Keeping disturbing news from disrupting our mental health

Illustration by Georgia Scott

Is no news good news? Or is bad news good news? According to the BBC, the Russian newspaper The City Reporter stated that it lost two-thirds of its readers after publishing only good news for one day in 2014.

So why are readers more interested in negative news? This is due to the negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect. The theory is that one’s state of mind is affected more deeply psychologically by occurrences of a more negative nature rather than neutral or positive occurrences. 

The same theory can be applied to the sentiment on the Ukraine crisis. As reported by Time, people are not only watching the crisis through traditional news sources, but also through social media like TikTok videos, Instagram stories, and tweets. These social media posts are increasingly personal and raw, with videos of the warzone up close. Now, TikTok videos tagged with #ukrainewar have been viewed more than 1.8 billion times. But what are the consequences of constantly consuming negative news?

Even though these graphic posts enable more people to be aware of Ukraine’s crisis, the news coverage of traumatic events can affect the viewers’ mental health. Gerard Jacobs, director emeritus of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at the University of South Dakota, commented in an article by Time that unexpected events which are “large in magnitude or particularly deadly” are likely to “trigger stress responses.”

Some social media platforms offer the option to add content warnings to posts that may be disturbing. Screenshot: Twitter.

The news coverage employs an increasingly emotive, visual, and shocking tone. With the recent tide of global conflicts, commentaries and news reports are often negative, accompanied by videos. With news sites increasing their reach by posting on social media, people can access the news anywhere and anytime.

Photo by Unsplash

A study by Johnston and Davey investigated the effect of emotional news content on mood state and catastrophizing personal worries. The results indicated that participants who watched the negative news bulletins showed increases in anxiety, sadness, and the catastrophization of personal worries. The implications of this study highlight the dangers of consuming negative news and its detrimental effects on our mental health.

Now, our world is riddled with conflict: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, gun violence in the United States, and the Myanmar military coup, amongst others. More and more people, especially the youth, access news related to these conflicts through social media, which news sites report daily. Personal, raw, and emotionally charged videos of events can be distributed quickly and widely through social media, and these posts can trigger stress responses from their viewers.

Research carried out by the University of California, Los Angeles examined whether media exposure to collective trauma triggers an acute stress response. They also compared the impact of media exposure to direct exposure (witnessing a traumatic event).

Through an Internet-based survey, almost 5000 adults from Boston and New York were sampled. Results indicated that repeatedly engaging with trauma-related media content for several hours daily may “prolong acute stress experiences.” The implication is that media coverage following collective traumatic experiences can diffuse acute stress widely and may become a “conduit” that spreads negative consequences of community trauma to third parties.

Even bite-sized media such as graphic media images have been proven to affect our psyche. Similar studies have been conducted to examine the psychological and physical health impacts of exposure to graphic media images. Findings showed that exposure to graphic media images may result in “physical and psychological effects previously assumed to require direct trauma exposure.” This research suggests that not only our mental health but also our physical health can be negatively influenced by news coverage of traumatic events.

How can we prevent this? Trying to strike a balance between being informed about current affairs and not being bombarded by the continuous stream of information is a tricky task—especially when our social media feed is flooded with negative news. 

Here are some tips and tricks to manage your stress:

You can invest in apps to limit your time on social media. Some apps (paid and unpaid) allow you to implement controlled screen time on your phone with cute functions to motivate you to keep your phone put away. Working in the newsroom being surrounded by the daily onslaught of negative news can be emotionally exhausting. Thus, limiting your time reading negative news in your downtime can help to lessen the stress from doom scrolling. 

In an interview with N3Magazine, Zela Chin, a principal reporter at Pearl Magazine, shares her tips on destressing after a shift. “When I get home, I like to unwind by watering my plants. I love watching my plants grow. I also like to listen to classical music, especially the works of Sergei Rachmaninov. If I have a free weekend evening, I will attend an HK Philharmonic concert at the cultural center. I find classical music to be very relaxing and soothing. If I finish work early enough, I will squeeze in a pilates class into my day. Exercise is another good way to de-stress.”

Another good tip is to practice good stress management such as regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and proper nutrition. According to an article by Michael Ziffra, MD, a Northwestern Medical Group psychiatrist on their company website “consistent and sound stress management practices can be an easy and effective way to mitigate news anxiety.” 

Also, you can seek a safe space and find others for comfort. Reaching out to others and sharing your feelings is an effective way to de-stress and make you feel supported. When you surround yourself with positive energy, you will naturally feel lighter and less stressed.

If you don’t work in a newsroom, develop a routine of checking the main news 3 times a day, if you do consider doing this on your days off. And turn off push notifications from news sites if appropriate.

The key takeaway here is to find a balance. Our world is constantly evolving and bombarded with change—be it negative or positive. Staying on top of the news regarding global conflicts, for example, is necessary, but taking care of our mental and physical health takes priority.