Surely for some people, opening a newspaper, turning on the radio, or scrolling through social media first thing in the morning is a relaxing part of their routine. But if these activities have you bracing for blood pressure-spiking headlines, you’re not alone: According to a survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health [PDF], 40 percent of respondents who reported feeling stressed in the month prior cited consuming news as a contributing factor. Forty-four percent identified “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” as another cause—and this survey was taken back in 2014.
And it seems stress levels have only risen since then. Leading up to the 2016 election, the American Psychological Association found that more than half of U.S. adults were experiencing some degree of election-related anxiety, regardless of their party affiliation. And long after Election Day, outlets reported cases of post-election stress disorder plaguing Americans struggling to tear themselves away from the news (again, regardless of their politics). News is breaking so quickly and so often it can feel impossible to keep up.
According to University of Texas at San Antonio psychology professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill, this is a modern phenomenon. McNaughton-Cassill has spent a great deal of her career researching the connection between stress and news media and she's seen how it has evolved over the past couple decades. “The news is very different [than it used to be]. If you go back far enough, it was all written, and it was so slow that battles would be fought after the war ended,” she tells Mental Floss. “But now, with 24-hour news and social media, we’ve gone the other way. Instead of not enough information, it’s too much.”
Stress caused by the media is a legitimate concern, but unplugging yourself for good isn’t the only way to treat it. Here are some tips for staying informed and engaged without sacrificing your peace of mind.
1. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR PATTERNS.
If you suspect that constant reports of terrible news are taking their toll on your life, there are a few signs to look out for. “Sometimes people feel exceptionally tired; sometimes people feel numb; people might notice that they’re more cynical than they’ve been,” Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others and the founder of The Trauma Stewardship Institute, tells Mental Floss.
Instead of allowing the compassion or rage you feel upon seeing a headline to melt into fatigue, McNaughton-Cassill recommends asking yourself why you're addicted to your Twitter or Facebook feed in the first place. “What are you doing? Are you looking at the news frequently because you’re anxious and you want confirmation that it’s OK? Are you doing it just because you’re bored and don’t want to sit at your desk?” As is the case with other types of addictions, identifying the driving force behind your unhealthy media habits is the first step toward breaking them.
If what you’re feeling is more severe, you may need to do more than reevaluate your media habits. According to McNaughton-Cassill, reading or watching the news doesn’t cause clinical anxiety or depression on its own, but it can exacerbate the symptoms. In such cases, you should seek out the help of a mental health professional.
2. CHANGE THE WAY YOU CONSUME NEWS.
Sometimes it’s not just the content of the news we consume that’s upsetting to us—it’s the way in which it's delivered. McNaughton-Cassill, for example, is sensitive to negative imagery. She doesn’t like TV news for the same reason she doesn’t like horror movies: By the time she’s shown something she doesn’t want to see, it’s already too late. “So I get my news from the radio and online because I can control those more,” she says.
This doesn’t just apply to people who are triggered by visuals. Maybe you’re drawn to passionate social media posts that either echo your views or confirm your biases about people with differing opinions. If that’s the case, installing a plug-in that de-politicizes your feed is one way to revert Facebook back to a healthier, less infuriating space. Then, when you do want to update yourself on what’s happening in the world, you can set aside time to go straight to your preferred outlets.
3. PLAN BREAKS.
When the news becomes overwhelming, you should never feel guilty about turning off the TV or putting down the phone and diverting your attention elsewhere. It’s unhealthy, not to mention impossible, to stay up-to-date on everything that’s going on in the world 24 hours a day. Van Dernoot Lipsky recommends “making sure you're nurturing your life outside of whatever’s demanding your time." If designating periods of time each day to unplug yourself from the news isn’t enough to keep your stress in check, an extended break may be in order. Try going on a week-long news cleanse and give your brain a rest from the constant pressure to stay informed.
4. SEEK OUT PERSPECTIVE.
With gut-wrenching news alerts lighting up our phones on a daily basis, it’s tempting to think we’re living through exceptionally crummy times. But falling into this mental trap can make the current state of the world seem hopeless, when in reality humanity has survived much worse.
Brushing up on history can provide some much-needed perspective on what’s happening today. “Go read a biography of one of the founding fathers. They didn’t know what was going to turn out right at the time,” McNaughton-Cassill says. “Or watch the movie Lincoln. Or [listen to] Hamilton. To some degree, our democracy has been coasting along for quite a long time.”
It may sound odd, but learning about history’s most tumultuous moments can provide some comfort when the current news cycle looks bleak. The world isn’t coming to an end, even when the tone of what you read on the internet suggests otherwise.
5. GIVE TIME TO A CAUSE YOU CARE ABOUT.
One reason watching the news can be so harrowing is that it leads to compassion fatigue. When you see how people are suffering around the world, it’s only human to feel the impractical urge to help them all at once. Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by your desire to do more isn’t helpful to anyone. A better solution is to pick one issue that sparks a particularly strong reaction in you and do something about it in the real world.
No matter where you choose to volunteer, working to better a situation surrounded by other people rather than reading about it in isolation can help relieve your distress. As McNaughton-Cassill explains, humans are social creatures, and fostering personal connections over important issues can make those issues seem less scary. “When you’re watching horrible things in the media you feel like you can’t do anything,” she says. “When you’re there with people, you can take action and you get the bonding that happens when you’re with them.” Just remember to focus on one cause at a time, and not to overload your schedule with more volunteer work than you can handle.
6. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
No matter what’s stressing you out, making healthy choices can go a long way. Taking steps to care for your body, like making sure you’re eating regular meals, getting the recommended amount of sleep each night, and staying active, will have a positive impact on your overall well-being.
It’s also vital to spend time on your emotional self when news-related anxiety feels unavoidable. When you’re feeling pessimistic, invite a friend to have a non-political conversation over coffee, or lose yourself in some fiction or nonfiction that’s removed from current events. The most important thing to remember is to listen to what you're feeling and give yourself what you need when you need it.
7. LEARN TO LET GO.
When current events feel especially chaotic, compulsively checking the news can provide the illusion of power. “When you’re sitting at your computer monitoring all this stuff, it feels good to feel like that puts you in control,” McNaughton-Cassill says. But checking headlines every 10 minutes won’t stop bad things from happening, and it won’t make them seem any less scary when they do. The world is unpredictable, and the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can process the news from a place between outrage and complacency. “Really none of us are in control,” McNaughton-Cassill says, “so if you tune out for a night or a day or a weekend it’s probably not going to change how it all turns out."
This story originally ran in 2017.