The Effect of News on Your Mental Health

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Do current events bring you down? With smartphones and tablets at our fingertips and a 24 news cycle, it’s nearly impossible to ignore the the negative things happening in the world.  Unless you choose to live like a hermit, it’s virtually impossible to avoid.

The simple act of going to work exposes me to the latest headlines. In our cafeteria, mounted televisions screens peer down on diners as images from a 24 hour news network streams. Headline news pops up on my work computer against my will.

My company uses Bing as it’s default search page. Without intending to, I saw a disturbing piece that put me into a funk when I should have been focused on work!

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Some of you may remember the days when there was a daily newspaper, a 1/2 hour nightly news cast and one late night news recap. That was it. Now we can update our social media feeds every few minutes to see the latest and worst happenings in our world.

News is a big business. Corporate news organizations are motivated to sensationalize current events. There’s lots of competition to keep our attention, and they know that negative stories sell.

Research suggests the negativity in news stories does several things that would benefit news outlets. For one, the presence of negative video increases a viewer’s ability to pay attention to the information in the story. Watching a negative story will capture your attention more quickly than a positive one.

Negative video also increases the your ability to remember the story. The negative focus of a news story will make it easier for you to recognize information related to the story, while you will be less likely to recognize information received prior to watching the story.

Given the above, it’s not surprising that negative news stories increase the negative emotional impact on person when compared to neutral or positive ones. 

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If negative news is distressing, why do people expose themselves to it? The tendency to focus on the negative is called negativity bias. Our brains are wired to notice negative events as a means to avoid threats.

Conventional wisdom tells us that exposure to a lot of negativity would increase anxiety and negatively affect our moods; but, what does research say?

News Affects Your Personal Worries

In 2017, the American Psychological Association, surveyed a group of Americans. Over 50% reported that the news stresses them out.  Respondents identified feelings of anxiety, fatigue and interrupted sleep as effects related to exposure to the news.

Researchers at the the University of Sussex looked at the effects of  viewing negative news items.  They created three different news bulletins. One was full of negative information. The second was emotionally neutral, and the third consisted of exclusively positive, heart-warming news items.

Results showed that those who watched the negative news bulletin reported feeling significantly sadder and more anxious than those who were exposed to the neutral or positive ones.

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In addition to experiencing increased anxiety and more sadness, participants who watched the negative bulletin seemed to personalize the negativity and incorporate it into the personal worries they already had.

Subjects were asked to identify their biggest personal worry at the time. After watching the negative bulletin, that group tended to “catastrophize” their personal concerns.

Catastrophizing refers to taking a concern, mentally exaggerating the risk, and ruminating over it. This creates a circular effect which only increases our anxiety. So,  only do people feel generally worse after viewing negative news items, their own personal worries are magnified as a result.

If you are preoccupied with something in your own life, taking in negative news is likely to make you worry more about your personal situation.

News and Pessimism

Another study by Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill at the University of Texas at San Antonio looked at the relationship between the news medical and psychological distress. She and her team analyzed the relationship between exposure to the news media and various factors including stress levels, anxiety, depression, irrational beliefs, and optimism vs. pessimism.

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The researchers found a couple of the factors influenced whether news media is likely to cause psychological distress in a person. Those with irrational beliefs were more likely to experience news-induced anxiety.

Not surprisingly, those who reported lower levels of optimism were more likely to experience anxiety associated with the news. In other word, a pessimistic attitude will make you more likely to feel anxious after watching the news.

While anxiety was influenced by exposure to news media, the study showed no relationship between news exposure and depression.

If you are a pessimist by nature, always expecting the worst to happen, then you are more likely to experience distress from the news than those who have a more positive view of the world.

Traumatic News

In  2015, researchers in Tel-Aviv surveyed Israeli citizens who had been exposed to newscasts during the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.

They found that those who had been exposed to traumatic material by the news media reported an increase in anxiety symptoms. These symptoms including sleeping difficulties, fearful thoughts, and hyperarousal. 

Hyperarousal refers to a physiological state of being on high alert. It’s the body and mind’s way of being ready for a threat, even when no immediate threat exists, Hyperarousal is a classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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The Israeli research team concluded that exposure to and negative perceptions of the broadcasts put people at risk for increased anxiety and other psychopathology.

Watching newscasts that are particularly traumatic can cause the you to develop symptoms of  PTSD. 

Recovering from News-Related Anxiety

In another study with college students, subjects were divided into two groups. All participants watched 15 minutes of a random newscast. One group participated in a post-watch relaxation exercise and the other was exposed to a lecture.

Both groups reported increased distress and anxiety after watching the newscast. 15 minutes after the new cast had ended, only the group that participated in a relaxation exercise returned to their pre-newscast levels of anxiety.

These results suggest that activities like yoga and mindfulness can help to protect us from the negative affects of news media. 

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The research supports what we would naturally conclude, that negative news can be detrimental to our mental well-being. Given that fact, it’s smart to avoid overly traumatic news material and to be wise consumers about what information we expose ourselves to.

While we can’t escape stories of negative events, we can control the frequency with which we have contact with the news media. We can avoid overly sensational news reporting, preferring news that is presented in a more matter-of-fact manner.

We can also limit our overall exposure to news by putting down our phones and turning off the TV.

Coping with Negative News

In addition to taking care to avoid excessive exposure to news, we can counteract its effects by taking care of ourselves through stress-reducing activities. Mindfulness is a popular one and its effectiveness has been demonstrated by innumerable studies. Mindfulness is the act of putting our full attention on the present moment.

There is a lot of information on the internet about mindfulness and its practice. There are great books out there for learning and starting your own mindfulness practices. We’ve reviewed the top books on the subject here

Other ways to improve your mood and reduce anxiety include spending time with friends and family.  Doing this helps you to appreciate the positive in your life.

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If we are feeling the effects of too much negative news, we have the power to choose healthier ways to spend our free time. We can also counter the effects by engaging in positive activities and pursuits.

Check out our  unconventional stress management techniques in our article on stress-management techniques.

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, contact The Suicide Prevention Hotline, your local mental health center, or 911. Click on these for the hotline number and for a directory of mental health centers.