It has always been the case that bad news seems to get more airtime than good. But recently it seems like this has gone to the extreme, and tuning in could be taking a toll on your mental health. It’s not your imagination; our country and our world are facing some major challenges politically, culturally, economically, environmentally, etc. We hear of ceaseless war, climate change, terrorism, mass shootings, police brutality, worsening refugee crises, threats to democracy, and ever-increasing polarization in America. It’s hard not to feel anxious and depressed while reading the headlines.
Dealing with content of the news is one thing, but add to that the divisive and emotionally manipulative way in which it is often presented, and you’re bound to have a strong reaction. Here’s a little exercise in self-awareness you might try sometime. If you’re a Fox News fan, turn on MSNBC. If you’re a Rachel Maddow junkie, flip over to Tucker Carlson. Tune in to your body and notice what happens. Does your heart rate pick up, your face start feeling hot, your teeth clench? Now go back to your station of choice. Better? Doesn’t it feel good to have your opinions validated by the experts who really know what they’re talking about? This is by design. By using emotional arguments about things you deeply care about, these shows are able to tap into your emotional brain. They ramp up your fight or flight reaction (mostly fight probably) and that keeps you tuned in week after week and most importantly through all the ads.
So how should we manage this? I have two clients who have taken opposite approaches. One watches his favorite cable news talk show every morning before going to work and almost seems to enjoy getting fired up by hearing that what he thought was right all along. The other avoids the news at all costs. If a TV with the news is on, she leaves the room. She turns away from newspapers, avoids Facebook, listens to music only on the radio, and has stopped talking to her politically opinionated friends. I’m not sure either approach is really the best answer.
Being informed about current events is part of being a good citizen, especially if it leads to meaningful behavior changes. For example, because the public was paying attention to news reports that thousands of small children were being separated from their parents at the border, there was a massive public outcry, and the Trump administration changed its policy in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, exposing yourself to images and stories about all the horrible things happening in the world over and over again can have a real impact on mental health, especially for those already struggling with depression or anxiety. Below are a few questions to ask yourself about your media consumption that will hopefully lead to finding a good balance.
- How am I feeling as I consume this media? (It’s okay to be upset, but be aware.)
- If I’m getting angry, is it motivating me to take meaningful action, or am I being sucked in to wasting time on a pointless Facebook argument or into watching more TV?
- Am I being emotionally manipulated by the way this is being presented or I am I simply having a human reaction?
- Is this adding something valuable to my life or are there different, more meaningful ways I could be spending this time?