OK, relax. I’m not suggesting burying your head in the sand or going into denial. I’ve spent much of my career working in TV news broadcasting, have hosted two podcasts, written blogs extensively, so I’m not indicting the media. I’m focusing on how to use news to improve your mood.
The truth – wait, that’s a lovely thought – the truth is it’s difficult to know what’s true these days, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems that what we hear depends on who you are listening to or reading, what their agenda is, how they will benefit politically and/or economically.
Numbers can lie and are continuously interpreted as needed. Headlines are meant to grab your attention through your emotions and to increase your personal worry. The sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones of cortisol and adrenaline, are actually activated by consumption of news, leading to symptoms of anxiety, fatigue, depression, and sleeplessness.
One study in 2011 in the British Journal of Psychology found that watching negative news led to anxiety and sad mood after only watching 14 minutes of news bulletins and programs. In another study following 9/11, watching repeated news coverage triggered PTSD symptoms. And in yet another study, repeated media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings was associated with acute stress.
From disaster reporting and negative words that are powerful for catching your insecurities, to fear, urgency and scarcity that tap into the emotion center in your brain, the amygdala, to override your sound information processing, to using familiar or unexpected patterns of wording that the brain’s hippocampus and parietal lobe are great at predicting, comparing and processing, and to using language with distinctive subtexts, stress and frustration are powerfully addicting emotional magnets. When you realize that much of the media model is anchored in “attention economics,” you better understand the need to hook people into attending to their broadcasts. But it comes at a cost to you of anxiety, fear and depression.
In a recent KFF poll, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. No doubt, the information flow we absorb daily, especially with more time at home to do so, impacts our thinking, our emotions and our behaviors. Experts tell us that “over-consumption” of news can take a toll on physical, emotional and mental health.” There is no longer a 24-hour news cycle. It is now minute-by-minute, if not more quickly.
We do have a civic responsibility to be informed, indeed, it is important for our safety, but this seems to come at a cost to our wellbeing. So how can we be healthier consumers of news and avoid the coronavirus stress syndrome or the headline stress syndrome? Here are six methods:
1. Stay uninformed of emotion grabbing, negative, brain taxing non-information. This means becoming a better consumer of reliable information, as opposed to non-information. It’s ok to take a break from sustained exposure to stress-inducing “news.” An alternative to this type of emotionally harming news is what two researchers, Karen McIntyre, Ph.D. and Cathrine Gyldensted refer to as “constructive journalism.” They tell us, “We have […] defined constructive journalism as ‘journalism that involves applying positive psychology techniques to news processes and production in an effort to create productive and engaging coverage while holding true to journalism’s core functions.’” The aim of this type of news is to counterbalance the skewed portrayal of the world produced by classical news journalism.
2. Comcast data shows a whopping 64% increase in consumption of news programming since the start of COVID-19. Since the beginning of April, Comcast found consumption has leveled off to about a 30% increase. It makes sense to limit your consumption each day. How much do you really need to know? Will any of the information that you just saw or heard actually make any good difference in your life? What are you hoping to derive from all of the contradictory, negative news?
3. Before and after watching, check in on how you are feeling. If you feel triggered with feelings of panic, fear, worry, anxiety or sadness, how’d having the information, and more likely non-information, help you? It didn’t. It helped the broadcasters.
4. Check out a “good news” resource such as https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org , https://www.sunnyskyz.com/good-news , http://dailygood.org , or https://www.huffpost.com/impact/topic/good-news for uplifting stories covering a wide range of topics. Hear that unemployment is at 15%? Remind yourself that the employment rate is 85%. Use the positive frame around whatever you hear that’s negative.
5. Become more conscious of how you consume information and avoid blind watching or hearing. Actively check facts, and remember whenever you hear that negative spin, and it’s continuous, ask yourself how else you can spin that story. Shows that depict violence, exploitative, sensationalizing bad events are those to avoid now.
6. Write your own news stories, review them and be your own news anchor. What went right in your life so far today? What can go well later on in the day? “In other news today, my car brakes safely stopped my car at the intersection, the shower water stayed hot, and I had a lovely breakfast at home.”
The next time you turn on the news, be sure you’ve prioritized your wellbeing, be certain the channel you switch to reflects “constructive journalism,” so that you can properly care for yourself and maybe even be inspired and uplifted to contribute something positive to our world. If the news you’re hearing doesn’t do that, it’s time to find another channel. Can’t find any that do that? Your own news might just be the answer to help you feel better.