In 2016 Steven Stosny coined the phrase 'headline stress disorder' to describe the negative impact that the severe and exasperating onslaught of news had on news consumers post the US presidential elections. It identified fear and anxiety as two main effects and Stosny advised that it was all downhill from there. And he was right: today, provocative news is selling better and faster than ever and whether the information provided is factually correct appears to be of decreasing relevance to an increasing number of people. Fake news, yellow journalism, information pollution... I wonder how Stosny would describe the state and effects of news consumption today, in 2020? In the midst of an information explosion due to a pandemic that has the entire world holding its breath? Or, more constructively, I wonder how we can all stay informed - especially during these extraordinary times - without causing harm to our mental health?
Our family has been trying to establish healthy/-ier habits when it comes to news consumption for some time now, and this pursuit has become acute as we are feeling the negative effects the circulated information around COVID -19 are having on us, on our families and on our friends. We can not change the reporting or the distribution of overwhelming/negative/false/ information, but each of us can regulate the ways in which we consume our news. So here are five things that we have consciously changed in order to stay informed and mentally well at the same time:
1. Choose the news outlets that you trust
'Check your sources!' - if there is one phrase that all of my NYU professors used repetitively and insistently it is that one. And I can only extend this advice - repetitively and insistently, especially right now: be an active news user. Go and make the effort to find those news outlets that you deem most trustworthy and reliable. Look into the writers and contributors whose words you are letting into your homes and minds - pay attention to what and whom you are consuming (and what/ whose information you are possibly passing on!).
This is especially important to remember at this moment in time as news around COVID -19 becomes increasingly harder to distinguish: real or fake? Not everyone who claims to be knowledgable about a certain topic is a trustworthy source. So, rely on sources of experts and - unless you are one! - keep a low profile and refrain from passing on any half-truths. They are immensely dangerous, can curb feelings of deceit, fear and even lead to panic and chaos. And this is not what any of us want. Not now. Not ever.
2. Consume news at a time of day when you know you will be the least stressed
We all have been told over and over again about the dangerous effects of consuming negative news first thing in the morning on our physical and mental wellbeing: anxiety, stress, nervousness, laziness .... the list is long. Instead, experts advise us to establish a healthy morning routine and then set aside dedicated time during the day (when we know we are the least likely to get stressed) to consume news.
For the longest time, I struggled with this concept telling myself that I had to quickly check my phone for news updates before my day got crazy and I would have no time to do so later. Ironically, as I am homeschooling my three kiddos simultaneously by myself right now, this 'excuse' holds at least a little more truth to it. Still, I am fully aware that it remains just that: an excuse.
Of course, I have the choice to not look at my phone first thing in the morning and opt for any other activity that I know makes me have a better start into my day. For instance, I know that when I drag my (currently very) tired body onto my yoga mat and follow my favorite practice or meditate, my spirits lift and I am more present and prepared to face the day. Whatever comes my way - and that includes an onslaught of intense/negative news.
And yes, while my children are currently around me at all the minutes of all the (loooong) days I have started to set aside 30 minutes which I dedicate to reading the news. By myself. Fully present and fully prepared. Now, I am aware that this is easier to accomplish when your kids are a little older (parents of all one to three-year-olds: hang in there!) but even if it comes down to only a few minutes: reading intense news when you are in a strong (ok, let's settle for good/stable/awake) mental place throughout the day is a very different experience (with diametrally different effects) than 'eyes-barely-open' news consumption.
Time and health are our two most precious assets and we should not wait to appreciate them until they've been depleted, but change our bad habits now.
3.Limit your news consumption - to decrease negative feelings
We all know that consuming too much negative news is bad for us, in many ways: feelings of stress and frustration, anxiety and angst increase. Especially at this moment in time, intense and exasperating news highlight and augment our personal worries and can lead to making us feel (even more) unsafe. And with so much misinformation circulating right now, we may even notice feelings of deceit when certain information (which we may have even passed onto other people!) turns out false. This, as already mentioned, can lead to anger and fear and ... you've guessed it... panic and chaos. Not good.
So: find a reliable news source that you trust and set a time limit for yourself and stick to it. My schedule currently allows for approximately 30 minutes and I try (hard) to cap it there, resisting the urge to click yet another 'intriguing' link to yet another 'compelling' news story. And if sticking to a time limit is difficult for you, I am going to try and convince you some more:
4.Limit your news consumption - to increase creativity
Excessive media/news consumption destroys our productivity. While this is nothing new, it is oh, so true: if we dedicate too much time to the screen, we do not get to the things done that a) we would like to do and b) that make us happy. What on earth do you mean, dear lady, I hear you ask while (hopefully!) sitting somewhere in confinement and wondering what I could possibly be referring to.
This is what I mean: CREATION. In the most 'Elizbeth Gilberthan' way possible. Instead of just absorbing (i.e. putting yourself in a passive state), start actively creating: write, sketch, draw, paint, cook, bake, learn/play an instrument, sing, daaaaance - for crying out loud!). Whatever it is that gets your heart smiling, your mind overflowing and your dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins into a happiness rage, get on it. (And if you have little ones glued to you right now - as we do - maybe there is a way (somehow?) to include them in this process? My little ones, for instance, currently each hold a rotating role as one of my photo editors for this blog ... somehow).
Start creating (whatever it is/whatever it may look like) and start sharing it with your loved ones, your friends and strangers. There is no being embarrassed about being your authentic self and doing what you love, remember? Not always, but especially not during this point in time. We are all living this current situation individually, but once we start creating, we are contributing something special and unique to the wellbeing of our collective whole. Your art has the magic to bring so much encouragement and light into someone else's life. Someone who might really need it today.
I am starting to see this within my own home: I am writing more, my husband started to bake with my daughter (for the first time ever) and my kids are creating whatever their carefree and unapologetic imagination invents: Lego worlds, comic book designs, backyard explorations, watercolor expressions. My mother is starting to return to her passion for drawing and painting and my father-in-law has taken up playing the saxophone again. This is what the world needs right now: creators.
And if you still need convincing that creativity is the key to all things amazing, consider this: besides distracting us from the surrealism (and negative side effects) of this extraordinary situation, creativity is said to make us better problem solvers; it makes us more confident and can extend our lifespan. Our entire life is meant to be lived creating. And never more than right now.
5.Balance your news consumption
What do I mean by that? Next to all the negative news we consume, why not try sourcing some positive news too? Check out the Huffington Post's Good News webpage or Daily Good for positive news from around the globe, or the World Best news for information from developing countries. Our family is fond of the Good News Network (GNN) and if you are on Instagram, check out the #goodnews_movement. Be distracted, laugh for joy, cry for you are moved - get goosebumps, tears, and tenderness. And remember: you alone decide what you allow into your home, your family, your mind and your whole being. You remain in charge. Even of the news.
Sending love and light.