The media we consume daily has an impact on our thinking, behavior, and emotions. If you’ve fallen into a pattern of regularly watching or listening to the news, the majority of what you’re consuming is likely about the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.
And while staying up to date on local and national news, especially as it relates to mandates and health updates, is critical during this time, experts say over-consumption of the news can take a toll on your physical, emotional, and mental health.
With that in mind, the goal is to find the balance between feeling informed and educated on the situation at hand while not becoming totally overwhelmed by it. After all, when good news is available, or the situation changes for the better, it will come to you, you won’t need to seek it out.
We asked several mental health experts to explain how this constant stream of disastrous news is adding to our stress levels and increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Plus, tips on how to navigate the 24-hour news cycle, while still managing and protecting your mental health.
Why news can impact mental health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 outbreak is proving to be stressful for most people. During an infectious disease outbreak, the CDC says stress can include changes in sleep or eating patterns, worsening of mental health conditions, fear and worry about your health and the health of loved ones, and difficulty concentrating.
Compounding this stress is the constant stream of news about COVID-19 that we are exposed to on a daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute basis. “Unfortunately, a lot of the news we consume today isn’t so much reporting as it is a way of keeping people addicted to the news cycle,” says licensed psychologist, Logan Jones, PsyD.
Because sensational headlines get more attention, Jones says media outlets often end up focusing on disaster reporting—and rarely any positive news. “Consuming too much of this kind of news, whether actively or passively, can be very toxic, and what you hear has an impact on your mood,” he says.
Even if it’s just noise in the background, Jones says an alarmist news broadcast will still have a negative effect on your psyche.
“It can be damaging to constantly be reading the news because constant exposure to negative information can impact our brain,” says Annie Miller, MSW, LCSW-C, LICSW. When we experience a threat, Miller says our brain activates the fight or flight response, and the systems in our body react accordingly.
Consuming the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Then, when a crisis is happening, and we are experiencing this stress response more frequently, Miller says physical symptoms may arise. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping.
This emotional toll and negative effect on the psyche was demonstrated in a study1 that found people who watched negative material, as compared to those who watched positive or neutral material, showed an increase in both anxious and sad moods only after 14-minutes of viewing television news bulletins and programs.
In addition to an increase in anxious and sad moods, the researchers also found the results to be consistent with the theories of worry that implicate negative mood as a causal factor in facilitating worrisome thought.
Tips for managing news
Like a lot of things, the key to staying healthy is moderation. “Staying informed is not just responsible, but critical to our safety right now, explains Kellie Casey Cook, M.S., licensed professional counselor.
To strike the balance of moderation while staying informed, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends seeking news about COVID-19 mainly so that you can take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and your loved ones. Once you have that information, it’s time to turn the news off.
And to help alleviate the mental and emotional toll this is all taking, the CDC recommends taking breaks from watching, listening, or reading news stories, especially since hearing about a pandemic repeatedly is upsetting. With that in mind, here are nine expert tips for managing the news.
Leaving your television on or streaming live news broadcasts on your phone while tending to other business can take a toll on you emotionally. Rather than having the news be your background noise, Haley Neidich, LCSW, is recommending less than 30 minutes per day total of social media scrolling and news exposure combined.
Schedule worry time
Scheduling a “worry time” each day is a common strategy for managing the symptoms related to anxiety disorders. Miller says this technique is also helpful for watching and digesting the news cycle. “Scroll through the news, acknowledge anything you are worried about, and make plans for addressing any issues,” she says.
Then, choose a time that is far enough away from your bedtime so that your brain has time to settle before you go to bed. The idea, says Miller, is to minimize worry and news intake by scheduling it into your day. After your worry time is over, Miller says to put the news aside and remind yourself that it’s not time to worry right now and move onto other things. “Your brain will eventually get used to this new routine and it will start to be able to let worries go more easily,” she adds.
Gauge how you feel before watching
Once you commit to limiting the amount of news you watch, Ashleigh Edelstein, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says the next step is to gauge how you feel before and after watching to understand how it’s affecting you.
She says to do a quick check and ask yourself the following question: “Do you feel informed and calm, or panicked, angry, and/or pessimistic?” If it’s the latter, Edelstein says to consider how much news you’re consuming and the sources you’re getting it from, and make an intention to reduce your consumption.
Reliable news outlets
“A healthy way to approach the news cycle is to rely on outlets you know are credible, have experienced reporters who do their research, and provide balanced perspectives,” says Jones. He also says to be mindful of how much you consume. “You probably have set times every day when you eat, and you can do the same with news. Check-in with what’s going on in the world by consuming the sources that nourish you, and then move on to something else, he says.”
Get summary from close friends or family
If watching the news is triggering regular symptoms of anxiety or depression, Neidich is recommending no exposure at all. Instead, she suggests that you ask a close friend or loved one to filter the news for you. Then, have them check in with you a few times per week about the most important updates. “There is no reason that any of us need to be exposed to the news beyond that,” says Neidich.
Limit exposure to other stressors
Another point to consider, says Cook, is to give yourself permission to limit your exposure to certain people right now. “If you have a family member who is constantly posting links to questionable articles from unknown sources, go ahead and unfollow them for now.
If a friend or coworker insists on having current events related conversations that don’t feel productive and only serve to increase your anxiety, consider putting some boundaries in place with them,” she says. Something along the lines of, “Hey, I’m really starting to feel overwhelmed by this topic, so I’d prefer if we’d change the subject,” can be effective with some people.
Do something healthy after watching the news
For most of us, consuming some form of news each day is essential. To help combat feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry that often accompany negative news, Edelstein suggests choosing to do something positive or healthy immediately after, like taking a walk, calling a friend, or working on a hobby. “Because things are so uncertain, we need healthy distractions right now to stay grounded and resilient,” she says.
Taking steps to minimize stress during this difficult time is essential for both your physical and mental health. While watching the news can provide you with critical information about protecting yourself and others, taking in too much information can be overwhelming and detrimental to your mental health.
If you’re having trouble managing a mental health condition or you’re concerned about new symptoms, call your doctor. Also, if you’re thinking about suicide or suspect someone you love is in danger of hurting themselves, seek help immediately. Call 911, and if possible, stay with a friend or family member until you are in the care of a mental health expert.
By: Sara Lindberg