How the news can affect your mental health … and what to do about it.

There is no doubt that the media has an effect on your emotional health and well-being. In years gone by, you had to actively seek out the news – by buying a newspaper or specifically tuning in to the 10 O’clock news. Now, with the advent of smart phones, you are continually connected to a constant stream of live information, finding out about events as they unfold.

Added to this, news stories are invariably negative in their content. An article in the Los Angeles Times, from Sept 2019, posed the question – “Why is there so much bad news out there?” and came up with several reasons for this. Firstly, it concluded that people pay more attention to negative news than to positive news. This was backed up by a study involving more than 1,000 participants across 17 countries spanning every continent except Antarctica. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  suggests that this human bias towards negative news might be a large part of what drives negative news coverage. The results also revealed, however, that this negative bias is not shared by everyone and that some people actually have a positive bias, although they are in the minority. They may be some evolutionary reasons as to why negativity bias exists. Scientists have pointed out, for example, that it can be much riskier to ignore negative information (eg. A storm is coming) than good news (eg. a dog being rescued from the sea). In this way, we can see that paying attention to the negative news is an effective survival strategy.

In 2020, there was perhaps more negative news than usual- we were in the grip of a global pandemic, so it is reasonable to suggest that the stream of news generally had been negative in nature and caused a lot of anxiety and stress for many people.  Moreover, there has been an almost constant stream of updates, which is causing many people to report changes in their sleep patterns, their levels of anxiety, worries about health issues and fears over the safety of friends and family members. At times, watching/reading/listening to the news has felt addictive for many people – that subconscious feeling that you need to be ‘on alert’ at all times feeding the ‘need’ for sensationalist headlines and negative news stories.

Studies have actually shown that there is a distinct effect on the mood of people who watch negative news as compared to those who watch positive or neutral material. This difference is apparent after only 14 minutes of viewing news bulletins or programmes. There is also an increase in anxiety and sadness.

So how do you manage  your viewing/reading at a time when you also feel that it is important to keep up with new developments and regulations, which may be crucial to your safety?

You need to strike a balance here – you do need some information in order to protect yourself, but you don’t need to binge-watch the news in order to do that. It may be, for example, that you could limit our viewing to a short, daily ‘catch up’, rather than imbibing a constant stream of information, which will be simply a repetition of the same negative messages.

Another idea is to make viewing choices depending on how you feel that day. If you are feeling particularly stressed, is it a good idea to watch some more information right now? What would happen if you didn’t? Would it put you at any risk if you decided to give the news a miss today? It wouldn’t of course, and you may feel better for having some time away from negative information. Of course, it’s easier to make these choices if you are not constantly connected to the news. Do you really need that news app on your phone, sending you notifications every few minutes? Probably not.

Deciding on reliable sources is another way to set your own boundaries regarding the news. These reliable sources may be a particular newspaper or news channel which you know is less sensationalist, or even asking a friend to pass on any important ‘need to know’ information. The vast majority of the information out there at the moment does not come into this category – so you can choose to sidestep it if you choose to.

Lastly, acknowledge that the news can be toxic, potentially very negative and proven to affect your mood, so make positive efforts to rebalance this by actively choosing to participate in positive and nurturing activities as well. Knowing all the negative implications of Covid-19 won’t unfortunately make it go away, so do what you can to stay safe and then choose to enhance your life, and put your focus in a different, more positive place. You’ll feel so much better for it.