There’s been a psychological consequence of the news of the spreading Omicron variant; as the New York Times reported on December 13, “a sudden revival of restrictions have added to an epidemic of loneliness.”
It’s possible that epidemic of loneliness, if it does exist, isn’t necessarily helped by the Times’ well-intentioned reporting on the subject.
That’s because news, particularly bad news, sometimes only seems to compound our negative emotions and add to our stress by either reminding us of things we already know or informing us of things we’d rather remain in blissful ignorance of.
Mental health can be decimated by the news cycle, and some have responded to that reality by turning away from media entirely. It’s hard to blame the people who make that choice; as Time’s Athlete of the Year, Simone Biles, reminded us all at the Olympics, the strongest people often choose to take breaks — and maybe that’s exactly why they’re so strong.
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But turning off the news entirely may not be an option for everyone. Some may work in media, have jobs that require current events research, or just want to stay informed about what’s going on in the world without succumbing to so-called “doomscrolling” or news overload.
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What’s more, reading the right amount of bad news might actually have a distinct psychological advantage: it can make us aware of threats, enable us to protect ourselves, and help us build our emotional immune systems — just as measured exposure to germs can invigorate our physical ones.
It can seem like the finest of lines and often is. However, there are ways to read bad news the right way, and embrace the truth of what’s happening “out there” without it causing you too much distress internally; if approached right, learning about the world can be a reward and not a punishment.
How To Read Bad News
The following are some basic strategies that might help someone who wants to be an informed citizen, who considers themselves curious, or who just likes to read — but who doesn’t want to find themselves controlled by their news feeds or the 24/7 coverage cycle.
Look for the source. When taking in news, take a look at the source it comes from. Consider the idea that the headline, no matter what it says, might say more about the particular outlet that produced it than it does about the world or about yourself.
Realize they might be wrong. In the 1800s, the Commissioner of the US patent office declared that “everything that can be invented has been invented.” In the 1960s, a Stanford biologist declared that, based on science of the time, 65 million Americans would succumb to starvation by the 1970s; he also was quite confident that “England will not exist in the year 2000.” Sometimes smart, qualified people who have done their homework still get things wrong.
Monitor your judgments. Remember that we’re not necessarily any more objective than the media is; humans have emotions, after all, that tend to steer us more than hard facts do. Bringing awareness to our own thoughts about bad news as it breaks can help prevent us from getting struck with the same arrow twice: the first time as we read the headline, and the second time as we ruminate about it.
Go analog, not digital. Consider that an old-fashioned newspaper — the kind you can fold under your arm — could help contribute to a sense of calm and control. It lacks flashing lights, loud anchors, pop-up ads, and comment sections; reading, as opposed to scrolling, may better contribute to sustained focus and relaxation as opposed to the frenzy of internet and broadcast coverage.
Set a time limit. We’ve likely all found ourselves scrolling aimlessly on our feeds, unsure of what exactly we’re looking for but convinced it’s just one more refresh away. Sometimes it can feel a little like “zoning out,” even against our will — setting a timer or alarm to go off to wake us up and remind us of how much time we’ve spent can be a good safeguard.
Practice gratitude for emotions. Strong emotions, even negative ones, can be indications that we’ve got functioning limbic systems and are living full and passionate lives. Experiment with thanking your feelings, even unpleasant ones, for the messages they send when they arise.
Think of your team. Headlines about powerful people or mysterious problems can make us feel small. If we take a moment to reflect on our “team,” the people in our corner who care about us and want us to succeed — including role models we may look up to but not know personally — we can remember that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves.
When overwhelmed, unplug entirely. Even with all of the above being said, sometimes the only thing to do is completely remove yourself from stories of any kind. Do so without apology.
By using some of the tips and tricks above, it may be possible to reap the rewards of bad news — like increased information and psychological resilience — while avoiding the downsides. But if these tips are insufficient, there are additional resources that can help.
You’ve got allies you may not even have met yet: folks going through the same thing as you who are right now meeting in support groups, therapists who are trained specifically to help us process troubling thoughts and feelings, and treatment centers that provide a safe haven for people who need to hit the reset button.
If you want to take advantage of those resources, you can contact a treatment provider today. No matter what headlines flash across your screen or across your mind, you ultimately get to write your own story — and there are far more tools and coping strategies than the ones above waiting for you if you do choose to reach out.
Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.
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