Doing your best to stay up with current events can often feel like drowning in a torrent of never ending bad news. With information coming at you in every direction, it's easy to get burned out. Compassion and solidarity are important, but being an informed citizen doesn't mean you always have to go down with the ship. Photo via Getty and remixed by Tara Jacoby.
How Negative News Affects You
The 24/7 news cycle feels like an all-you-can-eat bummer buffet because of our inherent "negativity bias". Things of a more negative nature have a greater impact on your psychological state than positive or neutral things do. Essentially, you're hardwired to notice bad stuff more because your brain is trying to keep you out of harm's way. You perceive bad news as threatening, so it's only natural that it sticks with you longer than good or neutral news would. The world isn't falling apart, it just feels like it is sometimes.
News outlets are very aware of this. They want to draw in readers and viewers, so reporting on a tragedy helps them cultivate an audience. Like rubbernecking drivers on a freeway, we can't help but look at an accident as we pass, so news media outlets are merely saying "here's a whole bunch of car accidents to look at in one place." Of course, if we stopped looking, they'd also probably stop doing it, but that's its own problem.
Why resist the urge to look? Negative thinking, after all, isn't inherently bad, right? Well, constant exposure to negative media can increase your stress level and have some serious effects on your mental health in both the short and long term. Dr Graham Davey, a psychologist who specialises in the effects of media violence, explains to the Huffington Post:
Negative news can significantly change an individual's mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasise suffering and also the emotional components of the story. In particular... negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you're likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you're more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.
Davey also suggests that you can become more anxious and pessimistic about the world around you, whether you're actually near tragedy or not. You'll begin to ignore the things that are working out just fine, and over time, that weariness can make you feel burned out with the world in general.
Even worse, you may begin to drain yourself of compassion completely. "Compassion fatigue" is a gradual lessening of compassion caused by secondary traumatic stress. Essentially, you're not experiencing the trauma firsthand, but through witness testimony and disturbing imagery the horror becomes real in your mind. The Internet and 24/7 media outlets have made it easier than ever for you to see constant tragedy, and over time you can start to care less and less about what happens to those around you in addition to the people the tragedy is actually happening to. You start to assume that's just how the world is, that only bad things happen, and that you're powerless when it comes to helping others. You become unwilling to act because you believe your actions won't help, but the more people who feel that way, the harder it will be to put a stop to the terrible events that are being reported to you so often. Even in your personal life, the fatigue can cross over and make your compassion can run dry over time. Without even knowing it, your gloom can turn you into a really lousy friend, family member, or significant other because you no longer offer a shoulder to cry on.
Focus on What You Can Control
To shape a more positive perspective on the news, Mary McNaughton-Cassill, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress, suggests you need to start by focusing on what you can control:
What I tell people is that you really have to get conscious. You can't change the externals. You have to get some control mentally… get a handle on why you get anxious and worried about things that probably aren't going to happen, or knowing what your triggers are. Consciously focus yourself on the evidence around you that the news is picking out the extremes and the bad things.
When you see a horrible tragedy reported, remind yourself that there are still good things happening in the world at the exact same moment. It's just not necessarily making the front page. It's not that you shouldn't care about what's happening in the world, or that you should convince yourself the bad things happening aren't bad. It's just important to keep a level head and recognise that you're only being shown half the story.
If you can figure out what your triggers are, it will help you determine your own limits of certain types of news exposure. Jesse Singal, senior editor of NYMag.com, suggests you think about the types of news stories that bother you the most and how it contributes to your stress level. Bad news rarely makes anyone feel good (and it shouldn't), but different types of stories have the potential to negatively affect some of us more than others. When you know what bothers you the most, you can do your best to reduce your exposure to the unnecessary details of it.
For example, say you've realised that news stories of kidnappings drag you down the most. When you hear about one in the future, you don't need to ignore it or accept it, but you know not to go digging for the gruesome details because it will just bring you down. As McNaughton-Cassill explains to NPR, you have to remind yourself that absorbing every detail about a tragedy doesn't help you survive — it just stresses you out more. Practice a little self-care and address what bothers you the most, then you'll have the right perspective for shaping your news consumption in the future.
Discuss Things With Friends and Family
If you're experiencing compassion fatigue, or a recent string of tragic news stories has you down in the dumps, surround yourself with people you care about. Susan Fletcher, PhD, at Scrubs Magazine explains that maintaining a social life is important, even if you don't think you feel like it. Spending time with friends or family can help you remember what's good in your world, and it gives you an opportunity to express how you feel about what's happening. The longer you bottle it up, the longer you'll carry it with you.
So access your support network and start a discussion. Like a mini therapy session, you can all talk about what's going on and sort things out together. As C. John Sommerville, the author of How the News Makes Us Dumb: the Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, suggests in his book, we're better off devoting more time to discussing, reflecting, and thoughtfully acting on major issues than staying on top of every trivial update. For example, the recent San Bernardino shooting hit my friends and I pretty hard. We all live nearby, so things felt a lot closer to home even though none of us were even remotely involved. So I invited my friends over the day after to enjoy each other's company, and eventually we talked about what had happened, why we thought it happened, and what it all meant in the grand scheme of things. By the end of the night, we hadn't forgotten about it (and it shouldn't be forgotten), but we all felt a little less depressed about it. Sometimes escaping a negative news-induced funk is as simple as talking it out. Just be careful you're not closing yourselves off from the world and merely agreeing with one another so you can feel better. Say what you want to say and stick to your guns so your legitimate discussion doesn't turn into an echo chamber of one person's stance.
Practice Self-Care and Take a News Vacation
It's almost impossible to avoid the news completely, but you have a lot more control over your intake than you might realise. And while ignoring the state of the world isn't necessary (or ideal), it's ok to give yourself a break every once in a while. Alison Holman, Interim Director of nursing science at U.C. Irvine, recommends you start by avoiding binging on news to begin with. That means watching something else on TV when every news channel is covering the same tragedy. Change the channel, close your web browser, and take a break. Ask yourself, "What do I need to know?" Unless you're nearby or obviously in danger, you probably don't need to hear the same three eyewitness accounts on repeat, or subject yourself to anchors spinning speculation about something nobody really knows anything about yet.
Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, and Michelle Gielan, the author of Broadcasting Happiness, suggest at the Harvard Business Review that you turn off news notifications and take a news vacation. It's nice to be "in the know," but you don't need to be in the know every second of every day. Constant bombardment of pessimistic press through app notifications and emails will only expose you to stuff you probably don't need to know (another robbery, another car accident) and wouldn't have heard about otherwise. Unsubscribe from breaking news emails and disable push notifications from your news apps. If you get your news in the car on the way to work, switch things up and listen to music, other useful podcasts, or better yet, enjoy the silence and do a little pre-work mental prep. If social media is where the worst stuff seems to spring up for you, unfollow breaking news accounts on Twitter and Facebook, or block out some of the worst stuff without having to give it all up completely. If you can manage it, disconnecting from social networks and certain web sites for a while isn't a bad idea either.
Mix In Some Positive News Sources
If avoiding all news all the time is a little unrealistic for your lifestyle, you can balance the scales by mixing in some positive sources with your normal misery magnets. Sometimes just seeing that there are good things being reported can be enough to keep a positive perspective. Here are some sources worth adding to your feeds or adding to your reading rotation:
- The Huffington Post: What's Working and Good News
- CNN: Impact Your World
- Good News Network
- Good World News
If you read news in the morning, positive and solution-focused stories are a great way to start your morning on the right foot. If you want to read your normal sources in the morning as well, consider sandwiching them in between positive sources, or at least ending with something upbeat so the negative stuff doesn't cling to you all day long.
Focus on What You Can Actively Do
Bad news doesn't have to only be a source of negativity in your life, it can also be a call to action. Instead of getting gloomy every time something terrible happens, look for things you can do to get involved and help prevent the very news that distresses you.
Write letters to politicians about how they should handle things, donate to relief funds that help tragedy victims recover, and find some time in you schedule to volunteer. Volunteering is a great way to take an active role in making the world a better a place, and all it costs you is your time. You'll feel better about the world, and yourself, in no time at all. You'll know that good things are still happening in the world because you're one of the countless people out there doing it. Making a tangible difference means the news won't hit you as hard as it used to, but when it gets to be too much, you still have the rest of these tips to fall back on as well.