4 Ways to Detox from Negative Media

Here are tips on how to detox from negative media.

Posted Mar 27, 2015

Public domain
Source: Public domain

Do you sometimes want to tell your television news broadcast or Twitter feed “enough”? With a week of tragic world and local news, do you ever start to wonder, could watching the news be bad for you? Why does it feel like the news is so negative? How can we protect ourselves from the daily onslaught of bad news but also stay informed?

A recent article in Information Economics and Policy discusses the known slant towards negative coverage in the news media. Studies confirm that the media covers more bad news than good news in areas like crime coverage, health and technology risks, and employment. The article suggests that the media is responding to a larger public demand for bad news compared to good news ("demand-induced bias").

What we do know is that our brains are naturally built to weigh and respond to negative information much more so than positive information. This concept has been termed the negativity bias and is wide-ranging, from our decision-making to our perception of ourselves and others. As one group of researchers put it, “We have found bad to be stronger than good in a disappointingly relentless pattern... this difference may be one of the most basic and far-reaching psychological principles.” (Baumeister et al. 2001)

Negative information plays a larger role in decision-making than positive information. When making a first impression, negative traits outshine positive traits. When people lose a certain amount of money, they are far more upset compared to the amount of happiness gained when they receive the same amount of money. This negativity bias is also supported by neurological research, which shows that brain activity is more stimulated by negative stimuli compared to positive stimuli.

Secondly, we pay more attention to negative information ("attention bias"). This is why, for example, after you leave a work performance review, even if 95% of the feedback delivered may have been generally positive, your mind continues to focus and churn on the 5% negative feedback on areas of improvement. One study found that when people were given the choice to listen to negative or positive feedback, they were more willing to listen to negative feedback about themselves and listened to it for a significantly longer period of time.

This attention bias can occur automatically. When scanning faces, people take much less time picking out angry or sad faces compared to happy faces. When people are asked to perform neutral tasks, like picking out colors, they will automatically spend more time paying attention to negative words compared positive words. Overall, negative information tends to provoke more physiological, cognitive, and emotional responses.

This negativity bias happens when we view news in the media, too. In a study by Outbrain, negative headlines received much more attention from viewers compared than positive or neutral headlines. In a study of 65,000 paid link headlines over four months, the analysis revealed that headlines containing negative words like “Never” or “Worst” drew 30% more viewer attention (measured by click-throughs) compared to neutral titles without superlatives. Negative headlines received 63% more viewership compared to positive titles containing the words “Always” or “Best.” (Perhaps this post should be retitled “Never Turn the News On” or “Watching The News Is The Worst”).

Your negativity bias can be particularly heightened if you're already primed by earlier negative news. For example, if there was a widely reported tragic news event on Monday, then you will probably experience a heightened response of feeling upset or feeling down when a second negative event, even if completely unrelated, is broadcast later in the week. Television news can also activate significant anxiety in people who have posttraumatic stress disorder. Various theories have attempted to explain why we are built this way, including the evolutionary explanation that people who paid more attention to negative information were more successful.

Are we then helpless to the effects of the negativity bias? Fortunately, no. Your context, such as your prior mood and available sources of positive information, can determine whether your negative bias is activated. When you’re in a positive mood or have access to positive information, then you’re actually more likely to prefer more positive information to continue to maintain that positive mood.

Studies have shown that if you introduce positive information and make it accessible to the person at the time that the negative information is introduced, then the negative bias can eliminated. As one researcher explained, “rather than a hard and fast rule of evolution, the bias should be considered a default that may be overridden by situational forces.” (Smith et al. 2006). A study of 179 undergraduates found that mood was worsened after watching 15-minutes of a random news broadcast and remained dampened if there was no intervention or if they were given a 15-minute lecture. In contrast, the group that participated in a 15-minute relaxation exercise afterwards was able to return back to their positive baseline mood.

Age also makes a difference-- the older you are, the more likely you'll be able to balance negative and positive news. A study found that 20 older adults (age 59 to 81) had no negativity bias compared to younger adults (age 19 to 22) who demonstrated a strong negativity bias in neural activity. Older adults have a less strong response by their autonomic nervous system, the fight-or-flight system, even though their subjective experience of emotions remains the same. This suggests that the younger you are, the more important it is to pay attention to the potential sources of negative news that you surround yourself with, as it may have a stronger impact on your mood and day.

While we can’t change our age, we can shape the context of news and information that we expose our minds to. Here are some ideas on how to detox from negative media:

1. Try a 15-minute Progressive Relaxation Exercise

If you feel more stressed or down after watching the news/ digital media, then try a short 15-minute progressive relaxation exercise to detox. This can be done either seated or reclined.

  • Find a quiet place to sit.
  • Close your eyes and take five deep breaths. Inhale through your nostrils and exhale slowly out of your mouth.
  • The main concept is to notice a difference between tension and relaxed muscles. You will be going from individual muscle group to group, from your forehead to your feet.
  • You should not experience any pain when performing this exercise and do not continue to work muscle groups if it is painful.
  • When you inhale, tense your forehead muscle for 5 seconds by raising your eyebrows and then release the muscles with an exhalation.
  • Wait for 10-15 seconds, breathing deeply through your nostrils and exhaling through your mouth.
  • Repeat for the next muscle group, inhaling with tension and exhaling with release. Here is an example of a sequence:
    • Forehead- raise eyebrows and release
    • Eyes- close eyes tightly and release
    • Mouth- open wide and release
    • Neck and Shoulder- lift shoulders to your ears and release
    • Chest (bring your shoulder blades together to open your chest area and release)
    • Right and Left Arm (separately)- tighten biceps by lifting forearm towards you shoulder and release
    • Right and Left Hand (separately)- - make a fist and release
    • Abdominals- tighten your abs in
    • Bottom (separately)- tighten by clenching and releasing
    • Right and Left Thighs (separately)- squeeze thigh muscles and release
    • Right and Left Calves (separately)- pull toes towards you and release
    • Right and Feet (separately)- curl toes downward and release
  • Forehead- raise eyebrows and release
  • Eyes- close eyes tightly and release
  • Mouth- open wide and release
  • Neck and Shoulder- lift shoulders to your ears and release
  • Chest (bring your shoulder blades together to open your chest area and release)
  • Right and Left Arm (separately)- tighten biceps by lifting forearm towards you shoulder and release
  • Right and Left Hand (separately)- - make a fist and release
  • Abdominals- tighten your abs in
  • Bottom (separately)- tighten by clenching and releasing
  • Right and Left Thighs (separately)- squeeze thigh muscles and release
  • Right and Left Calves (separately)- pull toes towards you and release
  • Right and Feet (separately)- curl toes downward and release

-- Here is another progression relaxation sequence example.
-- Here are links to free audio progression relaxation exercises:

Audio 1

Audio 2

2. Try tailoring your social media feeds to your needs.

As an experiment, check your Twitter or Facebook feed: out of every 10-20 posts by other users, how many of them contain negative events or information? If you are noticing a high percentage of negative news, consider whether you would like to change this context. Whether or not you want to surround yourself with sources that could tend to contain negative information in this situation may depend on whether or not it is beneficial to you.

For example, if you’re a political journalist, then you probably want to subscribe to several news sources, even if it risks a tendency towards negative information because you have to be up-to-date for work. If, on the other hand, you enjoy checking social media for social reasons and entertainment and find that your feed is weighted heavily by negative tweets, then you can consider adding more sources that tend to contain positive information to outweigh the negative.

3. Clear out negative energy that you don’t need.

Do you have friends who tend to have negative public debates or arguments with other people on their posts or share news events that tend to be negative? You could weigh the pros and cons of unsubscribing or muting their feed or can consider connecting with more groups or friends who generate more positive information to balance the newsfeed.

4. Consider starting and ending your day with a 10-15 minute guided meditation instead of immediately turning on the news or checking your newsfeeds.

The bookends of your day are critical times that set the tone for the day or a good night's rest. Consider trying a 10-15 minute guided meditation instead of checking the news when you wake up and before bed. If you start your day in a good mood, it's more likely that your mind will continue to pay more attention to positive information throughout the day.

While we can't change difficult news events or the reporting of these events, we can consider how to change and improve our context. By adding more sources of positive energy and information in our lives, we can hopefully create more balance.

This is part of a series of articles on Urban Survival, examining how to manage the stress of city living. Dr. Wei is a board-certified psychiatrist with a private practice in Manhattan.

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Copyright Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC 2015

The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to create any patient-physician relationship and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.

References

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.

Bernstein KT, Ahern J, Tracy M, Boscarino JA, Vlahov D, Galea S. (2007).Television watching and the risk of incident probable posttraumatic stress disorder: a prospective evaluation. J Nerv Ment Dis. 195(1):41-7.

Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 887–900.

Skowronski, J. J., & Carlston, D. E. (1989). Negativity and extremity biases in impression formation: A review of explanations. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 131–142.

Smith, N. K., Larsen, J. T., Chartrand, T. L., Cacioppo, J. T., Katafiasz, H. A., & Moran, K. E. (2006). Being bad isn't always good: Affective context moderates the attention bias toward negative information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2), 210.

Szabo A, Hopkinson KL. (2007). Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them! Int J Behav Med. 14(2):57-62.

Wood S, Kisley MA. (2006). The negativity bias is eliminated in older adults: age-related reduction in event-related brain potentials associated with evaluative categorization. Psychol Aging.  Dec;21(4):815-20.