If your phone is the first thing you look at in the morning, you will likely be greeted with news of national or international tragedy, tension, and strife. The unending accessibility to knowledge that comes with a connected world means that we can learn a vast variety of things, both wonderful and difficult, the moment these things happen. For most people, the constant cycle of distressing information can increase feelings of stress and worry, and for individuals already coping with anxiety, depression, or trauma related distress the consistent news can make already difficult thoughts and emotions feel worse. In this article we’ll discuss some strategies for coping during difficult times and ways to find the balance between staying up-to-date with current events and maintaining feelings of well-being.
How the News Impacts our Mental Health
It is important to stay informed as a member of a community, local, national, and global; however, our constant exposure to news often provides us with more information than necessary and often over-reports negative news findings . This means that when you look at your phone first thing in the morning or scroll social media just before going to bed you are likely consuming a lot of news about negative events (i.e. plane crashes, violent crime, political discord). The more often we see news of bad things happening, the more likely we are to feel that these things are the norm, even when actual rates of these events have been declining over time. As humans, we have a tendency, called the availability bias, to believe that information that is more easily recalled is more likely to be representative of reality. The risk of this bias is that when you are persistently exposed to news stories about scary or tragic events you are more likely to believe that these things are happening often. Looking over this cycle again it goes like this:
Wake up- read the news- the news is about scary or distressing things happening- stop reading the news- believe that the world is filled with similar scary or distressing events- return to the news while scrolling through social media throughout the day- exposure to more information or news about scary or distressing events which affirms our worries that the world is scary or distressing– go to bed and repeat.
If you are stuck in this cycle, it is understandable to feel anxious, depressed, or distressed as the information you are being provided disproprotionately shows us information to confirm our fears. While it may be tempting to quit cold turkey (and you certainly can if that works for you!), many people want to remain informed and will not stop watching the news all together. Here are some suggestions to find some balance between reading the news and engaging in other meaningful activities in your life. Finding this balance can be tremendously helpful to protect your mental health during uncertain times.
Break the New Consumption Cycle
Take a moment to consider the first time you are exposed to the news each day. For many it is while they are still in bed trying to wake up for the day. This first exposure can impact you for the rest of the day at a time of day where you might not feel ready to prepare yourself to learn distressing information. If you are already coping with anxiety or depression, seeing a negative news story first thing in the morning may confirm feelings of hopelessness or worry about the future that you may be trying to challenge. Alternatively, you may find that checking social media and seeing a stream of news from the day during work breaks makes you feel more stressed or worried going into the next meeting or work activity. Or you may find that you can’t put your phone down in the evening before bed-stuck in the news cycle that increases feelings of anxiety and distress. In any of these cases, it can be helpful to break the cycle of news consumption, especially the times that are particularly negatively impacting your mental health.
Some potential options for breaking the news cycle:
- Avoid your phone and other news carrying devices for 1 hour every morning– If you use your phone alarm clock, place your phone somewhere else in your room, away from the bedside table. Use this time to engage in a morning routine that works for you- making and drinking your coffee mindfully, journaling, chatting with your partner about the day ahead, or reading a book for pleasure. After the hour is up, you will be able to approach the news with increased feelings of groundness and readiness to hear the news without being overwhelmed by it.
- Replace your midwork social media scroll with a fun activity- you don’t have to avoid your phone to be able to take space away from the news. Play a phone game that is engaging and enjoyable, talk to a coworker about their weekend, step out of your office building (or your home if you WFH) and sit or take a stroll in nature, watch videos that always make you laugh. These activities not only help you to take time away from the news, but may also help you to feel more engaged and mindful of your break times.
- Keep your devices (and the news with them) out of the bed- like number 1, it can be valuable to keep devices that provide news updates, out of your bed. If you think it’s possible, try aiming for no devices at least 1 hour before bed! If this does not seem possible, notice when scrolling on social media in the evening goes from enjoyable to dreadful. Maybe a half-hour on your device gives you all the updates on the world and your friend’s lives that you need, for others it may be more or less. Once you know the amount of time that works for you, try sticking to limiting your news exposure to that time. Use the rest of your evening to connect with the people living with you, or possibly with pets or plants if you live alone. You can also try reflective journaling, reading a book, gentle movement, or any other activity of pleasure that is both calming and news free!
While these may be challenging habits to cultivate at first, breaking the cycle enables you to approach the news when you want to and when you feel ready to. This will likely help to limit the impact that even distressing news may have on your mental health.
Get in Touch with Your Values
During uncertain times, when many distressing events may be happening in your personal life, as well as on a national and international scale, it may feel easy to lose touch with what is important to you and become overwhelmed by feelings of dread or despair. When you begin to feel this way, it can be vitally helpful to take some time to reflect on your values and how you are currently engaging with your values in your life. Increased connection to values can help people to act in ways that feel meaningful and consistent with how they want to engage in the world around them.
Some possible values to identify:
- Connection with others
- Trusting others
- Ability to acknowledge what is and is not in your control
- To live in the present
- Value differences in opinions or beliefs
- To contribute to society
The list of possible values can continue, but the above values may feel particularly pertinent to times of stress and worry. Once you identify the values that are important to you, take some time to consider ways that you can increase engagement in activities that align with your values. For example, if number 7 “Value difference in opinions or beliefs” is a value for you, perhaps you may call a friend who has a different experience or perspective around current events. Current research suggests that taking actions that align with your values help to reduce depression symptoms and feelings of distress. 
Engage with Your Social Support System
Social relationships are vital in supporting your mental health in the best of times. The present research indicates that social support plays an important role in decreasing symptoms of anxiety and depression and supports overall mental health . However, during times of increased stress, including national or international crises, feelings of anxiety and depression may contribute to a tendency to isolate from social support. If you notice yourself withdrawing from important relationships, you are not alone. Finding ways of engaging with trusted people in your life can be vital to supporting your mental health. Take a moment to consider the people, and activities that you do with these people, that have helped you to feel connected and supported in the past. This may be family or friends, a group or individuals- any social setting that you notice has you feeling better when you leave than when you arrived. Next consider times in your schedule that you may be able to add in time with these social supports. For some this may be scheduling a virtual Zoom date, for others this may mean going back to weekly trivia with a group of friends. Regardless of what this may be, making time to be with your social supports, and finding time away from constant news exposure and reminders of stress, is a pivotal way to support your mental health during times of uncertainty.
Connecting with important social relationships may also help you to transform feelings of helplessness and despair into hope and possibility for change. If you have friends who share your feelings and experiences about certain challenges that you face on a local or global level, you can use your social relationships to build a network for activism, mutual aid, and advocacy for change. It may be intimidating to go to a protest or call your senator by yourself, but with your social supports you may feel better able to advocate for the changes in your community that materially affect your mental health.
Importantly, none of these suggestions entail turning off the news for good. While this may be an option for some, for most the information we learn on the news will have a major impact on important aspects of our lives. It is important to distinguish between staying informed and being constantly plugged into the day-to-day news of the world. For each person, the balance will look different; however, for everyone it is important to foster other important parts of your life that help you to feel supported even during uncertain times.
If you find yourself struggling with anxiety, depression, or trauma symptoms that may be exacerbated by world events, mental health treatment is another vital avenue to address these concerns. If this sounds like you, please reach out to me, Dr. Grace Waite, to schedule an appointment. Together we can explore your unique experience of living through uncertain and challenging times and work to find the balance that best supports your mental health.
 Toni G. L. A. van der Meer, Anne C. Kroon, Piet Verhoeven & Jeroen Jonkman (2019) Mediatization and the Disproportionate Attention to Negative News, Journalism Studies, 20:6, 783-803, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2018.1423632
 Bramwell, K., & Richardson, T. (2018). Improvements in depression and mental health after acceptance and commitment therapy are related to changes in defusion and values-based action. Journal of contemporary psychotherapy, 48(1), 9-14.
 Harandi, T. F., Taghinasab, M. M., & Nayeri, T. D. (2017). The correlation of social support with mental health: A meta-analysis. Electronic physician, 9(9), 5212–5222. https://doi.org/10.19082/5212