Let me be very clear: No matter how stressful the news cycle can be, it’s of the utmost importance that we all stay informed. There is nothing wise about being willfully ignorant when it comes to current events, global news, and the overall state of our nation. That said, constant exposure to negative news isn’t doing our mental health any favors.
In fact, a recent poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that Americans from all over the political spectrum are significantly stressed out right now. Of the 1,000 Americans polled back in January, 70 percent of participants said they were on edge about the future of the country, and nearly 60 percent linked their stress to our nation’s current political climate. If all of this sounds way too familiar to you, then it might be time to take a step back from the news cycle.
Whether your work involves keeping up with the news or you happen to have some of the most politically active Twitter engagement out there, it can feel like the 24-hour news cycle is literally following us around nowadays. But it’s still totally possible to take a step back from the news without becoming uninformed.
Clinical psychologist and award-winning podcaster Ellen Hendriksen agreed to speak with Bustle about how constant exposure to the news can mess with our overall well-being. Hendriksen has dedicated more than one episode of her podcast, Savvy Psychologist, to coping with news overload and post-election stress. Here are just a few signs you need to cut back on your news intake, followed by her expert advice on how to do it. Good luck!
You're Experiencing Physical Signs Of Anxiety In Response To The News
If today's news stories have you worried about your civil rights or your safety (or both), then your body could start seeing the news as a very real danger. As Hendriksen puts it, "If you're of a demographic or a belief system that is being targeted, the news can be a threat." Unsurprisingly, when we start to perceive the news as a threat, our body's fear response kicks in to protect us.
Hendriksen says that while "fight or flight" is awesome for keeping us alive, it's not super useful when there's a 24-hour news cycle keeping us in chronic stress. Additionally, since "fight or flight" prepares our bodies to either run away or Hulk out, physical symptoms are always part of the package. As Hendriksen explains, "Our blood rushes to our major muscle groups so that we can run or fight, we become hyper-vigilant so we can scan the environment and see where the threat is coming from, we lighten our load by having to go to the bathroom so we can be more nimble or run faster, and we hyper-focus on the thing that could be a threat." Hendriksen also points out that chronic stress can cause things like a tight jaw, sore neck or shoulders, GI problems, sleeping difficulties, and difficulty concentrating.
Another physical sign of anxiety that you should be mindful of is a tendency to hold your breath whenever you're scrolling through social media or checking the news. If the news makes you so anxious that you literally stop breathing, that's a clear indicator that you need to cut back on your news intake.
You're Having Burnout Symptoms
I don't know about you, but I definitely started to burn out on news coverage near the end of the 2016 election cycle. In fact, I was so exhausted and discouraged by the end of the election that I didn't even leave my apartment the day after the election. Even though I'm passionate about politics, writing so many news stories left me mentally and physically worn out. Whether you're a journalist, a professor, or simply a well-informed citizen on social media, then you can probably empathize with me on this.
Hendriksen says the three cardinal signs of burnout are fatigue, resentment, and working harder while achieving less. So if any of that sounds like your current relationship with all things news-related, then you're probably burning out on news coverage. According to Hendriksen, this means you need to start paying closer attention to what drains your energy and what replenishes it. Once you've got that figured out, Hendriksen says you should "try to alternate energy-draining activities with energy-replenishing activities." Hendriksen recommends working in as many energy-boosting activities as possible, but she says it's equally important to "minimize the energy-draining activities to what you need to do, but no more than that."
You're Actively Avoiding Social Media And Family Gatherings
As Hendriksen puts it, "Dread is just another word for anxiety, so that's certainly a warning sign that you're not feeling safe." So if you've been dreading dinner with your relatives or you're literally afraid to check your Facebook these days, our nation's current political climate is making you feel unsafe.
While I totally understand how hiding from people can seem like a good idea when you're feeling threatened, it's just not the greatest long-term solution. Plus, as Hendriksen points out, "Our brains always make things worse than they actually are... the dread and the anxiety is almost always worse when you're anticipating."
So instead of avoiding Easter dinner at Grandma's this year or deleting your Facebook account, Hendriksen suggests answering all the "what ifs" that might be worrying you. Whether you fear getting trapped into a political conversation with your uncle or you just don't want to see another hate-filled status pop up in your news feed, figure out exactly what you're afraid of. This way, you can come up with a few options for dealing with whatever it is that you're dreading. As Hendriksen explains, "If you can plan to engage with the thing that you're dreading, that can be very soothing because then you have a plan of action... It kind of reminds your brain that you can deal with this, that you're capable."
You Just Want Everyone To Stop Talking To You About The News
Personally, I've grown so weary of talking about the news that I barely feel like discussing it with my likeminded peers, much less my conservative loved ones. If you can relate, then it might be time for both of us to learn how to set boundaries around political conversations. According to Hendriksen, the best way to do this is to "have an idea in your head about where your personal boundaries lie... Think ahead about what you're willing to listen to, what your patience can stand, what is healthy for you, and what topics might be OK to talk about."
If you're in a large group when politics come up, there's nothing wrong with simply removing yourself from the conversation. If, however, you're stuck in a small group, or your uncle's cornered you into discussing Trump's refugee ban, know that it is possible to change the subject without starting an argument.
"There's a technique called the sandwich method, where you give a compliment and then you give your constructively critical feedback, and then you wrap up with another compliment," Hendriksen explains. "You can do a similar thing with trying to change the subject — so give a compliment, and then change the subject to something that you're more comfortable with that flatters them." So, for example, you could give your Uncle props for being informed about Trump’s refugee ban, and then immediately ask him how his kids/pets/partner(s) are doing.
It Feels Impossible To Cut Back On Your News Intake
While it's important to stay informed on current events, we've already established that the news can be bad for both our physical and mental health. On top of that, studies show that overdoing it on the news can hinder creativity. The problem is, even if you want to cut back on your news intake, it's just not that easy to do nowadays. Political conversations dominate social media, news alerts pop up on our phones, and it seems like there's always at least one TV playing CNN or Fox News when we go out to eat. As Hendriksen puts it, "There is a certain amount [of news] that we absorb just by walking through the world."
So if you want to cut back on the news without becoming a full-time hermit in the process, Hendriksen says you should filter, or at least limit, what you can control. "News is like a fish that grows as big as the tank you put it in," Hendriksen says. "If our whole day is open to absorbing news through email or alerts or whatever, then it's going to take up a lot of time and a lot of headspace."
Rather than checking the news every hour, Hendriksen suggests designating a couple of brief news check-ins throughout your day. Hendriksen also advises against checking your phone for news alerts first thing in the morning, since waking up to bad news could easily set a negative tone for your entire day. That said, if you feel like you might benefit from a total news fast, that's completely fine also. "It's certainly OK to unplug and focus on things you value and enjoy, just to get it out of your system," Hendriksen says. So there you have it — permission to do whatever you need to protect your mental health.