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 crisis. 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. This constant stream of disastrous news is adding to our stress levels and increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the COVID-19 outbreak is proving to be stressful for most people and can result 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 mostly negative news cycle, which translates to more dollars for the media. Positive news just doesn’t sell.
Because sensational headlines get more attention, the 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 impacts your mood and alters your cognition. Even if it’s just noise in the background, an alarmist news broadcast will still have a negative effect on your psyche long after you shut it off.
Furthermore, 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, physical symptoms may arise. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping, everything we are clearly experiencing now.
This emotional toll and negative effect on the psyche was demonstrated in a study 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. Additionally, the researchers found the results to be consistent with the theories of worry that implicate negative mood as a causal factor in facilitating worrisome thought.
So how exactly does one manage the news while staying sane? Like a lot of things, the key to staying healthy is moderation. On the one hand, staying informed is not just responsible, but critical to our safety right now. 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.
Additionally, 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 professional tips for managing the news.
Limit Your Time Each Day
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, experts recommend less than 30 minutes per day total of social media scrolling and news exposure combined.
Schedule a Worry Time
Scheduling a “worry time” each day is a common strategy for managing the symptoms related to anxiety disorders. 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.
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 is to minimize worry and news intake by scheduling it into your day. After your worry time is over, 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.
Gauge How You Feel Before Watching
Once you commit to limiting the amount of news you watch, the next step is to gauge how you feel before and after watching to understand how it’s affecting you. 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, consider how much news you’re consuming and the sources you’re getting it from, and make an intention to reduce your consumption.
Watch 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. Be mindful of how much you consume. You probably have set times every day when you eat, and you can do the same with your news feed. Check-in with what’s going on in the world by consuming the sources that nourish you, and then move on to something else.
Get a News Summary from Close Friends or Family
If watching the news is triggering symptoms of anxiety or depression, many psychologists and experts alike recommend no exposure at all. Instead, 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 if it is a major trigger of anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Subscribe to a Newsletter or Podcast
Rather than flipping channels and gathering part of news stories from different outlets, Cook says a lot of people find it helpful to subscribe to a daily newsletter or news podcast, as this automatically limits the time and content for you. Plus, you can listen to a podcast while you exercise, which can also lower anxiety.
Recite a Helpful Mantra
Healthy news consumption isn’t about denying reality, but it is about creating boundaries. Recite a helpful mantra like this one: “Toxic disaster reporting has no power over me. I acknowledge what’s happening in the world, but I will not let it define my life. I’m going to persevere and do my part.”
Limit Your Exposure to Other Stressors
Another point to consider is to give yourself permission to limit your exposure to certain people right now, especially those who are catastrophists. 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. 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 most people, and they will get it.
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, chose 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.
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. While balancing what we allow ourselves to be exposed to on a daily basis is a hard act to achieve, in the long run, it will be very beneficial to our sanity and overall well being. A little mindfulness is where it begins.
Reference: Johnston W.M., & Davey, G.C. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: the catastrophizing of personal worries. Br J Psychology, 88( Pt 1):85-91. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x
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