There are ways you can change that
| THE INDEPENDENT | The news can be stress-inducing at the best of times. When the news is particularly worrying, many of us experience levels of anxiety so high that we can have difficulty coping. So how can we stay (reasonably) anxiety-free when the media bombards us with headlines that spook us?
It may seem as though we have entered an age of bad news. Every day for the past few years, newspapers and news websites have turned out stressful headlines full-blast.
There is news about wars and civic unrest, impending ecological disasters, failing economies, and violent, sad local events.
Even when the intent is positive, to warn our readers about possible health dangers and empower the audience to avoid them, the news may sometimes lead to worry and anxiety.
So what can you do if what seems like a constant cycle of negative news throughout every media outlet is getting you down and interfering with your well-being?
‘Headline stress disorder’?
While news cycle-related anxiety has probably existed for centuries, it became particularly obvious in 2016, a year packed with global events that polarised communities.
When people started reporting tension and anxiety that stemmed from feeling bombarded by alarming news headlines, some therapists came to describe this as its own phenomenon.
For example, therapist Steven Stosny, Ph.D., refers to it as “headline stress disorder” in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. He describes his personal experience with clients in whom the grueling news cycle triggered intense feelings of worry and helplessness, and he reports that this particularly affected female clients.
Stosny’s observations may be spot-on. According to a study from 2012, women are better than men at remembering negative news for longer periods. They also have more persistent physiological reactions to the stress caused by such news, the study’s authors conclude.
“Many feel personally devalued, rejected, unseen, unheard, and unsafe. They report a sense of foreboding and mistrust about the future,” Stosny writes.
A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that between August 2016 and January 2017, people in the United States reported an overall average stress level increase from 4.8 to 5.1 on a scale where 1 means little or no stress and 10 means an extremely high level of stress.
According to the researchers, this was the first notable increase in average stress levels in the decade since the association first started conducting these surveys.
The APA’s 2019 report on stress levels in the U.S. population did not find much of a difference compared with past years, except in one respect: Respondents said that they felt distinctly more anxiety about specific topics.
According to the most recent poll data from the report, adults in the U.S. experienced the highest amounts of stress about politics, healthcare, and mass shootings.
Meanwhile, climate change and sexual harassment — other topics frequently covered in the news — also caused significantly more stress in 2019 than in 2018.
Millennials and Gen Zers most affected
The report’s authors found that “More than 7 in 10 adults (72%) agree with the statement that the ‘media blow things out of proportion,’ and more than half (54%) say that they want to stay informed about the news, but following it causes them stress.”
Differently aged groups reported different levels of stress that they attribute to the news media, with more people in their 30s and younger admitting to being upset by the news cycle: “Around 3 in 5 Gen Z adults (61%) and millennials (60%) (say) they want to stay informed but that following the news causes them stress, while more than half of Gen Xers (55%) and half of Boomers (50%) express the same sentiment. However, just more than one-third of older adults (36%) say they want to stay informed but that doing so causes them stress.”
The authors also add that many people choose to deal with this issue by avoiding the news. “Nearly 2 in 5 adults (39%) report that they have taken steps over the past year to reduce their news consumption,” they write.
When faced with anxiety about what feels like a constant cycle of negative news, the best approach may be to step away and take a break from these reports, at least for a while.
For some, the anger, hopelessness, and feeling of powerlessness that can stem from sustained exposure to stressful news can really stand in the way of being productive on a day-to-day basis.
One person said she has been living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For her, taking a break from the news was the only way to cope with news-related anxiety.
“I have huge news anxiety,” she told us. “I realised a decade ago that the only way to really cope with my mental health was to not read the news or watch the news on [TV]. It means that I rarely have a clue (as to) what’s going on in the world, and I feel (bad) when I hear people talking around me, but it also means that I can get out of bed in the mornings.”
Switching to other activities may also help — not only to take your mind off negative scenarios for a while, but also to help regulate the emotions and make positive connections.
“It’s vital to step back and recharge sometimes,” another person who spoke about her news-related anxiety explains.
“My solution for news-based anxiety is the same as for any anxiety I’m feeling — I need to get out into nature, read some books, engage in some face-to-face conversations, and shun screens for a while,” she adds.
As research has shown, reading can also help reduce stress, as can exercise, listening to music, and practicing meditation.
Katherine C. Nordal, Ph.D., the APA’s executive director for professional practice, likewise emphasises the importance of taking a break from the news cycle and turning to other activities instead: “Read enough to stay informed, but then plan activities that give you a regular break from the issues and the stress they might cause. And remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to other areas of your life.”