Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By: Sarah DeSantis, LCSW
You wake up in the morning, start drinking your coffee, and are preparing for work with the news broadcasting in the background. You overhear the newscaster talking about the economy, crime, bad weather, war, politics, etc… Next thing you know, your heart is beating a little faster and you have a pit in your stomach and you don’t even know why.
As humans, we are constantly seeing and hearing things and then we automatically process those things.
We store information in our brains like file cabinets. For example, on the news, you may hear about a local bank robbery which then gets stored in your brain in the “things to fear” file cabinet. You probably thought little of it at the time but the next thing you know, you are being a bit more hypervigilant when you’re going to the bank.
Now, to be clear, it’s extremely important to take safety precautions; but for some people, it can turn to the extreme, even avoiding the bank altogether.
As a child, I remember hearing in the news about a child abduction that occurred in a white van. This was so scary to me and it became even more important that I take safety precautions (e.g., walk home from school with another person). I noticed my anxiety increase when I saw white vans that “looked” suspicious. My mind filed away what the news suggested was something to fear – child abductions in a white van. And that was valid – to a certain point.
It’s understandable to experience fear/anxiety around stressful events getting reported in the news. For me, however, it wasn’t necessary to be on guard 24/7 about being kidnapped. The probability of being abducted by a stranger in a white van was extremely low although my fear was extremely high. The news prompted me to think it occurred more often than it did.
In his book, “The culture of fear: why Americans are afraid of the wrong things,” author Barry Glassner writes, “It is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk.” The news is a primary source where we hear about what is dangerous and what isn’t.
What the news doesn’t tell you
You see on the news that an airplane crashed and killed multiple people. This is devastating and very scary. You watch 2-3 hours of news on this story, why? The news has a vested interest in keeping you dialed into this story. Simply put, media stations make money by capturing viewers’ attention and selling that attention to advertisers. It’s in the station’s best interest to share news stories in a provocative, sensationalized, emotion-evoking manner because that is the secret sauce to keeping you glued to their channel.
Perhaps a few weeks after binge-watching the plane crash story, you experience intense anxiety and panic prior to boarding a flight. You end up not getting on the plane. Your mind convinces you that airplanes are something to be feared. While flying can be scary – especially when we experience extra turbulence – is flying something to be panicked about?
This kind of fear may be the consequence of our brain confusing what’s possible with what’s probable. What the news isn’t sharing with you is the thousands and thousands of flights that take off year after year, with no safety issues at all. Of course, it’s possible something dangerous could happen when we fly, and that’s scary. But is a life-threatening scenario likely? No. In fact, aviation is considered the safest form of long-distance travel.
The news and other social media platforms have the power to change the way we think, sleep, eat, and interact with others. Although, the news can be a great resource in many ways; watching the news goes beyond simply obtaining factual information. You may be receiving factual information, but is the news source giving you ALL of the information?
What to do about it
When do you know that the news is impacting your mental health in an unhealthy/unhelpful way? How can you tell the difference between taking safety precautions/being vigilant and being hyper-vigilant?
Warning signs the news is having a negative impact on your mental health:
- Spending a lot of time consuming the news. This may also look like spending more time than intended, unaware of how much time is spent (losing time); or others commenting on the amount of news you consume.
- Experiencing increased relationship conflict because you are combative in conversations about the news you learned.
- Mood disturbance – you feel more angry, irritable, anxious, and/or sad than usual
- Increased avoidance of doing daily tasks or fun things such as running errands, going on an airplane, going to the movies, or leaving your house altogether
- Your life is more difficult because of the news you learned (e.g., choosing a much more lengthy travel method due to avoiding a flight out of fear)
- Experiencing panic related to news stories. Panic symptoms may include chest tightness, heart racing, difficulty breathing, restlessness, dissociation, numbness in hands or feet, or brain fog
- Frequently needing reassurance or someone to be with you
- Being overly vigilant about your surroundings
- Often checking for danger (e.g., observing and analyzing each person who walks through the door at the grocery store)
- Searching for exits or an escape route many places you go
- Jumping to worse case scenarios more often than not
Ways to cope with anxiety over the news:
If you recognize the behaviors and symptoms described above, there are a few things you can do. First, connect with a local therapist who specializes in the area you’d like to change (e.g., treatment of anxiety/panic disorder, mood disorders, relationship challenges). If you are not ready to attend therapy, here are some tips:
- Track how much time you spend consuming news (radio, podcasts, social media, news articles, news shows, etc). Once you know for sure how much time is devoted to news media, ask yourself if there’s a different way (a more life-enhancing way) to do with that time?
- Take a break from the news or limit your time watching the news media.
- Add more content to conversations. If you are someone who discusses current events in almost all dialogue, try adding other topics of conversation (e.g., talk about hobbies, interests, travel, funny stories etc.)
- Know your triggers. Start by making a list of things that cause the most stress. Awareness is extremely important!
- Check the facts. Ask yourself “am I confusing feelings with facts?” (e.g., I feel scared therefore something must be scary) or ask yourself “am I confusing what’s possible with what’s likely?”
- Confront avoidance. It is recommended to begin to confront avoidance with the assistance of a licensed mental health professional. Confronting avoidance can lead to an increase of anxiety at first (because you are coming face-to-face with something that scares you).
- Try some grounding techniques:
- Hold ice
- Deep breathing
- Name five things you can see around you; four things you can touch; three things you can hear; two things you can smell; one thing you can taste
- Eat something sour!
- Keep an object (such as a paperclip or fidget spinner) in your pocket and play with it
- Ask a loved one for support
It’s true that events occurring around world can be overwhelming. Watching the news can make it FEEL even scarier.
If you notice that the news is negatively impacting your quality of life and mental health, reach out to schedule an appointment. We’d be happy to help!
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