As we watch the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine play out, have you found yourself increasingly glued to the news, unable to focus on much else?
You wouldn’t be alone…
Watching the horrors of the crisis unfold from behind our screens can leave us all feeling powerless to help.
But whilst it’s important that we stay informed – and do everything we can to help – compulsively consuming upsetting photos and videos like this does no one any favours and can end up having a very real impact on our mental wellbeing.
The psychological effects of the news – how can upsetting news impact us?
Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary trauma, happens when we are exposed – usually on an ongoing basis – to trauma in the lives of other people. This usually happens either by witnessing it (e.g. disturbing videos and images) or by being told about it.
Even though we may recognise that it draws no comparison to that of the person living through the experience, our mind and body are unable to tell the difference.
Of course, staying informed is important. No one is saying that we should be cutting our connection to what’s happening completely. But as with all things in life, moderation is key. And this is especially important if you are someone who is naturally more sensitive or who struggles with anxiety on a day-to-day basis.
When is watching the news bad for your health?
This is largely dependent on our own vulnerabilities and how much negative news we are consuming.
As humans, we actually have a natural tendency to be drawn to negative news. This is often called the “negativity bias” and it refers to the idea that we are predisposed to pay more attention to adverse events than we do to positive ones. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense… Looking out for threats is what helped to keep us alive. By scanning our environment for what could go wrong, we were able to both protect ourselves in the moment and strategise ahead.
It soon becomes clear why “doom scrolling” is so addictive. On the one hand, it can provide us with a sense of being in control in moments that feel very out of control. But it also has a protective quality about it. It serves as a way of gathering as much information as possible to both assess our own safety and strategise ahead for anything that may happen.
But it can also lead us down a rabbit hole of negativity which can feel very overwhelming. Ultimately, it’s about finding a balance between staying informed and tuning in to how we are feeling.
Watching the news and anxiety – what steps can we take?
Set yourself defined limits around how much time you spend on social media/the news – for example, give yourself half an hour a day to catch up on what’s happening so you can stay up to date without spiralling down an anxiety-provoking rabbit hole.
Choose reliable sources – try leaning towards the traditional newspapers rather than relying on the algorithms of social media as they have a code of ethics and a legal responsibility to tell the truth.
Slow, deep breathing – slow, deep breathing is a powerful way of giving your parasympathetic nervous system a jump-start (promoting calm in both the mind and body). When things feel overwhelming, try the following exercise:
- Breathe in for 4 secs
- Hold your breath for 7 secs
- Exhale breath for 8 secs
- Repeat several times
Avoid reading the news close to bedtime – reading negative news just before bedtime can spark anxious thoughts making it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep. Over time, this can end up having a knock-on effect too. The less sleep you’re getting, the more this will impact your anxiety and mood, creating a vicious cycle.
Notice and interrupt catastrophic thinking – in times like this, it can be easy to spiral into catastrophic thinking (ruminating about worst case scenarios). Make a conscious effort to identify these kinds of thoughts when they come up and remind yourself that they’re just thoughts and not necessarily reflective of reality. These types of thoughts are simply something your mind does when you feel a certain way.
Make sure you’re getting outside – get plenty of sunlight and keep your vitamin D levels up. A mindful walk around your local park can help clear away the cobwebs and take your mind off what’s happening in the news.
Keep socialising – research has shown that the single biggest predictor of our happiness in life is the quality of our relationships. Make sure you’re spending enough time with the people you care about.
Follow good news too – follow social media accounts that are positive and uplifting to offset your mind’s negativity bias.
These steps aren’t about turning a blind eye. It’s about protecting ourselves in such a way that we can help. As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup… By looking after ourselves, we stand a much better chance of finding the best way we can be of service to others.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. – Mr. Rogers