There's a scientific reason why watching news is terrible for your mental health

·4-min read
Photograph: Siora Photography/Unsplash
Photograph: Siora Photography/Unsplash

Especially now more than ever. And here's what you can do about it.

It’s probably bad enough that we are under a lockdown that doesn’t show any signs of opening up. But the thing we often tend to overlook in the midst of this culture-shifting pandemic is the nonstop stream of news about the pandemic.

You don’t need an expert to tell you that the current situation can be rather stressful. To add to this stress is our constant exposure to the stream of news stories. These could be from the television set playing in the backdrop as you try to get through your workday or through news alerts and Whatsapp forwards.

Experts agree that most of what passes off as ‘news’ today is a way of keeping audiences/readers/users addicted to the news cycle. At a time when a news division’s performance is measured against pageviews, engagement and ratings, it isn’t unusual for media outlets to focus on disaster reporting rather than positive news coming out of these situations. Sensational headlines tend to get more attention and so an editor may be tempted to lean on alarmist stories especially at a time when news organisations are facing grim times.

What this does to the consumer of such news is that it affects their mood. And it doesn’t matter if you’re watching or reading these ‘updates’ actively or you’re just consuming them passively, the constant stream of toxicity can impact your mood and have a negative effect on your psyche.

According to experts, being exposed to negative news constantly activates the fight or flight response in your brain and, as a result, the rest of your body also reacts accordingly. Exposure to negative news tends to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When these hormones are released constantly you tend to experience anxiety, depression or insomnia. Just imagine what it must feel like watching adrenalin-pumping movies back-to-back, with no break whatsoever. That is what your body is going through when you constantly expose yourself to the news.

There have been several studies that have shown what effects of watching negative material. According to one such study, those who watched negative bulletins or programmes on television began showing an increase in anxiety and sad moods barely 14 minutes in.

Now, unlike Rolf Dobelli who’s claimed to give up consuming the news, we cannot tune ourselves out completely. Sure, Dobelli makes some valid points in his Ted Talk (which you can watch below) but keeping oneself abreast with the news, especially at a time like this, is important.

So how do you manage to stay informed and updated about the pandemic and not get sucked into the vortex of bad news?

1. Limit your news consumption

Set a bar at 30 minutes a day. You could consider splitting that into two – 15 minutes in the morning and another 15 minutes in the evening – so you don’t miss out on the important news around the pandemic and the lockdown. At all other times turn off the notification, log out of all social media platforms and unsubscribe from all Whatsapp groups.

2. Make sure you address your worries

Some experts suggest to schedule what they call a ‘worry time’. What this means is you set aside some time in the day to acknowledge your concerns and address them. Just make sure your ‘worry time’ isn’t close to bedtime because that means you’re likely going to take that worry into bed. It may also help if you schedule an appointment with your therapist.

3. Stick to reliable news outlets only

WhatsApp isn’t the most reliable source of information, so it’s best you get out of all those groups. Pick one or two news outlets that you know are reliable and just spend your 30 minutes reading stories or watching news updates from those select outlets. Alternatively, subscribe to a news podcast.

4. Follow your news consumption with something healthy

This could involve working out or spending some time doing what you really like – such as reading, writing, playing with your pet or simply watching the sunset. Following up your news consumption with something positive offers a healthy distraction that can keep you resilient in these difficult times.