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'Headline stress disorder': How to cope with the anxiety caused by the 24/7 news cycle

Breaking news is breaking us. Here's how to stay informed without damaging your mental health.
Image: Undocumented Immigrants Go To Court For Deportation Hearings
Being tuned in to the 24 hour news cycle may fuel a lot of negative feelings like anxiety, sadness and hopelessness. John Moore / Getty Images

As devastating stories about the migrant children separated from their parents continue to pour into our newsfeeds, many of us are horrified, yet unable to look away from it all. I’m typing this I have the TV news on and my social media tabs open. I’m half-writing and half-reading about President Donald Trump’s executive order to end his policy of separating families at the border, while out of the corner of my eye I’m watching Twitter and Facebook light up with notifications.

Wading through the flood of headlines, I feel overwhelmed and powerless — not unlike some of the clients that Julie Barthels, a licensed clinical social worker and co-author of “Resilience Revolution: A Workbook for Staying Sane in an Insane World,” has been seeing lately.

“The last few days I’ve had [sessions] with people struggling with what is going on in our country,” Barthels tells NBC News BETTER. “It's a combination of terror that this happening and the feeling of powerlessness, which I think is the hardest part in all this.”

Though it can feel like we’re giving up on a moral cause to come up for air, it’s critical that we take breaks from the bombardment of news, for the sake of our sanity. “I’m encouraging those distressed about this to limit how much social media and news media they’re watching right now as a way to dial down the distress.”

A study by the American Psychological Association released last year found that two-thirds of Americans are stressed out over the future of the country, and the constant consumption of news cycle was pinned as a major contributor. Dr. Steven Stosny, a therapist coined the term “headline stress disorder” in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

“Being tuned in to the 24 hour news cycle may fuel a lot of negative feelings like anxiety, sadness and hopelessness,” says Dr. Jana Scrivani, a clinical psychologist. “Subjecting ourselves to an endless barrage of tragedies and trauma can foster a real sense of being out of control. So, how do you remain informed about current events while maintaining your mental health?” Here, mental health experts offer their best tips for staying engaged, but sane during a particularly tough news cycle.

11 Ways to Combat News Anxiety

Set Firm Time Limits — And Use An Actual Timer

You know how we set time limits for our kids around screen time? Well, we may consider implementing similar policies in our own lives regarding the news. Weena Cullins, a marriage and family therapist recommends setting your alarm. “It might sound strange, but without [a timer] you may find yourself plummeting down a rabbit hole of never-ending information. Set an alarm on their nearest device prior to surfing sites that have news stories. Some people realize that they have a tipping point — when too much news digestion impacts their sleep, their work productivity, or their interactions with their significant other and loved ones. Toy around with different time limits to find your sweet spot. Whether it’s five minutes or an hour a day.”

Wait a While To Consume News When It Breaks

When disaster strikes, we’re all the more likely to stay glued to the TV or our Twitter feeds to get updates. But this is actually the time when we should be tuning out a bit. “Remember that it takes awhile to get all of the facts straight, and that's it best to wait awhile to check out the news,” says Dr. Scrivani. “Reading or watching reports on half truths and speculation will only serve to increase anxiety and stress levels.”

Make An Effort To Get Good News, Too

Between political upheavals, natural disasters, and the constant influx of #metoo stories, the news is often pretty dark. Make sure you lighten up the load by also consuming good news. “Without a doubt, there are frightening things going on in the world; however, it's important to remember that bad news does not make up the sum total of a day's events,” says Dr. Scrivani, who recommends Good News Network for a quick boost of positive stories.

Pick Up A Paper, Not Facebook — You’ll Get A Better Balance

We tend to read most of our news online, but Dr. Deborah Searcy, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, with a PhD in Organizational Behavior, suggests taking the old school approach of reading a print paper. “You will [still] get the headlines, but on page two or seven, you will also find a positive story that will lower your stress levels. If you don't feel like reading, I would suggest watching the local newscast at five or 8 pm. It covers both national news but also local stories with lower overall emotion.”

You Don’t Have To Talk About It If You Don’t Want To

“Sometimes we can feel trapped or forced into a conversation about things that are occurring in the news when we are approached by friends, coworkers or strangers; however we always have a choice,” says Cullins. “Let people know that you’re interested in having conversation but need to limit it to break time or lunch time, so that it doesn’t bring your mood down. My clients who have tried this discovered that their admission helped other people acknowledge that they too were talking too much about the news and were negatively impacted by it. If you do find yourself in conversations related to the ‘bad news,’ make an effort to end the conversation on a positive fact. Plan to spend at least one to two minutes discussing something enjoyable or positive to add balance to a potentially negative discussion.”

No News Before Bed

Want to get a quick update on world events before you call it a night? Don’t do it. You’ll only risk having an anxious night, and typically it can wait until the morning. “I recommend never checking the news before bed,” says Dr. Traci W. Lowenthal, a psychologist and gender therapist. “The truth is, you'll still get information through friends and social media, but in shorter, manageable bursts. If something significant happens in the world, you will still hear [about] it."

Start The Day With An Uplifting Podcast

Listening to the news on your morning drive to work? Consider mixing it up.

“Starting the day with bad news can truly impact your productivity and your mood,” says Cullins. “Instead choose to listen to a podcast or audiobook that relaxes or inspires you. Listening to information that highlights acts of humanitarianism, bravery and social/technological advancement can combat feelings of fear and pessimism.”

If You Need to, Delete Social Media Apps From Your Phone

This is going to be painful, but they’re Dr. Scrivani’s orders. Too often we open Twitter or Facebook to post a selfie or check on what a friend is up to and before we know it, we’re reading a terrifying story about North Korea.

Cut Off Completely for a Bit

If you’re really feeling overwhelmed by the news, you may want to disconnect completely from all news outlets for a period of time. Barthels recommends appointing a trusted friend to notify you if something is going on that you need to know about. "‘Need to know’" is defined as any event or occurrence that the client needs to know professionally, an event they can respond to in a meaningful way, or an event that brings immediate physical risk to the client,” says Barthels. “This approach has been successful with many of my clients.”

Have Some Perspective and Don’t ‘Catastrophize’

The news in the U.S is awfully bad lately, but remember that historically, times have been worse. “Often we feel like the situation (news/politics/world events) going on right now are the ‘worst’ they have ever been and we fail to remember other times in history,” says Anna Baker a psychology professor at Bucknell University. “Hindsight is 20/20 and perspective taking is key. Often we lose perspective and engage in cognitive errors such as catastrophizing.”

Surely, we shouldn’t discount the bad things that are happening, nor should we kick back and wait for it to pass if there is something we can be doing to make a difference. But we also need to recognize what is and isn’t within our control. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s going on in the news is out of our hands, and sometimes we must remind ourselves of that so that we can stay sane and work on what is within our power.

“By worrying about things that are out of our control, we are just wasting time,” says Baker. “By taking a step back and examining the real impact of the situation and what you can control, we see that worrying often isn't going to actually change anything except make us feel miserable. Focus on what you can do.”

If You Can’t Help These Kids, Help Other Kids

“‘I just want to get in my car and drive to Texas’ is what one patient told me,” says Barthels. “But we may not be able to help these kids [specifically] in a hands-on way. And so, this tragedy can cause us to look for other opportunities where we be of service. That’s what will help with the feeling of powerlessness. Look for what you can do in your area. Is there a foster care center in your community you can help? Call agencies that service this population and say, ‘How can I be of support?’ Imagine the impact we could have if everyone were to take this powerlessness and funnel it into doing something? That’s power.”


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