Turn to any news channel, news site, or social media platform, and you’re bound to see continuous updates on the situation in Ukraine, the individual and public health toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing political and racial divisiveness in the United States, and more.
So how can someone who wants to keep up on developments protect themselves from stress, anxiety, and dysfunction when such negative news seems to be everywhere?
“I think everyone’s experiencing some degree of anxiety about what’s happening in the world,” says Michael Ziffra, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago.
It’s a matter of severity; Being anxious is a normal human reaction, he says. But watching the news becomes a problem if it “makes it hard for you to do what you need to do and just sort of enjoy life.”
Different people will react differently, but in general, “the sign that it’s getting a bit too much is if you cannot stop or pull yourself away from it,” he says.
It also can be a problem if someone spends a lot of time obsessing or ruminating about negative news while off screen, to the point that it disrupts their work or home life, Ziffra says.
When Stressors Stack Up
A cumulative effect is also possible when negative news updates come close together.
“Clearly, what we’re experiencing right now is unprecedented — all this happening at once — prolonged pandemic, the political turmoil, the war, climate change,” Ziffra says.
Long-term exposure to stressors generally worsens anxiety, he says.
Although the effects of chronic stress vary from person to person, many have feelings of depression, anxiousness, sleep disruption, and fatigue.
Uncertainty Can Up the Anxiety
A stressful event generally has a beginning and end, which can help people manage their reactions to it. In contrast, some of the current stressful situations carry more uncertainty.
“Look at what’s going on in the world right now. We still don’t know how things are going to play out with the pandemic or with the Russia and Ukraine conflict,” Ziffra says.
If someone has a relative or friends in Ukraine, keeping up on developments is normal, he says. But “people need to be mindful of the fact that they’re going to be very sensitive to the latest developments.”
Avoid looking at photos or watching videos coming out of Ukraine, he says, because they can be graphic. Instead, restrict your exposure to written news updates.
In addition, Ziffra suggests anyone feeling more stress or anxiety than usual seek out their friends and other social contacts. Because most of the country is not in a COVID-19 lockdown, it is easier to reach out to friends and family now for support.
In March 2020, ahead of the divisive federal elections and the beginning of the pandemic, Ziffra wrote “5 Ways to Cope with the News” on the Northwestern Medicine website. His suggestions on ways to avoid triggers and manage stress still apply today, he says.
He warned at the time that “developing obsessive habits of consuming news and information can be dangerous to your mental health.” In addition, social media can intensify the effects of news overload.
Also recognize that obsessing over the news is very common. Ziffra wrote, “We’re in very uncertain times, and times of uncertainty tend to be very anxiety-provoking for people.”
Michael Ziffra, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Northwestern University: “5 Ways to Cope with the News.”
Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.