Ailts: The news is affecting our mental health

With the world as fraught as it is right now, it’s important to take time to unplug from the news cycle.

by Ellen Ailts

With the state of things as they are, it’s hard not to feel a little world-weary. We’re constantly barraged by our 24-hour news cycle with stories that are stressful, tragic, scary and infuriating. Shootings, famine, sexual harassment, natural disasters or whatever Trump is up to at the moment (guaranteed to be somehow worse than whatever he did last) — it can be a lot over time, especially if you’re aware of and consuming this information from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. It starts to feel like you’re patiently waiting for news of the arrival of the Four Horsemen, wondering if it can possibly get worse. 

This is how the news triggers our stress and negative emotional responses; humans are afflicted with a natural negativity bias, which causes us to pay attention to that which is dangerous and threatening. Some psychologists have said that this kind of constant exposure to negative/violent media might have long-lasting psychological effects; besides coloring our worldview with pessimism and despair, it can also lead to the development of stress, anxiety, depression or even PTSD — especially common for journalists themselves.

Psychologists have reported that negative news can make our own personal issues seem more threatening and insurmountable; our worry becomes a cycle, constantly feeding off itself. We come to internalize negative stimuli and let it affect our feelings toward our environment generally. When we’re sad or negative, the people around us naturally pick up on that emotion and may internalize it themselves — this cycle continues on, and suddenly everyone around us is a little more glum, which furthers the cycle of negativity. 

But it’s hard not to read the news. How can we look away? With our rights and liberties being threatened all the time, reading the news can feel like an itch you need to scratch. Without it, we’re uninformed. With the Trump administration, especially, it feels like massive changes happen in the blink of an eye. When I take a break from reading the news for even a week or two, it feels like there’s been a massive weight lifted from my shoulders — but only to come crashing down again, heavier, when I inevitably come back to it. 

Still, we should respect the power that the news has in affecting our mental health. The news does often mislead and catastrophize, since news outlets sometimes prioritize ratings over truth. The news constantly triggers the limbic system, releasing cortisol and sending us into panic. It can make us passive, inducing us into a fatalistic and desensitized state. News distracts and takes our attention; there is always something new to know, but how can we possibly keep track and make use of all the information we ingest? 

The best option, it seems, is to cut down on our news consumption. We can’t possibly know of every event or new bit of information that is reported on, so we should limit ourselves to news stories which are especially thoughtful and in-depth, instead of just consuming little factoids throughout the day. We can’t always walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders. It’s a matter of knowing to listen to your own stress levels, put the phone down and just be, if only for a moment.