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It’s the first thing we do in the mornings, many of us – reach for the phone or turn on the tv or radio to check the news. It’s no wonder that we do, with all that has happened in the world over the past few years. But might this habit be harmful to our health?
News seems to be growing in volume in its constancy. The fact that we now have a shorter news cycle, referred to as the ‘24-hour news cycle,’ assures us there will always be some “new” news.
Our news is not just local anymore, that which impacts us, our lives, and our homes. We now see it ALL: local, national, and global. It seems not much of it is good news nowadays.
We have such ease of access, with 24-hour feeds to our smartphones, laptops, and TVs. However, that very ease of access means that avoiding those doom-laden headlines can be hard.
When I think about the news, my thoughts go to the beginning of the pandemic. We were served with and consumed 24/7 news, and we were interested because what was happening to the world was like nothing we had ever seen. I could feel myself becoming overwhelmed. Watching the news held a love-hate relationship for me, and it seemed to be an in-your-face ever-reminder that I was no longer in control of my little world, even my little home. That control had been removed without my permission.
For many people, the news or even constant news is never an issue — they can read the news and move on. However, studies in the US have highlighted that, for some people, an obsession with the news can impact both mental and physical health.
In study results, one professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, likened the consumption of news to addictive behavior. He saw the use of news as a form of emotional regulation, as a form of avoidance from life, and the loss of control over how much we let it reign our thoughts and mood.
Problematic news consumption
Studies ensued to determine the differences between those who consume excessive amounts of news without it causing them any problems and those for whom news consumption was problematic.
Problematic news consumption was defined as:
- being absorbed in news content and constantly worrying about news and stressful events
- compulsively checking the news
- experiencing interference in everyday life from their news consumption.
Problematic consumption is particularly harmful in that news consistently focuses on negative and threatening issues and events. And we all know that the more extensive the crisis or disaster, the more coverage it gets.
Mental and physical effects
Those with severely problematic news consumption had significantly greater mental and physical ill health than those whose consumption was not. Problematic news consumption can create chronic stress. It can activate physiological responses and can have physical repercussions. Health symptoms, including stress, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, physical pain, poor concentration, and gastrointestinal issues, are just a few of the symptoms reported by those who tend to become overwhelmed by the news.
Some studies found that, particularly in women, negative news significantly increased physiological reaction to a subsequent stressor. So, a shocking news story might have physical effects long after someone has seen it.
When we perceive something threatening, levels of our stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol, increase. This is a normal survival mechanism that has helped us physically survive as a species for thousands of years. The same mechanism is activated when we see or hear threatening news.
Is the media responsible?
I don’t know about you, but I have noticed a shift, an increase in the use of sensationalism since the COVID-19 pandemic and during the last couple of election cycles.
Some studies have suggested that the media’s focus on sensational news coverage of negative stories is partly to blame. Sensationalist news content is designed to elicit an emotional response from audiences and thereby increase viewing or reading. These tactics used to be restricted to mass-market tabloid newspapers but are now increasingly widespread.
I will admit to employing some sensationalism in my email subject lines or blog titles. Now please don’t judge or sort by that, I value your readership and your comments about my content. But now that you know me, I hope that you will realize that my intent is toward provoking thought and educating the consumer. I cover not only The What, I cover the decisions we have at hand about The What – not the decisions you should or must make but the factors you can consider while you are making them. As a consultant and coach, my M.O. and my duty to you is to make sure you have the most information to make the best decisions. That’s my jam, and my commitment.
It makes sense that sensational headlines and stories are written for maximum impact. News sells, after all. One Australian study found that people were more likely to mistrust, and therefore avoid, outlets that relied on sensational or fear-invoking headlines to attract audiences. Why, then, are we drawn to tabloids? Why are they not out of business if folks disdain their tactics or find the content inside lacking credibility?
It boggles the mind. Perhaps it is that addictive allure…
Hard news or soft news?
How we react to the news depends, to some extent, on the type of news.
Examples of hard news could be topics such as politics, the economy, international conflicts, and social issues, which are timely or urgent. It is the hard news that is most likely to lead to an emotional response. Hard news shocks, frightens, disturbs, and alarms. I can leave the audience feeling alienated, disempowered, helpless, and, worst of all, apathetic or insensitive.
Soft news deals with lighter, less time-sensitive topics, such as culture, entertainment, lifestyle, and celebrity news. I’d bet most health and health-y news is soft news. Perhaps the stuff that is good for us is boring.
We could avoid the news
One way of dealing with any ill-at-ease feelings that stem from the consumption of news may be to avoid it. However, this can be hard to do in a world where news is constantly available and at the touch of a screen.
My initial reaction to the concept of ‘Take No Action’ was, “WHAAAA? Avoid the news?? No way! I could never, especially not now.” Just the suggestion of it evoked serious FOMO in me.
I remember a time I was sitting and talking with my aunt. I heard her phone ring, and my aunt took no action to answer it. After the fourth ring, I said, “Aren’t you going to answer that?” She looked at me blankly and said simply, “No.” I thought her lack of immediate response to be so very odd or rude, and then I thought it intriguing, even empowering. It was not long after that when I found myself employing her method, one of choice and of calm. I was with friends and I did not answer a call. Part of me delighted in how that confounded those around me, but I also felt more in control. I had realized that I had a choice in the matter, and because I had a choice, no knee-jerk or Pavlovian reaction was required of me.
This next idea I likely read online early in the pandemic. As a solo ager, I weathered the pandemic alone. I was my own pod. There was no one to even discuss the news with, to temper it. I remember feeling relief when I was introduced to the concept that I could limit my consumption of the news, and limit my news intake. (I think I heard it on NPR, ironically a news outlet).
I was able at that time to grasp the idea. Perhaps I would not feel so overwhelmed if I could just stop the news for a little bit.
Turns out I was mad, unnerved about my lack of control during the onset of the pandemic. I remember I was leading a group online during the first two weeks of the Shut Down, the Stay At Home orders. I was facilitating a discussion about common overwhelm and feeling out of control, what with all that had been thrust upon us. I announced to the group smugly that on that very morning, I had made my bed – because I could. I could control that. It was something at a time of little else.
I liked the fact that I had a choice with this new idea of limiting my consumption. Perhaps I had been too knee-jerking in my response to the news, and it was making me feel funky. So, I did what I am about to suggest to you. There are studies to support the benefits of experimenting with our news-time and getting to know ourselves better.
Try an experiment
The goal here is to develop a healthier relationship with the news. If you are finding that your mood is affected by or that you are preoccupied with the news, then it may be a great idea to take a break from it.
Consider staying off all news channels or outlets for 2 or 3 days and see how this changes your mood and your thinking. Then, try doing something to replace this, such as going for a walk with a friend or reading a book. A U.S. study conducted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic found that this was how some people coped with the constant stream of negative news.
I am not advising that we stop following the news, but I do want people to consider having a healthier relationship with it. The most important thing is for people to become more aware of how consuming the news is making them feel and the impact it is having on their day-to-day lives
News that you cannot do anything about can be just as distressing as news that affects us directly.
Our threat mechanisms are activated by seeing images of threatening things happening to other people, such as the war in Ukraine, or by hearing news that disturbs us, like the state of the economy – things that threaten our comfort, status, and day-to-day life.
Because we cannot take any direct corrective action about things we see on the news, our minds go into rumination or worry mode. This can further exacerbate our levels of stress and anxiety, leading to chronic stress. We all know that chronic stress contributes to mental health issues and physical health problems.
Do something about it
It can help to do something, however small, about the news you are receiving. If constant news coverage of an issue makes you angry or anxious, perhaps the answer may be to get involved and do something positive.
Because we tend to get more traumatized by events where we ourselves can take no action, it might help to do one small thing that could make a difference. For example, if we learn of the damages caused by wildfires, tornadoes, or hurricanes, leaving people hurt and in need, we could make a donation to a charity such as the American Red Cross that will help with relief efforts – and remind ourselves that we have done something small to help.
How do you use your news?
Personally, I limit mine. I will turn it off. I select my outlets, especially online sources that suit me. By “suit me,” I mean that sensationalism does not. Factual and educational does. Regurgitation of rhetoric does not serve me well, I can feel myself becoming anxious when I am exposed to it. I am much more interested in understanding psychology and the strategy and the different ways people will feel or react so that I can get better at what I do.
I am leaving you today with these thoughts and notions:
- We can make our own decisions about the news.
- We can become aware of hard and soft news and how it affects us personally.
- We can try an experiment with how and how much news we consume.
- We can each decide what we want and employ what we will.
Most importantly, know that we do have choices, and thus control, over how we feel.
To your good health,
Nancy Ruffner is a consulting Patient Advocate and speaker. Her work focuses on advocacy, healthcare navigation, eldercare matters, and successful and solo aging. Schedule your Complimentary Consultation toward engagement today – nancyruffner.com