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Is it healthy to take a break from the news?

Reviewed by Susan Radzilowski, MSW, LMSW, ACSW

Concerned woman stares at screen of smart phone

Scroll through social media or flip on the TV, and chances are you’ll find relentless coverage of today’s bad news. Gone are the days of three channels delivering the same careful headlines to the entire country. Our current news cycle and the punditry around it follows us everywhere—and while constant access to information can be useful, it comes with a level of risk.

Stephanie, a sales operations manager and parent in Pennsylvania, knows that risk all too well. She first realized something was wrong during the first few months of the pandemic.

“I was up until 4 a.m. every night, convinced that I and everyone I loved was going to get sick,” she says. “It was awful. I was obsessed.” That obsession led to anxiety and eventually panic. Stephanie realized she had to cut back on her news intake.

For many, limiting access to news sounds like a relief. Yet for others, like Stephanie, the idea of backing away can feel stressful or even irresponsible. It’s tricky to find the right balance between staying informed and preserving your mental health, but it can be done.

Why we’re drawn to bad news

Our appetite for bad news is baked in, explains Jonah Paquette, PsyD, whose four books include the forthcoming “Happily Even After.” Human brains are wired with a certain negativity bias.

“If you have two news stories in front of you, one about the border collie that rescued somebody and the other about something awful,” Paquette says, “you’re going to fixate much more on the negative.”

There are two reasons for this. First, we seek out bad news as a protective measure. “Our brain tricks us into thinking, ‘If I’m alert to the danger, then I’m going to be prepared,’” says Paquette. “The problem is when the danger is a story that’s constantly around us, it’s like trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant. There will always be more than we can learn, and we end up becoming consumed.”

Second, Paquette notes, it’s human nature to want to understand the unknown, whether that’s a public health crisis, political turmoil, or even war. “We try to gain mastery over our anxiety by consuming more information, by learning all we can, and we stay glued to this stuff,” he says.

This desire for understanding, when paired with our innate negativity bias and the rise of fear-based news reporting, creates a perfect environment for conditions like anxiety and depression.

That’s just what happened to Stephanie. When a big story broke, she would try to learn everything she could. But in her case, this kicked off a harmful cycle. “I wanted to be informed, but sometimes the news was so bad it felt like there was no way to understand it and no way to help,” she says. “Then I’d become anxious.”

Good news is hard to find

Sometimes it feels like bad news is everywhere. That may be by design.

In 1989, reporter Eric Pooley wrote in New York magazine about how news outlets aim to grab our attention by promoting the most shocking stories up front.1 He referred to this policy as “If it bleeds, it leads.”

More than 30 years later, this is still common practice. A recent study found that media outlets were reporting more bad news about COVID-19, even though the science was showing signs of improvement.2 The study also found that bad news stories are among the most shared on social media. When negativity leads to more clicks, media companies pay attention.

How to tell when it’s time to check out

Stephanie worked with a therapist to identify signals of her growing anxiety, but the warning signs may look different for you. Paquette says there are two main factors to watch out for:

  • Physical and emotional flags: If you’re sleeping less, getting headaches or muscle tension, or noticing appetite changes, it may be time to take action. Another key indicator is “if you’re unable to find your off switch,” says Paquette.
  • Time constraints: Recent studies show that we use our phones more than an average of four hours a day.3 No wonder we’re burning out. “There’s a finite amount of time that any of us have,” says Paquette. “If we spend that much time on our phones, what are we missing out on?” (If you feel too attached to your device, for news or anything else, consider a digital detox.)

The stigma—and privilege—of checking out

Taking a step back from current events may be beneficial at times, but it can involve a certain amount of shame. Stephanie, for example, wants to be an informed voter, an engaged member of her community, and an activist for causes she believes in, but she also needs to avoid triggers that can cause her anxiety.

“I have to protect myself on some level, and I know my limits,” she says. When she has taken in too much and becomes anxious and obsessive, she’s of no help to anyone. At those moments, Stephanie explains, it’s better for everybody if she regulates her news intake.

Checking out can get complicated when it comes to advocacy, too. If you’re working for a particular cause, others in your circle may not understand how taking a break can help you stay healthy enough to keep advocating. This makes the decision to step back feel even harder.

There’s also the reality that checking out from the news is a privilege many people can’t afford. Knowing what’s happening in your community and across the country may be crucial to staying safe and healthy at work, at home, and out in the world.

The case for staying connected

Engaging with some form of news can be empowering. Keeping informed about national elections, for example, helps increase voter turnout and can have a lasting impact.4 At the local level, this could mean participating in a fundraiser for a neighbor or educating yourself about state or regional policy issues that may affect your daily life.

Staying connected can also help you recognize any data breaches or threats to your online information.5 And, of course, it comes with social benefits like building community and staying in touch with loved ones.

Thinking of news consumption as an opportunity for action can help as well. There’s a difference between “passively watching the news and actively engaging with a cause,” says Paquette. If a story about climate change catches your attention, for example, donating a few dollars to help the cause can help you feel some measure of control.

Striking the right balance

How do you care for your mental health while staying informed in a productive way? Paquette offers these strategies:

  • Set boundaries with loved ones. It’s okay to let people know you’re trying to change the way you engage with news. Stephanie set boundaries around how much information her husband shares with her, especially when she’s decided to pull back from a story. “If I say it’s too much, he recognizes that and stops right away,” she says.
  • Take a hard look at your screen time. Paquette says to ask yourself, “What is my relationship with this media and social media? Am I using it, or is it using me?” If you’re neglecting relationships or falling behind on work because you’re glued to your phone, it may be time to set limits.
  • Lower your stress after reading the news. Research shows that the physical and psychological effects of bad news can be lessened when followed by a relaxing activity.6 Whether you take a quick walk, do some yoga, read a chapter of your favorite book, or call a close friend, de-stressing can help combat the effect of negative news.
  • Talk to someone. A therapist can help you process your feelings about current events, as well as help you understand your news consumption habits and regulate them as needed. Browse our directory to find a mental health professional near you.

Today, Stephanie has a much better handle on how she follows the news. By setting boundaries and paying attention to her body’s cues, she manages to stay up to date without getting overwhelmed. To her surprise, she’s also begun to find and focus on positive news stories.

Paquette agrees that there’s much more good news out there than you might realize, especially if you look through a historic lens.

“There’s a lot of good stuff happening, and we’ve made a lot of progress,” he says. “The world can get better if we keep fighting to make it better, and that’s an empowering thing.”

About the author

Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.