It’s everywhere you look. It pops up when scrolling through social media. It’s there when you turn on the television. It arrives at your doorstep every morning. Some of us even receive notifications on our smartphones. Now more than ever, we are surrounded by the news. While it’s important for a democracy to have well-informed citizens, in times like these, when the news turns overwhelmingly negative, too much news can be a bad thing.
Right now, that news is centered around the worldwide pandemic. Every morning, various news organizations release the updated number of infected in states and countries, and articles report rising death tolls. In short, the news is incredibly negative, overwhelming and stress-inducing.
In a 2017 American Psychological Association (APA) study, more than half of Americans indicate that the news causes them stress, anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss. Yet 95% of Americans still say they follow the news regularly, and even check the news every hour or monitor their social media for news headlines. Beyond this, reports show that news headlines and clips are getting drastically more visual and shocking in order to capture the attention of audiences. Graham Davey, a professor emeritus of psychology at Sussex University, states that these “bystander-captured media” can cause symptoms of acute stress, such as sleeping problems, mood swings, aggressive behavior or even PTSD.
Dramatic, overly negative and shocking headlines capture the attention of audiences because the human brain is programmed to detect threats, not scroll past them on social media. This makes it increasingly difficult for people to ignore negative news when we come across it. And it’s no mistake that, as our news becomes more negative, America’s stress level rises.
The APA began surveying American’s stress levels a decade ago. Since then, a study between August 2016 and January 2017 resulted in the first notable increase in stress levels, from 4.8 to 5.1 on a scale where one means little stress and 10 indicates extremely high levels of stress. The APA’s 2019 survey found relatively the same levels of stress in Americans, but Americans indicated that the main sources of their stress were politics, healthcare, sexual harassment, climate change and mass shootings — all frequent news topics.
The same APA report found that stress caused by news affects age groups differently.
Gen Z adults make up the largest groups of adults, at 61%, that want to stay informed but feel that following the news causes them stress; 60% of millennials, 55% of Gen Xers and 50% of Baby Boomers report the same thing.
But there are practices you can implement to create the right balance between staying informed and managing the stress negative news may cause. With stay-at-home orders in place in Maine and social distance practices around the nation encouraging Americans to stay home, now is the perfect time to develop new daily habits that benefit your mental health, including monitoring your news consumption.
The first step is to monitor your moods and thoughts before, during and after consuming the news. If you notice a surge of negative emotions or a more pessimistic outlook on your day, make sure to take a step back and instead focus on a mood-lifting activity. Additionally, instead of consuming news regularly throughout the entire day, try to block out one small portion of the day to catch up on all the most important headlines, like at lunch or dinner, but make sure to avoid the news before bed, as flooding your conscious with negative headlines before bed can cause sleep problems and anxiety.
It can also help to find balance in what you consume. Attempt to actively seek out positive news by starting your day with an uplifting podcast or searching for good news in already-existing news organizations.
If stepping back from headlines and articles still leaves you with a sense of hopelessness, look to your local community for ways you can improve the lives of those around you. Contributing positive changes to your community, family or even yourself can make negative news feel more manageable and not as extreme. In the time of this pandemic, cook dinner for your family, offer to pick up groceries for a quarantined neighbor or simply do your part by staying at home. If everyone did something small every day, the world would get better, a little at a time.
It’s important to stay informed on news, especially in an ever-changing pandemic situation. But this does not mean you have to flood your senses with an overwhelming amount of negative information and sacrifice your well-being. Instead, focus on finding a balance of when to read the news and participating in uplifting and fun activities to save your mental health.