stop it putting a downer on your day or keeping you awake at night. Instead, designate a specific time to read, watch or listen to the news.
It’s ok to avoid some conversations
News stories, particularly big ones which are likely to cause most stress, inevitably become part of conversation. Remember that it is ok to choose not to engage with these if you don’t want to. When you find chat turning to a topic you find stressful, change the subject, offer to make everyone a cup of tea, or simply say “I’d rather not discuss this.”
Look after yourself
If you are already experiencing low mood, hearing negative news is not likely to help so make sure you are looking after yourself first. Suzy Reading says, “Bringing mindfulness into our visual diet is essential for our mental health and our energy bank balance.” Nurture your own wellbeing and you may find that news media becomes less stressful.