January 2020 dawned with the news of the Australian bushfire crisis, and it would appear that the world has been in free fall ever since, as nationwide protests, riots, natural calamities and an unprecedented global pandemic assumed headlines. With the future suspended in limbo, there is no denying the importance of staying informed about what’s coming next. However, experts believe that the constant parade of gloom-and-doom news pieces can be detrimental to mental health. Holding your breath while reading the headlines, difficulty in eating or sleeping after reading the news, increased signs of fatigue while doing lesser than normal, feeling desensitised to the headlines or experiencing a sense of numbness in response to the ever-escalating calamities—if any of this sounds familiar to you, it might be time to step away from the news.
The sentiment is echoed by psychologist and published researcher, Tanya Percy Vasunia. She says, “At this particular moment in history, it is unsurprising that the news is making people anxious. COVID-19, cyclones, economic recession, the plight of the migrant workers…and these are just a few of the headlines. Buzzwords like ‘new normal’ and ‘we are in this together’ continue to circulate, without giving us much clarity on what this new normal looks like and how we are in this together when clearly some people are more at risk health-wise and others are facing financial ruin. The truth is that we have all faced anxiety at some point of time in our lives, but never before has this collective feeling of uncertainty plagued millennials and generation Z. Ironically, we look to the news for answers, only to find that there are no answers. Anxiety works on the principle of possibility, and from where we stand currently, anything seems possible and that is terrifying.”
She believes that continued exposure to negative information can shift anxious feelings into a full-blown anxiety disorder. While a mental health professional should be consulted at this point, stigma can often prevent this. She elaborates, “A few days ago, a client of mine during a session spoke about ‘how the world seems to be drowning’. When we explored this further, he spoke about how every time he saw the news, there was one new problem, one new obstacle and he felt that he, and the world, just couldn’t catch a break. We discussed how it’s hard to separate yourself from all the uncertainty and explored a few ways of holding onto the things that were certain, like his ability to donate money to help those in need, his ability to care for his family and so on.”
How to know if the news is impacting your mood
Vasunia believes that the constant stream of negative information is unhelpful for the upkeep of mental health. She elaborates, “This year has been difficult on many levels and unfortunately, the sensationalisation of negative news by the media increases the sense of doom that people are experiencing. It triggers anxiety, reinforces anxious thoughts and further impacts one’s mood.”
The Mumbai-based psychologist cautions about the telltale signs that the consumption of daily news is contributing to anxiety. “Some common symptoms include the inability to switch off news apps and television, followed by unhelpful rumination about what’s coming next. You may find yourself nervous every time you get a news alert on a device. After watching the news, you might find yourself feeling helpless and have trouble sleeping or relaxing. It is also common to find yourself feeling agitated and unhappy with loved ones after watching the news,” she says.
The importance of taking a break from the news cycle
While the benefits of giving yourself a breather are manifold, there’s no denying the common stigma of being judged for not knowing what’s happening with the world. Vasunia explains, “We are under the misguided notion that knowledge equates to power. However, in the current socio-economic climate, new information is unlikely to provide any earth-shattering revelation. And if there is an earth-shattering turn of events, there are enough people who will call, text, FaceTime, drop a message on WhatsApp or call you on Zoom to let you know. The most powerful knowledge comes from having a better understanding of your mental headspace. If the news is getting to you and you take a step back, what’s the worst that can happen? The time off will give the chance for more learning, the understanding of how to relax, the ability to channel unhelpful thoughts into positive actions and most importantly, you will have a renewed capacity to tackle whatever the year has left to send our way.”
How to step away from the news cycle in a constructive manner
If you find yourself experiencing disillusionment or anxiety in the face of everyday news, Vasunia details certain measures for monitoring your exposure to news. “If this year has brought anything to light, it is that physical and mental health are crucial factors when dealing with any kind of a crisis,” she says. In times like these, self-care is of paramount importance, whether it is indulging your senses with music and meditation apps or reaching out to your support network. If you know of someone experiencing escalating levels of news-related anxiety, enable them to reach out and ask for help from mental health professionals.
1. Schedule being informed
Set aside a limited time every day to look over the news, preferably before a time-consuming activity, such as a workout. This will allow you to focus on something else after reading or watching the news. Furthermore, exercise has proven instrumental in improving mood and mental health.
2. Focus on the good
Don’t be afraid to look for the good and actively focus on it. While there are many things going wrong, there are things going well too. By balancing the kind of information you receive, you can maintain a healthy balance which will prevent you from feeling triggered or going into a downward spiral.
3. Turn off notifications
Notifications take away your ability to choose when you want to look at the news. When the world feels like it is spinning out of control, why allow another element that you cannot control to be present? Taking back control will assist in the overall reduction of news-related anxiety and low moods. This includes secondary sources of news, such as WhatsApp groups, Facebook status updates and Instagram Stories, among others.
4. Opt for a strategic media detox
For instance, Mondays can be devoid of Facebook and Instagram, Tuesdays can have no WhatsApp, Wednesdays can be no news apps and Thursdays can be without televised news. Creating a similar schedule for yourself makes for a simple yet effective way to avoid being bombarded by information from multiple platforms at the same time.
5. Expand the scope of the conversation
It is also essential to ensure that you aren’t just talking about the news to your family and friends. During the pandemic, there hasn’t been much to do and it is natural to discuss the goings-on of the world. However, try to ensure that this isn’t the only conversation you are having. Make it a point to talk about other things, such as books you are reading, television shows you are watching, new recipes you’re trying out and so on. This is a good way of moving away from news-related anxiety while still learning new pieces of information.
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