Why the news makes you anxious: headline stress disorder (with tips to cope)
I have to admit something to you. I have started and stopped writing this post on numerous occasions. Why? I am nervous to ‘put it out there’. Because I know how privileged I am to be able to turn off the news, and not live it every day if I don’t want to. So please know as you’re reading this post that I 100% acknowledge the place I’m coming from.
However, knowing that I’m privileged doesn’t change the fact that too much news consumption majorly ramps up my anxiety (again, knowing that BIPOC also get anxiety around it too). I also know that just because I don’t think about the things that are in the news, doesn’t mean they just go away.
So please know that as you’re reading this, I am not encouraging people to turn away from the hard things going on in the world or ignoring them. In fact, the opposite is true. I’m advocating for you to adopt a healthy news consumption practice so that you can stay informed without getting too overwhelmed. In short…
I’m simply advocating for others to realize when they’ve taken too much in, and how to avoid doing so in the future. Why? So that we can be well enough to take action towards improving the bad things that are happening. So that those negative feelings and emotions you get from being too absorbed in the news don’t leak into other areas of your life.
How does news consumption cause anxiety?
If you still are skeptical, take a look at the following research about taking in too much news:
““Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood — especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story,” Davey told The Huffington Post. “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.”
According to Davey, the way that negative news affects your mood can also have a larger affect on how you interpret and interact with the world around you. If it makes you more anxious or sad for instance, then you may subconsciously become more attuned to negative or threatening events, and you may be more likely to see ambiguous or neutral events as negative ones.”
What is Headline Stress Disorder?
The term ‘Headline Stress Disorder’ was coined by Steven Stosny, PhD, a couples’ therapist in Maryland during the 2016 USA election. Stosny noticed the following after talking with patients in his mental health clinic:
“The effect [of lots of news consumption] is an increase in general anxiety, worry, intolerance, and lowered frustration activation,” Stosny explained.” (source)
He goes on to say:
“women seem especially vulnerable to headline stress disorder. Many feel personally devalued, rejected, unseen, unheard, and unsafe. They report a sense of foreboding and mistrust about the future. They fear losing the right to control what happens to their own bodies.” (source)
While Stosny doesn’t specifically mention this, I found myself acknowledging that Black and other people of color should also be included in this list of people affected, as well as LGBTQ people.
Before we get into ways to cope with consuming the news, we’ll quickly explore why our brain holds on to these negative thoughts and experiences more than positive ones.
Simply put, the negativity bias describes why our brains react and hold on to negative news versus positive news. The answer can be found in our evolution. If we get bit by a dog, our brain is going to store that memory and perhaps the surrounding thoughts (dogs are scary, for example) after the bite. It does this so that if you come in contact with another dog in the future, you’ll remember the bite and do what you can to stay safe (source).
While a negativity bias may seem like a negative thing, in reality, it is our brain trying to keep us safe. However, when it comes to news, it can actually back fire on us.
Personally, I have felt the effects of consuming too much news before I even started researching for this post, and the data findings relate to my experience. I’m sharing what I experience in case it happens to you as well:
My anxiety intensifies. Additionally, I have obsessive compulsion components to my anxiety which make this even harder because I have a hard time ‘turning off’ my anxious thoughts
I want to stay in my comfort zone/places I feel safe (ex. not wanting to go to certain places, do certain things out of fear which I know is no way to live)
I want to shut down and turn away (which logically is not something I want to do because I know I can take some action!)
I get into the mindset that there are so many terrible people and things happening in the world, and that the world is going to sh*t (again – logically I know this isn’t true, we just hear about things so much more often because of social media, constantly being connected, etc). ***If you find yourself in this same mindset, know that I do not actually believe this is true – there are so many good people and love in this world – truly, there are.***
So how have I protected myself from the constant news cycle yet still remain informed? I follow all of the tips below. Really, I do! Read on to find out to cope with news anxiety and headline stress disorder, but still stay informed.
How to cope with news anxiety and headline stress disorder
Pick 1-2 news channel to follow & unfollow the rest
One way to combat news anxiety and headline stress disorder is to take a few minutes out of your day today, go through all your social media accounts, and unfollow all news channels except one (if you don’t want to follow any because you consume news via other platforms – that is OK too!). I used to follow all our the local tv channel accounts in my area, all the local newspaper accounts, and multiple national and world news accounts. That. Was. Way. Too. Many.
After I unfollowed all of them, I selected one local and one world news account to follow on only ONE of my social media accounts (Facebook). That way, if I know there is a big news story hitting the media on a certain day, I can just avoid going on Facebook for some time. And by only following one or two news stations, I know that I won’t necessarily be bombarded by the story over and over throughout my entire newsfeed.
Turn off Notifications/Uninstall Apps
If you have certain news apps downloaded on your phone, either turn off notifications or delete the app altogether. I may be biased because I don’t have notifications set for any of my apps, but this is the way to go. Why? Because YOU get to choose when you see certain news stories. YOU get to decide when you want to read about something that may be hard to take in. YOU get to mentally prepare yourself for what you may read about. This is huge. If you’re constantly being bombarded with notifications, especially notifications about bad things happening, you immediately go into ‘reaction’ mode (constantly running around reacting to what’s going on around you) instead of being intentional about how you decide to react to what’s going on around you. See the difference? Which one sounds better?
Utilize programs such as Unroll.me for email
If you get news headline notifications via email and don’t want to unsubscribe, a great free tool is called ‘Unroll Me’. I’ve been using this program for years, and I absolutely love it. Basically, you link your inbox and choose which emails you want to ‘roll up’ into a daily digest, and which emails you want to have delivered straight into your inbox. You can also instantly unsubscribe to any emails in the program! In relation to the news emails, choose to have them rolled up into a daily digest which you will get the morning of the following day.
I will note that Unroll.me has received some flack in the past for selling data. Here is an article about it from 2017 (and it seems like things have changed since then) with an alternative option. The information didn’t stop me from keeping my account, but I thought I would share just in case you want to avoid the service.
Limit watching and listening to the news
Pick a few minutes out of your day to listen to, read, or watch the headlines. Pick a time where you can focus on what you’re consuming so you feel like you’re really absorbing the content so you don’t have to keep going back and rereading things.
Additionally, don’t read headlines or watch news first thing when you wake up or right before bed. Give yourself some time to start and end the day on your terms, instead of reacting towards news.
Read more than the headlines
When you’re reading the news, read more than just the headlines. I know I’m really good at reading JUST the headline (which are designed to get an emotional reaction to grab us), and then doing just that – reacting.
However, if we take the time to read the actual headlines, we may find more explanation which can calm our reaction to the headline.
Which leads me into…
Know you don’t know the whole story
In addition to reading past the headlines into the meat of the article, as you’re reading the article, you may start to notice that you’re looking for specific information that’s missing, or your brain starts filling in pieces of the story. My brain is really good at doing this, and it causes all sorts of anxiety.
While I’m reading a story, if I start to become anxious about it, I remind myself that I don’t know the full story or all the details. All I know is the information given. This helps to stop my thoughts from going haywire trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, or to fill in an incomplete story.
TheSkimm is really the only main news source I regularly consume. TheSkimm is a daily email (M-F) which highlights the previous days’ biggest stories. They give about a paragraph explanation of detail, with additional links if you want more information. I find that the explanation they give is enough information for me to feel like I’m informed and can hold a conversation but not so much that I feel overwhelmed. They also add in millennial references and humor in an appropriate way. I would highly recommend it (you can sign up here – it’s free) if you’re trying to cut back on your news consumption.
Take a break if needed
If you find yourself feeling really overwhelmed and anxious from the news, don’t feel bad if you need to completely detach and take a break – knowing that you’ll reset and come back.
You don’t need to give yourself a deadline as to when you have to get back into it. Check in with yourself after a couple days and see how you are feeling. AND, by implementing the tips above, it will be even easier to completely detach to give yourself the break you need.
When I hear about terrible things happening, I often feel motivated to take action in any way I can to help. Depending on the event, the action varies. Maybe it’s contacting my local representative. Maybe it’s donating to a charity that assists victims. Whatever it is, helping where I can makes me feel like I’m actually doing something about it, and that gives me a mental boost.
If you are looking for ideas on ways to help, check out my compilation of organizations, charities, etc that assist during natural disasters (they also assist in other times as well). Additionally, there is a link for a charitable organization checker – so you can research a particular organization to see how much money they actually donate.
Pray, send love, send positive vibes, random act of kindness etc.
After taking action (see above), if you feel compelled, send out some positivity, kindness, and love into the world. Commit some random acts of kindness. We may feel somewhat limited as to what we can do, but we can always provide others with love and kindness. It is so easy, takes little effort, but makes a huge impact.
Focus on the things you can control
Often when I’m feeling really anxious, it is because I feel out of control. Of course, the sense of having control is an illusion, but giving ourselves that illusion back after it’s threatened (from headline stress disorder, for example), can help ease anxiety.
One thing you can do is write down all the things you CAN control about a situation, news event, etc. Most of the time, we can control so much more than we realize, and seeing that list out on paper can help ground us.
I do this often and it really helps!
Another way to give ourselves a different perspective (besides focusing on what we can control) is by practicing gratitude. And while this post focuses on why the news causes anxiety and headline stress disorder, this tip can help with anxiety in all parts of our lives.
I have an entire post on gratitude and the benefits, so I won’t go into detail here. However, just know that it is very beneficial for our mental health, and provides us with a sense of, as I mentioned above, control, because we are able to focus on what we have versus what we don’t.
Talk about it
If you’re feeling really anxious around certain news stories, talk with a friend or family member about it and how you’re feeling. Often, you’ll find that others are feeling the exact same thing.
Additionally, you can brainstorm some action steps that you can do to help combat that anxiety together.
Find humorous and positive news
Not all news needs to be negative. In fact, consuming positive news can help us counteract the anxious and stress-inducing reactions we get from negative news consumption.
When COVID started in the US around March, 2020, John Kransinski started a YouTube challenge called ‘Some Good News‘ which quickly became super popular. The stories he shared made us feel connected (something we often feel the opposite of with negative news), and showed us the good that we all know surrounds us in the world.
You can find good news podcasts, social media accounts, and web pages by doing a quick search. Consider adding these to your regular consumption habits for a dose of happiness.
Additionally, sometimes the best way to get through a tough time is through humor. Sites like ‘The Onion’ provide a necessary dose of humor in a seas of negative news.
If you’re looking for some humor with political news to help combat headline stress disorder, one of my favorites is Randy Rainbow who creates, performs, and edits parodies of songs talking about different political topics.
Additionally, The Holderness Family is another great account to follow relatable content (they’ve had a ton of great, funny, videos related to COVID and everything that’s come along with it.
Last but certainly not least, practicing mindfulness is a great way to combat stress and anxiety ANY time we are feeling it.
Stress, anxiety, overwhelm, etc, all live in the past or the future. But mindfulness brings us back to the present. Back to what we know as fact, versus our brain trying to fill in gaps of a story.
In this post, I share 14 ways to practice mindfulness during times of uncertainty. It provides tools and tips that you can do anywhere, and at any time.
Remember, if you’re feeling stressed out, anxious and overwhelmed from the news or from headline stress disorder, those feelings have a very good chance of leaking over into other areas of your life. Give yourself some time, compassion, and space for self-care to reset!
Related post: How to practice self compassion (with actual examples)
How do you give yourself space from constant news? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?
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