How to disentangle yourself from negative news

17 October 2022


Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
A woman looking at a laptop screen with an anxious, stressed look on her face

Turn on the news in the UK at the minute and the coverage is very negative. After getting through the worst of COVID-19, the economy is at risk of a recession, the cost of living is rising and the pound is at a low. In addition, this is playing out against a backdrop of international conflict in Ukraine.

All things considered, it’s easy to see why the news is so negative at the minute. And, when we consume a lot of it, it can have an effect on our wellbeing. Doomscrolling is a term that was popularised at the height of the pandemic, and it refers to the compulsive consumption of negative news. Studies have linked this exposure to issues with our physical and mental health (Guardian).

The simple solution would be to disconnect from it all. But, in the current climate, where developments can affect us quickly, there isn’t the room to just switch off and be blissfully ignorant. So, what can you do to disentangle yourself when you need to stay up to date? This is the question that we’re aiming to answer in this blog post.

Why do we feel anxious or stressed when doomscrolling?

Lucy Woods, a qualified mindfulness specialist, explains that we’re biologically wired to feel stress and anxiety: “The human threat response system developed to keep us alive, to be able to avoid danger, to run or to fight, when we were faced with adversity. And, while the world around us has changed, that fight or flight response is still going strong.

“Though we aren’t plagued by beasts coming to eat us, we now have modern stressors, like the media and news we consume. When we feel threatened by one of these stressors, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS — flight/flight/freeze) is activated. Our hearts beat faster, blood rushes to our limbs and non-essential functions shut down, including our digestion system and the logical, rational parts of our brains.

“So, think about that news headline you just read. It made you feel sick, or perhaps you got an uneasy feeling in your stomach (digestion switching off and blood going to limbs). Perhaps you feel really tense and inexplicably angry (that will be the adrenaline and cortisol helping you get ready to fight) and before you know it you are typing a regrettable response to a tweet or rushing out to buy all the loo roll! No logic to it at all.”

How to manage your negative news exposure

Practice mindfulness when consuming news

Lucy recommends practising mindfulness when consuming news: “When our brain is offline, we can’t think straight. We can’t get perspective on the fact the story might be fake or exaggerated, and perhaps we have shared it before even checking if it’s true.

“Our reactions happen on autopilot and we need to recognise them and pay attention to them — this is the basis of mindfulness practice. Don’t try to fix, judge or get rid of them as this will often make you feel worse. Instead, try breathing. Really pay attention to the breath coming in and out. Lots of thoughts might arise but focus on the feelings in your body. Allow them to just be there and each time thoughts take you away from being present, see if you can just hone in to the feel of the breath or body again.

“This will help you to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that soothes and calms you. And, it will help to bring your human brain back online, enabling you to be more logical and rational about our reactions.”

Be aware of media manipulation

It’s worth remembering that news stories can often be designed to evoke a reaction by sensationalising or emotionalising events. It’s easy to think of news outlets as balanced and unbiased in their reporting, but some sources can have their own agenda and may prioritise the view that they want you to adopt and react to.

When you’re trying to manage your news consumption, take into account where you’re getting your news and the fact that it might be designed to provoke a response or keep you hooked. Recognise that stories may be exaggerated in the places where they appeal to your emotions. Keep a level head, take in reporting from more than one source and don’t hesitate to do your own research before making up your mind.

Consider how and when you get your news

An important part of regulating your negative news consumption is finding the right schedule and format to suit you. For instance, it might be a bad idea to read through the news on your phone just before you go to bed, especially if you end up having trouble sleeping when it makes you feel anxious. Likewise, having notifications switched on 24/7 for every news app will ensure you never catch a break from the cycle.

Think about what time of day and which delivery method would work best for you. Does an early morning blast through the headlines over your coffee work best? Would you prefer receiving a round-up in the evening, just before you do an activity to help you relax? There are ways and means to stay informed without feeling like you can’t escape or allowing it to impact your daily routine — you just need to find what works.

Review your social media

As of 2021, a typical social media user regularly engages with an average of 6.6 different platforms (Backlinko), many of which are prime ground for sharing news stories. Unfortunately, social media is also the biggest hotbed for manipulated, fake or biased news coverage, as well as other users adding their own opinions alongside these stories.

If you find that you’re consuming stress or anxiety-inducing news when you log onto social media, it’s worth having a long, hard look at how you engage with accounts or users that regularly share this content. Then, you can decide whether you want to unfollow or mute them. If you’re present on multiple platforms, ask yourself if you really get anything out of them, then consider removing them from your life.

Find positive activities to balance out bad news

Staying in the loop with the news can often be a balancing act, especially in uncertain times. It’s important to find and embrace some positivity among all the doom and gloom, as it will go a long way to keeping you centred and alleviating stress and anxiety.

Chase Cassine, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, says: “As humans, we have a natural inclination to focus on negativity more than positivity. In psychology, this is called the negativity bias. This causes humans to have more negative thoughts than positive ones and an inclination to ruminate on them. Studies have shown that negative bias can have a diverse effect on how people act, think, respond and feel.

“Inadvertently, the combination of negative bias and the algorithm of social media creates the obsessive and ritualistic behaviour of constantly scrolling to view distressing and negative content, which research has stated is linked to both physical and emotional health concerns.

“Look for some healthier outlets to help cope with things, like journaling, exercising, guided meditation and other mindfulness practices to stay present in the moment. Also, seeking out more hopeful and inspiring stories will provide balance.”

Don’t hesitate to set boundaries or take a break

When the news cycle is really getting to you, don’t hesitate to take a break. You don’t need to stop following events altogether, but there are times when it’s best to give yourself some breathing space. After all, your own mental health comes before being up to date.

Chase recommends being proactive when it comes to managing your exposure: “An important step in managing your doomscrolling is to set and enforce healthy boundaries around social media and news coverage to create a healthy balance between being informed and overwhelmed. Think of setting a time limit and sticking to it to establish and develop a healthier relationship with the media.”

Know when to seek support

Lastly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to reach out and seek support from either someone in your life or a professional.

It’s likely that some of your friends or family will have been impacted by the events that we’re going through at the minute, so finding some time to sit down and discuss how it’s making you feel will probably do you the world of good. Rather than keeping everything bottled up, find ways to lean on each other for support.

Should you reach the point where you’re really struggling, it’s important to know there is support at hand. Contact organisations like Samaritans, Shout and Mind to get quick, professional support — the Mental Health Foundation also has a great contact list of places that you can turn to. Additionally, the NHS also provides mental health care and advice for those that need it.