How Exposure to the News Can Impact Your Mental Health

How Exposure to the News Can Impact Your Mental Health

The news you consume affects your mental health and well-being. You may think that you’re desensitized or numb to it, but very few humans are—everything we consume, on social media, through media outlets, or hear on our daily commutes has an impact on our nervous systems.

Rather than being a passive participant in the collective trauma we continue to expose ourselves to, with mindless scrolling and hours of binging on the news, let’s be more mindful consumers.

First and foremost, it is important to be informed. We need information about the world around us in order to take action, connect with others and make changes. However, research shows that repeated exposure to fear-inducing news stories, gruesome images and traumatic experiences affects our mood, anxiety, relationships and well-being.

We’ve never had more access to the news as it is happening through social media and livestreams. When in history have we seen war in real-time from the accounts of those living through these moments?

While this is so impactful to taking action, we need to be aware of how much is too much for our mental health.

Here’s why:

Consuming the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes your body to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Some of the most common symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, depression, and trouble sleeping.

Studies have shown that after just 14 minutes of passive exposure to the news, there was an increase in both anxious and sad moods from viewing television news bulletins and programs.

It can be difficult to find a balance between being an informed consumer of current events and not becoming overwhelmed by them, but it’s possible with a little more mindfulness.

How to be a Mindful Consumer

  1. Bring awareness to your daily habits around social media and news consumption. Do you check your phone before leaving bed in the morning, is your habit to turn on the news before you’ve had your morning cup of coffee? Is it background “noise” during your daily commute? Don’t judge yourself, remember we’re all trying to stay informed. Rather, start to notice when and where you’re viewing or listening to news.
  2. Observe how you feel before and after news consumption. Are you more tense, anxious or reactive after checking your news alerts? It’s common for this exposure to put you on high alert, even if you feel that you’ve been desensitized to it, your body and brain really haven’t. Each time we see or hear something traumatic it doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other, it stays in our nervous system, often in our subconscious mind, and impacts our mood, anxiety and sense of safety.Note this does not mean that we should turn off all the media and put on our rose-colored glasses—we need to be informed, we just need to be mindful about how to do so.
  3. Make time to check the news. Don’t let the alerts or the urges to constantly be up-to-date interfere with the present moment and take you down a path of doom and gloom. For most humans, checking the news first thing in the morning (or your email and social media) sets the tone for the day. However, you can shift it. Perhaps put your phone across the room (or out of the room and get an alarm clock) to prevent you from consuming the news before you’ve started your day. Make time to listen or watch the news after you’ve gotten ready and have time to process the information that’s being reeled at your nervous system.
  4. Take breaks to reset your nervous system after being activated. If you’ve been triggered by a story and notice that you’re scared, anxious, tense or angry, do something to regulate. For some of us that means movement, such as going for a walk or engaging in intense exercise in your home for a few minutes (think pushups, jumping jacks, or running up the stairs a few times). While other people may need to ground themselves and connect, while turning on the parasympathetic response of safety. This can look like sitting on the floor, connecting with nature or listening to a guided meditation.
  5. Monitor your screen time. You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t really watch the news that much.” But do you spend hours on social media? If so, start to notice how you feel before you open the app versus when you stop. Use your settings to monitor how much time you’re spending and decide if it’s the best use of your time.

Another factor to consider, for parents, even if your child is aware of the traumatic events occurring in the world, we know that passive exposure (news in the background, parents talking about it, or seeing images) can be even more problematic. Their brains are simply not equipped to process all of this and it results in increased anxiety, avoidance of activities they used to find joy in, anger or aggression, as well as difficulty sleeping (nightmares and or night terrors). Be mindful of what you’re consuming when children are present.

All of us have different limits and experiences in the world, therefore it’s up to you to decide what and how much news you need to be informed versus overwhelmed. It’s my hope that you become a bit more mindful of how your media consumption impacts your mental health.

Authored by:  Emily Roberts, MA, LMHC