To stay informed, to listen, to do the “right thing” and acknowledge life’s uncomfortable truths over willful ignorance, we scan headlines religiously. We refresh our social media feeds. We drift off to sleep on our couches as the next major tragedy flashes onto our screens, heart-breaking testimony of eyewitnesses pulling the curtains on the day. We consume the raw grief, rage, crushing losses and indignation of other people daily, and then we turn the phone off or change the channel, powerless to remedy the problem. At least we’ve been educated, and we’ve born witness to somebody’s pain – but for many people, moving on with one’s routine is difficult. We’ve chosen education over ignorance. However, for many, the next commute to work, school or the grocery store is tinged with bitterness because of “news addiction.”
If this sentiment after consuming news media is familiar, you’re not alone. According to researchers from Texas Tech University, people who constantly scan headlines and follow the 24-hour news cycle are more likely to be of physically ill-being than those who choose to unplug. What’s more, the study found that keeping up with news and social media updates rather than tuning out after reading fuels a vicious negative cycle.
Each consumed post, article, podcast update and breaking news segment triggers release of dopamine in the brain, a chemical that makes up a human’s “fight or flight” response. Dopamine may be known as the ‘happy hormone’, but its influence extends to areas of the brain that control motivation, attention, mood and reward. The ‘reward’ we seek in the news is a solution to calm our mind, so we continue to scroll through articles, watch broadcasts, read social media posts and feed the negative cycle. The “fight or flight” response to perceived danger (in this case, distressing content) is intended to be a temporary mechanism to keep us alive. Humans were never designed to live in this elevated state of duress and alertness.
Psychologists have documented the phenomenon of “getting sick of the news” for years. Distressing footage leaked to social media of a gruesome tragedy, or even exposure to footage of major events, has been linked to the “second victim” effect: development of stress reactions consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, as seen in viewers following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A 2017 study about mental health and media reported that broadcasts about negative public affairs result in political distrust, a worsened world view, and feelings of futility. The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” comes to mind: we are wired to pay attention to misery and negativity (the ‘danger’.) Our bodies internalize the stress.
Considering the above facts of human psychology and physiology, it may be tempting to indulge in avoidance and refuse to consume news altogether – after all, we can’t stress over something we aren’t aware of, you might think – but this behavior doesn’t teach us to cope and live with our increasingly connected world, nor does it encourage moderation. Rather than catastrophize and feed a desire for a false sense of control, here is what you can do:
Set a timer for reading/watching the news and stay consistent with the rule. Make rules on how long to consume the content each day, or limit news consumption to three days per week. I also recommend limiting use of screens at night and sleeping earlier, as staying awake during the body’s circadian night is linked to increased occurrences of self-harm and even suicidal behavior. Put your phone down at the same time each night, and keep it away from arm’s reach of one’s bed.
Substitute time spend ‘doomscrolling’ social media with leisurely hobbies or productive activities. Passively consuming triggering content is a form of emotional self-harm. Shift your priorities to being mentally ‘present’ and focusing on what you can create, what you can experience, and what you can feel right now. Connect with friends, take a break, and prioritize your mental health.
Be mindful of what you consume: Pause and consider why you are reading, watching or listening to media. How are you feeling right now? How long have you read about a particular subject that day? What do you want to get out of reading the content – are you catastrophizing and consuming content that unproductively makes you feel bad?
We seek solutions, security and safety in a world full of unknowns. Consumption of news gives us insight into the realities of others, fostering empathy for people’s joys and sorrows. Find the control and answers you seek within your own relationships, activities and daily routine. Take action… or don’t. A break from the news is more productive and healthy than the alternative.
Author: Dr. Kasey Nichols is the president of the Arizona Naturopathic Medical Association (AzNMA), a professional organization of Naturopathic Doctors in the state of Arizona. The vision of AzNMA is to ensure the growth of naturopathic medicine through recognition and education. Dr. Nichols is a trained physician and specializes in mental health. His previous work experience includes two years in executive roles as the Director of Medical Operations at a national SUD treatment organization. During the past few years, he has presented to large professional groups, including the Kansas Bar Association on addiction-related issues. For more information about AzNMA, visit AZNMA.org.