When was the last time you felt uplifted about the world we live in—after reading your daily news digest? We’re guessing it’s been a while.
From the Malaysia Airlines tragedies and the Nepal earthquake to the rise of ISIS, it seems every day brings a fresh disaster. Chock-full of gory images and scary headlines, all the negative news can sometimes leave our hearts anxiety-ridden and our stomachs turning. But can bad news actually harm us?
Yes, says Swiss entrepreneur and author Rolf Dobelli, who makes the argument in his bestselling book The Art of Thinking Clearly. He believes that news can be toxic. “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body,” he says in his essay “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet.” He argues that keeping up with current affairs can have a bad effect on us physically, and that “panicky stories” spur the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which lowers our immune system, impairs our digestion and leaves us susceptible to infections.
Pam Ramsden, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford in England, takes it one step further into the psyche. According to her research, 20 percent of people studied are so profoundly affected by gory news imagery, they could be diagnosed with “vicarious” post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Just like soldiers returning from war, gruesome photos can leave some people with nightmares, night sweats and flashbacks.
Ramsden, who worked with U.S. veterans, says that because images or videos look so graphic on our big screens, we process them as if we are actually there. “Forty years ago we didn’t have these kind of graphic pictorials of people dying,” she explains.
So how can we avoid the emotional toll from scary news? We can’t exactly give it up entirely, especially living in the age of social media or with the societal pressure to be “in the know.” But maybe we can change our reaction.
According to journalist and author Danny Penman—who co-wrote the book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World with Mark Williams, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University—we can start by acknowledging that the world isn’t as bad as it may seem. “Year over year, the world is getting better,” Penman tells LivingHealthy. “If you go back to the Stone Age, one in three men died in warfare or would be murdered. That’s a hell of a statistic. Now, what proportion of the population dies a violent death? It’s pretty small. But communications have [become] so good that if somebody sneezes in South East Asia, we hear about it.”
We can also blame our pesky Stone Age forefathers for the news stressing us out, which, Penman says, humans are wired to feel. “In the Stone Age if we felt threatened, we’d either run away or we’d fight… We can’t run away from news. We can’t run away from most of the things that are stressing us. So we end up in this kind of netherworld where we’re trapped,” he says.
And if running away isn’t the solution, perhaps creating balance and a sense of perspective is. At the very least, try limiting the amount of time you spend consuming the news. After listening to bulletins on Britain’s BBC Radio 4 every morning left him feeling miserable for the rest of the day, Penman went on a monthlong “media diet.” He now listens to it in 15- or 20-minute bursts.
Penman also believes we should protect ourselves emotionally by accepting that there isn’t a solution to every problem. “When we see appalling pictures, we connect with those people who are suffering,” he says. “But connecting with somebody when we have no ability to help them just hurts us. That inflicts quite a lot of psychological damage on us.”
While we can’t cure Ebola from our living room, Penman recommends engaging in small acts of kindness (like bringing a neighbor flowers) that will make ourselves, and those around us, feel better. “It seems like a huge stretch of the imagination,” he says, “but it can, in a very small way, influence the world.”
Here are four tips on how to follow the news without headline fatigue:
1. Focus on the positive. Start by filtering your feed so you are receiving more positive news than negative. Bathsheba Fournier, a 25-year-old American living in London, seeks out good news. She checks the news online a couple of times a week, honing in on small, positive grassroots movements that everyday people are making. “These few occurrences of inspiring and positive news are enough to keep me following,” she says.
2. Make time for fluff. Think the Kardashians are trivial and irrelevant? Think again. Penman recommends mixing hard news with showbiz gossip. “In the greater scheme of things it’s not that important, but if it makes you smile, who cares?” he explains.
3. Set a limit. Therese Borchard, author of The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit, believes having a routine and switching off electronic devices at a certain time every day helps. “I don’t look at my mobile phone after 7:30PM,” she says.
4. Breathe out bad news. It sounds simple, but if a news story is making you feel panicky, focus on something else by closing your eyes and concentrating on your breathing for five to 10 minutes. “It’s tremendously soothing and it gives you great perspective,” says Penman. He is a firm believer that just 10 minutes of daily meditation—breathing in while focusing on images of compassion and love—can help us dissolve the negativity of the news that surrounds us, as we breathe out.
- Amazon: The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
- “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet” by Rolf Dobelli
- University of Bradford: Dr. Pam Ramsden, lecturer in psychology
- Amazon: Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Danny Penman and Mark Williams
- Amazon: The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Kit by Therese Borchard