What the Research Says About Watching the News and Its Affect on Our Mental Health

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Sarah Vallely

Today's episode is about the news. And whether or not watching the news is bad for our mental health. I want to make it clear, when I decided on this topic, I was not an anti-news person. I felt kind of neutral about it. But now after I've done the research over the last few days, I'm not so sure. Personally, I don't watch the news a lot. And it's not for any reason that I can think of other than, I don't resonate so much with the format. Maybe it's the talking heads type of format, I'm not really sure. But I've never been a news watcher. However, I do like talking to people about current events. And I do like reading articles. And I really, really love looking at data.


There are two takeaways that I got from this research. And I'm going to put those out there in the beginning, and then we can go backwards from there. One is, you can get PTSD from bystander video,



Jacob Derossett

We got Wi Fi while I was in high school. It was kind of like the wild wild west days of the internet. So there was a couple of websites that my friends would get on that had very intense videos. When you're a young kid you want to see the grossest things, the craziest things. When your brain is so plastic and pliable at that point in time, it really shapes a fear response in your body that I wasn't aware of that that was going to happen. So now even to this day, I remember those videos, and I have a visceral reaction about some of the things that I saw, I have absolutely experienced some version of being traumatizws by video.


Sarah Vallely

This is something that's a relatively new development--the phone started becoming so mobile, and the camera became so much better, and we could take better video. And so that's really switched in the last 10 years. Twenty years ago, there weren't as many bystander videos in the news for sure.


Jacob Derossett

But funny enough, by the way, bystander video is not too far off of news coverage. News coverage is very intensive.


Sarah Vallely

You're right, they didn't just refer to by bystander video. In the research they also referred to just very graphic video.


Another big takeaway that I got from this research is watching the news causes a compound cycle. That varying degree of trauma that you might get from watching the news actually causes you to lean into the habit even harder. So it's this vicious cycle--you watch the news, you're slightly traumatized, or largely traumatized. And then you have a greater need and desire to watch even more news. So it just compounds and gets more intense and more intense.


The reason is, when we get traumatized in that way, we believe that we will feel safer if we have more information. So we seek out additional information to make us feel safer. But what ends up happening a lot is then we just get even more traumatized or greatly traumatized, and it makes the cycle worse.


It's very interesting. The experts say the following can result from watching the news:chronic fatigue, disrupted sleep, changes in libido, acne, headaches, chronic pain, digestive issues, appetite changes, sweating and rapid heart rate.


Jacob Derossett

How much did people watch or what did they watch? How do they monitor that during the study?


Sarah Vallely

I summarized what a lot of the experts were saying. So it's based on all different variables. That’s the big picture. I will share a couple of studies--one study is a 14 Minute video news.


We can have these “conditions”. for lack of a better term, as a result of watching the news, because the news releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Why do you think that we feel so compelled? Why do we have a sense of urgency or a strong desire to watch?


Difficulty accepting our powerlessness over certain events on a deep level, is the reason. This is a psychology behind it. We think if we get more information, it will give us more power, and more understanding will lead to a solution. This is interesting.


Jacob Derossett

So it does differentiate between being informed from just specifically watching the news. How do they define that?


Sarah Vallely

Good question. I made sure that whatever I read, and the research that I did was specifically about watching the news, because there's so much research out there about social media—how being on social media causes these same traumatic effects. And so I stayed away from that, because I thought, well, maybe that could be a future episode. This information is about specifically watching news coverage.


Another psychological aspect behind why we are driven to watch the news is we have difficulty being in a place of uncertainty. We are uncomfortable with not knowing how things are going to turn out. So again, we believe that if we have more knowledge, more understanding, it'll make us safer. But according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, what happens is the news feels comforting in the moment, (I’d say sometimes it doesn't feel so comforting at the moment.) But this is what they say: “News feels comforting at the moment but the effect is short lived.” So in the end, that information that we're gaining from watching the news in that format, is not helping us but maybe reading an article would fill that need to gain some information to feel more safe without having traumatic drawbacks.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, so is the drawback the watching? I guess? I mean, quite obviously, right?


Sarah Vallely

That's an important element here is having that visual experience. It feels really real and gets you more close to the situation than if you were reading an article.


Jacob Derossett

So yeah, I'm excited to hear the pros and cons about the two.


Sarah Vallely

Well, that's what this episode was going to be about. But there are not very many pros.


Jacob Derossett

Oh, really, okay.


Sarah Vallely

A study called “Media Exposure to Mass Violence Can Fuel Cycles of Distress” was published in Science Advances. And this is really interesting, because the researchers who conducted this study happened to be tracking the mental health of people in Boston and New York right before the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. They were already conducting a study that involved taking a lot of data on residents and their mental health. But then the bombing happened, and they continued to take data on their mental health and their exposure to specifically watching the news. And they came up with some pretty interesting findings.


One is they determined that some residents of New York and Boston developed PTSD from watching the news about the bombing. And that this group, that I'm talking about who were diagnosed with PTSD, because of their news watching, we're watching on average, more news than the average person afterwards months afterwards.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, I feel like someone listening would say that would make logical sense. It happened in their city. I would say the entire experience would be very PTSD inducing.


Sarah Vallely

I think that the finding shows on some level, being traumatized by the news causes you to watch more news. I think that everything's on a continuum. So maybe we haven't gotten PTSD from watching news coverage, but maybe we've been traumatized a little bit here and there. And maybe that has caused us to want to watch more news--just something to think about. They also found that people who worry about future events watch More news than the average person.


Jacob Derossett

That makes a lot of sense in context of the Boston situation. People were watching to make sure they were safe.


Sarah Vallely

Another study called “The Psychological Impact of Negative TV News Bulletins” was published in the British Journal of Psychology. And what they did in this study is they placed participants in three different groups. One group watched a reel of negative news, another group watched a reel of neutral news. And then the third group watched a reel a positive news. They all watched these news reels for 14 minutes. And they consisted of a variety of news topics. It wasn't only 14 minutes on one specific news item.


The subjects took a test, testing their anxiety, their catastrophic thinking and their sadness before and after they watched that 14 minutes of news coverage. The group that watched the negative news reel, their anxiety increased by 66%. I think that shows watching the news does affect our anxiety.


Jacob Derossett

Anecdotally, I could have told you that.


Sarah Vallely

Do we knowingly go into a situation, knowing that our anxiety is going to go up 66% in 14 minutes? Do any of us do that knowingly?


Jacob Derossett

Roller coasters are a safe space of controlled anxiety. But I guess it's more like adrenaline, right?


Sarah Vallely

I think that's different, because I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, some people might know about my snowboarding and mountain biking and things like that. And I always feel less anxious after I do something like that.



Carrie (from the audience)

I think the whole thing too, with the news is it's always negative. It's always bad things that are going on. And it's kind of like seeing life through a filter, a negative filter. And it gets you into this mindset that the whole world is bad. And it brings you down creates anxiety. And you have to limit that because the world is just not all one thing.


Sarah Vallely

What I'm hearing here is that the people who create the news, are filtering what's going on and feeding us some of the negativity. Is that what you mean Carrie?


Carrie (from the audience)

Yeah, because they know that's what's going to get people's attention. It's the shock value, whether it's war zones, or whether it's shootings in the city. I live here in the Boston area. I was here during the marathon bombing. I remember once, reading Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book and him explaining if you change the way that you look at things, the things you look at change. And if we're always in that new cycle of negativity, it just puts us there and we're anxious. And we're wondering, gee, is this going to happen to us? Am I in danger? It makes it difficult to just live a normal life. I think that's why you have to limit your news intake, we need to be informed. But at the same time, we don't need to be scared all the time and anxious.


Sarah Vallely

Thank you, Carrie, I wanted to add something--when you read the research, what they're saying is, the news causes you to have anxiety. And the anxiety causes you to process things in different ways. So it's not just that the networks are filtering what's going on and feeding us there certain things, we in turn, take that in, and then we end up filtering the rest of our experience. It’s a double filter.


If we have anxiety, we have a tendency to process threatening or negative information more than non-threatening information. And if we have anxiety, we have a predisposition to wanting threatening material, especially material that matches our current worry topics.


Jacob Derossett

What were the results with the people who watched the positive news and the neutral news?


Sarah Vallely

The people who watched the positive news, their anxiety stayed the same. I thought that was interesting that the positive news didn't have an effect on their anxiety level. However, the people who watch the positive news, their sadness decreased by 35%. We could say their happiness increased by one 35%, while the people who watch the negative news, their sadness increased by 23%


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, I guess it's different neural pathways affect your anxiety and your happiness levels and things like that.


Sarah Vallely

I think it's safe to say that the news affects our anxiety more than our sadness. And another statistic from that study is that the people who watched the negative news, scored 72%, higher on worrying and catastrophic thinking than the neutral group. That's a lot.


Jacob Derossett

Yeah, that's concerning.


Sarah Vallely

The way we can use mindfulness is to notice, is that happening? How are you feeling after you're watching the news? check in with your catastrophic thinking, check in with your anxiety levels. If you suffer from anxiety, if you suffer from depression, it's pretty clear that watching the news is not very good for you. It could exacerbate those feelings.


Jacob Derossett

I imagine it is hard for people to adjust their routines. People turn the news on every day. People want to be informed and they may not have time to read. What would you tell people? What advice would you give or to somebody who is hard stanced on watching the news?


Sarah Vallely

I think that this information about powerlessness and uncertainty is really key. And so what I would advise is using mindfulness to check in with yourself and saying, “Do I feel powerless in some way? Is that why I feel like I need to watch more news? Is it to gain more of a handle on what's going on and feel like I have more power?” If it is about powerlessness, are there other ways that you can feel powerful, other than watching the news? What are some other options? Is volunteering somewhere away that would help you feel more powerful in some of the difficult things going on in the world?


And if it's about uncertainty, first being mindful, checking in with yourself and saying, “Do I feel uncertain and uncomfortable about not knowing what's coming next? Do I feel like if I watch the news, it's going to help with that uncertainty, and I'm going to feel safer? Am I going to feel more knowledgeable and have a better handle on this?” If it's uncertainty, use mindfulness to strengthen your ability to live in that uncertainty, because that's what mindfulness is about. And when it comes to the core of it, the practice is learning little by little that really nothing is certain.


The word that the Buddhists use is “impermanence”. Everything is impermanent, everything comes and everything goes and we're in this constant state of flux all the time. And so we lean into that, and we surrender to this uncertainty of not knowing when things are going to come and when they are going to go and accepting that and actually feeling some sense of freedom and release.


Jacob Derossett

It comes down to witnessing without connecting to or without reacting. Things happen and then they go away--connecting to that awareness. When I was consuming a lot of news at the beginning of COVID, I began for the first time in my life to just gorge on large amounts of media. I was home for the first time and with nothing to do. And I could tell my reactivity and all the negative things that I was trying to tone down were all flared up. That's the whole practice, connecting with those parts of yourself and seeing what is not necessarily useful right now. The awareness piece is the biggest part of that, and has had the biggest impact in my life in regards to consuming large amounts of media or social media or anything like that.


Sarah Vallely

Yeah, it sounds like you're mindful about that.


Do we simply just turn off the news? Is that the direction we want to take? Is that how we want to face this situation? There is a study that was published by the Public Library of Science, Peritraumatic Distress, Watching Television, and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms among Rescue Workers after the Great East Japan Earthquake. In this study, college students were given a list of different activities that they could do to reduce their stress for a period of time during the study. They could choose from breathing and stretching. They could choose meditation, exercising, spending more time with friends, taking a break from watching the news was one of the options and there were a few more.


What's interesting about this study is that the activity that was the most popular with the students was taking a break from watching the news. It seems like something people like to do if they feel like it's an option.

Here's some more suggestions. Ask yourself how is the news affecting me? Specifically, is it affecting you on a cognitive level? Is it affecting you on a nervous system level? Or is it affecting you on a trauma level? Is it retriggering trauma? If it's affecting you on a cognitive level, then probably what you would notice are thoughts about your fears about the future. And that can lead to mental burnout, mental stress. If it's affecting you on an nervous system level, you might notice physical tightness in your abdomen, and maybe some other areas of your body as well. Checking in, “Am I physically feeling stressed after I watch the news?”

That takes mindfulness, it takes a moment to take a breath and check in and do a body scan and see what feels tight or achy. And if it's retriggering trauma, that's more ambiguous, but I will tell you that retriggered trauma on a physical level often feels like pain in the chest. If you're having retriggered trauma, it might also feel very physical.


Jacob Derossett

Do you have specific advice for people based on how it's showing up in their body?


Sarah Vallely

If it is on a cognitive level, a redirect can be helpful--meaning taking a couple minutes to shift your awareness to the sounds in the environment, the colors on the wall, the shapes in the room, your physical sensation. The practice of noting can be a game changer. We notice our thinking and then we name it. When we name our thinking, we are taking a step back from it. You can't be immersed in your thinking and name it at the same time. So we name it “worry thinking”. We name it, “rumination”. We name it, “catastrophizing”, whatever it is, then we take a step back and let the thinking come and go as it may.


If it's affecting you on a nervous system level, there's some different techniques you can use. Breathing into the abdomen, can be very helpful. Saying gratitude’s--thinking about a few things in your life that you feel grateful for. That's a great way to soothe your nervous system, or just saying an affirmation about safety, “I'm safe in my body”, “I'm safe in my house”.


If it's retriggered trauma, you're probably experiencing it on a very emotional level. So the advice there would be checking in with your emotions. Asking yourself what is coming up and then giving yourself compassion. “It's understandable that I'm feeling this way.” “Even though I feel this way it doesn't mean I'm unloved even though I feel this way I'm loved even though I feel this way I'm worthy of that love.” Self-compassion can move you into more of a healing.


Jacob Derossett

I love that! I love very actionable, hard and fast tips and tricks like that. That's really what I love because then I can write it in a planner and plan it into my day as a reminder or a post it note!

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