Media burnout and anxiety is becoming more common because people are feeling overwhelmed by negative media. Finding a balance involves staying informed about the issues that matter to us, limiting our intake and maintaining a healthy perspective. (Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes)
“The brains of humans contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.”— Daniel Kahneman
The year was 2016. Election fever was in the air.
I was glued to my TV and smartphone, devouring every sound byte and feature story that covered the US presidential elections. I split my time between listening to fierce debates between political pundits, and late night TV comedy shows where the hosts took jabs at the candidates.
Like everyone else in the world, I was at the edge my seat, waiting to see who would be the next leader of the free world. Watching the coverage of the two candidates battle it out like ruthless gladiators in a grand arena was exciting, but I could sense a gradual onset of fatigue developing from the media hyperbole. Getting hooked on headlines wasn’t my modus operandi!
In the middle of this maelstrom, I had the good fortune of attending a live seminar of Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker born with a rare disorder characterized by the absence of arms and legs. I asked him for his thoughts on how one can stay sane in the current climate. He recommended going on a media detox by withdrawing from the news, or curbing my consumption.
I took his advice and pulled back. Instead of being deeply invested in the news I skimmed it every alternate day. I was instantly relieved, and I could feel balance being restored in my life.
It seems that I wasn’t the only one adversely affected by the 2016 US elections. The American Psychological Association found that more than half of U.S. adults faced election-related anxiety, and struggled with post-election stress disorder no matter what their party affiliation was.
This harrowing experience sparked my interest in learning more about the repercussions of our unconscious consumption of news. It constantly bombards us at lightning speed on the TV, radio, newspapers, and even social media. Just like me, many people believe that staying informed is a vital part to their daily routine, but they fail to realize the negative emotional and physiological toll it can have on them if they aren’t discerning about what they’re taking in.
According to a Harvard Business Review study, when people watch just three minutes of negative news in the morning, there is a 27% likelihood of calling their day unhappy 6-8 hours later.
In another study done by NPR, and Harvard School of Public Health in 2014, 40% of respondents in a survey they conducted reported feeling stressed and anxious in the past month, citing the frequent consumption of news as a major contributing factor.
Experts say that the only way to protect our mental health when faced with the constant onslaught of 24 hours news, and never-ending social media feeds, is by becoming media literate. It’s important to understand that our news ecosystem has shifted dramatically over the last few decades.
In the past, information was relayed in digestible bits that people could easily consume. Power came from having access to as much information as possible. But, today it comes from knowing what news to listen to, and which to avoid in the crowded media space. Our minds are simply not built to process all the information accelerating towards us.
We have to understand that news coverage, in general, is heavily skewed to highlight the negative, generally focusing on discouraging stories such as natural disasters, celebrity gossip, crime reports and job losses. All broadcasters know that bad news sells. Guided by the selfish motive of profit, media outlets try to sensationalize news that plays on our fears.
If we aren’t objective when evaluating the news, we develop a biased perspective of a depressing and hopeless world that leaves us feeling despondent and drained.
Even though media burnout and anxiety is a legitimate concern, totally unplugging yourself and pretending that we’re living in a paradise is not the solution. As responsible members of the human race, we need to be strong enough to face the reality of what’s happening in the world so that we can actively find ways to contribute towards finding solutions.
Here are some ideas on how you can engage and consume news healthily without having to sacrifice your peace of mind and inner balance:
1. Only listen to media sources that you trust: Be selective about the media sources that you pay attention to. Now that there’s freedom of press, and almost everyone has the freedom to express their opinions, we need to be discerning about whom we choose to listen to. Quality is more important than quantity. Aim for news outlets that try to be as factual, and objective, as possible in order to receive a balanced view, as opposed to the sensationalized new stories that you find in tabloids. Respectable news is one that is solution-focused, and that creates positive vibes.
2. Decide what type of information you’re interested in, and how you consume news: There’s always a lot going on. You can’t possibly absorb all the headlines from every corner of the globe. Trying to do so will short-circuit your brain. If you suspect that you have an unhealthy media habit, it would be helpful to identify the cause and change your media habits. The initial step is to ask yourself what kind of information you really want to know about, what would inspire you, and what would make you feel good about the world. Based on your response, you can tailor your social media feed, tune into relevant TV and radio stations, and read relevant blogs.
3. Take it in measured doses: Because news sources are ubiquitous nowadays, it’s essential that we set limits on when and how much we need to satiate our curiosity, and make time for it only when we’re open to it, and free from distraction. For example, if you have a tough time falling asleep because you can’t get the news that you just watched off your mind, consider setting a news curfew where you avoid consuming news after 6pm. You can also shut off alerts, and read the news only at specific times during your day. Turn off the radio during your morning commute. Instead of listening to an angry radio talk show host, or a barrage of commercials trying to convince you to buy their stuff, listen to mood enhancing music.
4. Keep things in perspective: As you evaluate the news, it’s imperative to always keep things in perspective. While the media will always be inclined to highlight the tragedies and problems in the world, it’s up to us to balance it out with good news, and to make a conscious effort to acknowledge all the wonderful things that are out there. Avoid developing a distorted picture of the world where everything seems dismal.
What helps me stay grounded in my views is reading about historical events and biographies of influential figures such as Mandela, Lincoln and Churchill, who were able to stay resilient during oppressive times and come out triumphant. Reading real-life stories gives you a birds-eye view on historical trends which can be applied to modern times. These heroes didn’t know if things were going to turn out okay, but in the end, they did.
5.Think about what you can do to change things: Watching distressing news can lead to a psychological phenomena known as compassion fatigue. When you see people suffering it’s only human to feel the urge to reach out and help them, but if you lack a platform and the resources to do so, you can feel frustrated and helpless. That’s why a better way to stay informed is choosing niche news outlets that provide in-depth coverage of the issues that spark a strong emotional reaction in you, about things that you to which you can actually contribute in the real world.
The next time that you feel disillusioned after reading a headline, pick yourself up by remembering all the beauty and wonder in the world. Let it inspire you to do whatever you can to preserve it, and instigate progress. Knowledge is power, but when you accumulate the right kind of knowledge and put it to good use, it becomes turbocharged!
All my best on your journey,
Question: Have you ever been overwhelmed by negative media? If yes, what effect has it had on your life and sense of wellbeing?
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