by Chantal Bufe
In 2016 Steven Stosny coined the phrase headline stress disorder to describe the negative impact of the severe and exasperating onslaught of news 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? During 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?
We have 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 adverse effects the circulated information around COVID -19 are having on us, on our families, and our friends.
While we can not change the reporting or the distribution of overwhelming/negative/false/ information, each of us can regulate how we consume our news. So here are five things that we have consciously changed 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 professors used repetitively and insistently, it is that one. Be an active news user. Go and make an 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 knowledgeable about a specific 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 repeatedly about the dangerous effects of consuming negative information 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.
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 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 terrible 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 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.
Find reliable news sources that you trust, set a time limit for yourself, and stick to it.
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 be referring to.
This is what I mean: creation. 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, dance - 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.
Start creating (whatever it is/whatever it may look like) and start sharing it with your loved ones, 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 our collective whole's wellbeing. Your art has the magic to bring so much encouragement and light into someone else's life. Someone who might need it today.
Creativity is the key to all things unique: besides distracting us from the surrealism (and adverse side effects) of this extraordinary situation, imagination 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.