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Excessive News Consumption May Harm Mental and Physical Health

Break the news cycle before it breaks you.

Key points

  • Exposure to a constant barrage of news hurts people's mental and physical health, according to a recent study.
  • The majority of those surveyed who claim to be constantly immersed in news say they feel anxious and physically unwell.
  • One way to protect one's health amidst the negativity of news is to limit one's news sources and time investment.
Roman Kraft/Unsplash
Source: Roman Kraft/Unsplash

The fire raged across the screen. Flames in high-definition, sparks flying. Old-growth trees igniting like torches. Families watching their houses burn.

My stomach flopped. My husband flipped the channel. More of the same. More forests on fire. A dire low-humidity, high-temperature weather report scrolling along the bottom of the screen. Air-quality warnings.

Click. Change the channel. More flames.

Click. Fire.

Click. Turn it off.

In the last 20 years, I’ve gone from a person who worked as a newspaper journalist and an avid television news watcher, to a woman who no longer turns on broadcast news. I don’t want to take it in.

After a simple 30-minute show I’d feel irritable. Impatient. Anxious. The images of war and death. hostility and devastation etched in my mind until they were replaced with more of the same the next day. So much tragedy playing across the screen in real-time.

Instead of feeling informed after watching the news, I felt anxious, upset, hopeless, and sick.

My experience isn't an isolated one, according to a new study published in the journal Health Communication.

Anxiety Builds With News Obsession

Stress, anxiety, and poor health follow people who have an obsessive urge to check the news, according to the research.

The barrage of bad news puts people in a “constant state of high alert,” wrote Bryan McLaughlin, associate professor of advertising at the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University.

Once we are drawn in by inflammatory headlines or dramatic videos, it becomes harder to look away, and more difficult to turn it off. I noticed this during the January 6 insurrection. At first, the coverage was informative. The broadcast news made it possible to see what was going on.

But I got sucked in. I kept watching long after the violence was over when anchors were repeating themselves and no new pictures emerged. The same news, the same clips, the same analysis. all day long. By the time I turned it off, I was feeling sad and stressed. But I also had a headache and my body hurt. I was exhausted... from sitting on the couch watching the news.

How It Hurts

Of the 1,100 people surveyed for the study, 16.5 percent become so immersed in the news that it dominates their waking thoughts, disrupting their focus on school and work and limiting the time they spend with family and friends.

Those are the very things—purposeful engagement and social connection—that help us offset and cope with stress and mental health challenges.

Nearly three-quarters of those people say their mental well-being suffers and more than half also feel physically ill.

Only eight percent of those who don't consume news excessively report the same kinds of physical and mental ailments.

So how do we stay informed without getting sick?

Stay Informed, But Stay Well

Curate your news.

Set limits. Choose two or three places to get your news, and limit what you take in. I read a newspaper online in the morning, skimming some articles, and reading others slowly. For example, I’ll read about what is happening in the Russian invasion of Ukraine for any new information. But I will scan stories about human rights violations and alleged war crimes. I avoid stories that talk about animal abuse. I know it happens. There is no more information I need. I want an understanding without being paralyzed by the information.

Choose the media that allows you to live the healthiest life.

I rarely watch television news because once I turn it on, it's harder to turn off the television. And the nature of television news is that the stories are shorter. Sometimes this leaves me with a lot of emotion and few of the facts I need to understand it. So, I read a national and local newspaper. It's easier to put down when I'm done.

Am I well-informed? I don’t know. But I am informed enough to make smart decisions for my family and make a meaningful contribution to the world.

The bold images on television leave me feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. The process of quietly reading the print media allows me time to process the information in a healthier way. Find what provides the balance for you between balanced information and mental and physical well-being.

When it feels like too much, take action.

When it all feels like too much and I'm feeling crushed by the news or unable to manage the information in a healthy way, I challenge myself to stop reading and take positive action.

I look for a way to donate, help people, protest, and leave things better. I changed my party affiliation after a troubling news story and donated to the Red Cross after another. I also read about the candidates and vote.

Taking action can remind us of our individual power and how even our small actions can make a difference in our communities, schools, and countries. It also shifts the burden of the bad news into something that leaves me feeling better.

Change the mood.

It's also important to shift from the sense of overwhelm, anger, and helplessness to something better. Break the feelings left by bad news by going for a walk outside, turning on energetic music, or finding something to be grateful for so you don't get stuck in despair.

There is a thin line between staying informed and staying infirm. Be aware of what that is for you. How do you feel after watching or reading the news? What media keeps you up to date, and which keeps you anxious and stuck in a repetitive cycle?

Find your go-to method for staying informed, then take a break from the incessant news cycle before it breaks you.

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