A mental health guide to watching the news

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Amid a mass shooting, turmoil in Israel and Gaza and devastating extreme weather events, watching the news can be a bleak, upsetting and overwhelming process. For many people, it’s triggering.

Further complicating the issue is our dependence on media content and social media feeds to keep tabs on what’s happening in the world, particularly during an intense news cycle. And while it’s important to take part in these conversations, mental health experts say it’s also OK to be protective of how much news we consume in these dark times, especially for those prone to anxiety and depression or with experience of trauma.

“Limiting news and social media is a great strategy for managing feelings of anxiety and helplessness,” agrees Jen Hartstein, a former Yahoo Life mental health contributor and practicing psychologist. “Sometimes that is the best thing we can do for ourselves when needed.”

Here, Hartstein and Asha Tarry, a psychotherapist, author, life coach and mental health advocate, share their tips for navigating the news cycle with a healthy mindset.

Listen to your body

Tarry tells Yahoo Life that people should pay attention to the physiological changes they may experience as they tune into the nightly news or scroll through social media. Dilating pupils, a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, headaches, upset stomach, an aching back, shallow breath or sped-up speech can all be cues that “you’re feeling the effects of trauma,” she says.

“Having a mindfulness perspective includes saying to yourself, ‘OK, I’m watching this news right now, and this may feel a little bit more upsetting than what I can handle, and I’m noticing it through those changes that I just pointed to, and now it’s time for me to do something else,” Tarry explains.

“Be clear when you notice those signs, what they are, label them and then work toward understanding that this is temporary in terms of what you can do, and that you have a right to do something else.”

By “tuning into your body,” a person can identify both when it’s time to take a break, and when it feels more comfortable to return to the dialogue.

“[Pay attention to when] you don’t feel or notice those physiological changes, and then if you feel it’s worthwhile, go back in and watch or listen,” Tarry says.

Hartstein advises getting “grounded” when feeling “overwhelmed by your emotions.”

“Take some deep breaths, feel yourself in your body, push your weight into your feet,” she says. “Get yourself into a place where you feel more safe. Don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you are feeling, as you, most likely, are not the only one who is feeling this way.”

Ask friends to share responsibly

Being honest with friends, family members and neighbors is something Tarry also recommends. Asking them to be mindful about sharing information rather than bombarding social media feeds without any context or trigger warnings is one approach.

“It’s OK to send out a mass text or a mass email and just say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been a part of this [conversation] and I look forward to being a part of it again’ — because you have to look at temporary ways of dealing with stress, you can’t turn it off completely — ‘but for now, I’d appreciate that you don’t send me videos,’” Tarry suggests. “I would be very specific. Some people don’t mind an email because they can turn it on when they want to. Other people may be more triggered by watching videos so they don’t want that shared on their social media pages, or they may have to mute their notifications so that they don’t get [news alerts] all day and all night and feel compelled to go online.”

Those people who are more at ease with being glued to social media or the TV, meanwhile, should acknowledge that not everyone feels the same way. Add content warnings for violent or triggering content, and resist inundating contacts who may be struggling.

Set boundaries for yourself

Muting certain accounts, switching off phone and email alerts and limiting screen time can also help someone avoid a constant stream of potentially triggering posts. If you’re having a hard time, give yourself space to switch off and fight the urge to be constantly monitoring the latest headlines and opinions.

“Setting boundaries is key,” says Hartstein. “Allot specific times to check the news and social media and stick to them. Find some good news to explore too, to give back to yourself. Check in with your emotions and how you are doing and shut things down again if you notice that you are feeling overwhelmed.”

Adds Tarry: “Although you want to engage, be mindful of how long you’re engaging.”

Check in with the kids

It’s natural to want to extend that protective mode to young people, but sweeping these thorny issues under the rug isn’t a solution. Tarry says that while it’s smart to vet certain content, such as a live news broadcast, before sharing it with the entire family, it’s unrealistic and unhelpful to completely shut down these issues and news developments — which many children are likely to already be aware of.

“I would advise parents to use their judgment especially related to the age and development of the child,” Tarry says of addressing upsetting news with young ones. “If you have a very mature middle-school-age child who’s already talking about this online with their peers, it’s important to have those conversations about what they’re discussing in school or what they have already seen on the news. If they have their own telephone, they can search for themselves [and see what’s going on].

“Have those daily conversations to check in with your kids and do not assume that because your child is younger than you, they’re not aware of what’s going on in the world," she continues. "You really have to make a judgment call about what your child is mature enough to talk about, and I think you need to use jargon that’s age-appropriate.

“I would say be very cautious about what is in front of them,” Tarry adds, noting that offering a manuscript or description of certain footage is a less triggering alternative for young audiences.

Don’t ignore the “mental turmoil”

Tarry says that upsetting news cycles have created “mental turmoil" for some communities, and acknowledging that is important.

“As a mindfulness practitioner, what I do with people is help them to not deny their experience with trauma,” she says, adding that people should decide for themselves how they interact with what’s happening in the world.

That doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the issues being amplified, or not being an active participant by donating, protesting, debating or using your platform to elevate underrepresented voices. Limiting exposure to the news doesn’t amount to sticking your head in the sand or exercising privilege; it’s about processing tough things while practicing self-care.

“It’s actually a human right to determine what’s enough and what’s too much,” says Tarry. “I want people to think of themselves as being empowered [to make that choice]. ... You have a human right to decide how much is enough, when it’s enough.”

This article was originally published on June 4, 2020 and has been updated.