The Importance of Unplugging from the News

Guy watching sports match in tv and shouting

Living through this pandemic has created a myriad of interesting and often very challenging problems associated with mental health. One of these is news addiction.

Many of us feel like we are living on the edge, that the world we once knew has disappeared and almost every day we hear reports of the many ways the virus is impacting the world and therefore our lives. Often without being aware of it, we can be drawn to watching the latest news sometimes jumping from source to source in our need to keep current.

This fixation, which actually can be a kind of addiction, can have many very negative side effects on our mental health.

ABC news shared an interesting Inside Science story describing what is called “Doomscrolling. This word describes the act of obsessively reading bad news despite the onset of anxiety. It only entered the popular vernacular this year, but research stretching back for decades has long warned that consuming too much negative news can take its toll.

Contributor Benjamin Plackett shares what Roxane Cohen Silver, a research psychologist at the University of California states about our current times. They note that things are probably made worse… “because it can feel as though we’ve lurched from one crisis to another this year before we’ve even had time to recover or process what happened.”  Basically, we live in a state of constant fear, stress and worry about what is happening in the world without the means to actually do something to change things.

In an article entitled Unplugging from the News Can Spare Your Mental Health author Aderonke Oguntoye, a double board-certified psychiatrist in adult and forensic psychiatry, warns us  that there is research showing that absorbing too much news can increase anxiety, worry and even trigger symptoms of PTSD. These symptoms can happen gradually as the constant influx of frightening, distressing and overwhelming information causes our minds and brains to be in a state of constant hypervigilance.

Dr. Oguntoye shared some of the physical signs that are indicators of emotional stress: frequent headaches, diarrhea/constipation, sleep changes (too much, too little), irritable mood, energy changes (hyperactive or low energy), poor concentration or focus, feeling nervous even if nothing in particular is happening, sugar/carb cravings, rapid heartbeat/chest tightness, shortness of breath, unconscious clenching of teeth/hands/shoulders, changes in sex drive, decreased interest in things that you used to enjoy and increased desire for drinking or smoking.

Sometimes it is the people around you who are noticing your high levels of stress that you may be oblivious to.

man wants to break TV with a hammer at the screen. Fake news on the TV screen, News report with false news.

News addiction can be a sneaky problem because the intention of watching so much news is to stay well informed. Seems like what we should do as responsible citizens! Because we are so much more isolated these days and often have time on our hands, it is easy to remain constantly plugged into news sources.

As with any addiction, there are a variety of approaches one can take to break the habit of doomscrolling. For some they must completely disconnect for a very long period of time and rely on others to tell them if there is some crisis they need to learn about because it directly impacts them. Others may need to set time limits and stick with them, making sure they engage in things that are fun and provide a sense of purpose and productivity.

Just being able to identify the reality that a person can actually become addicted to the news can be enlightening and in its own way relieving. Once unplugged people often report very positive changes in their moods and behaviors. They also note that family members are grateful as well to have that person back to their more normal, relaxed self.

This information can be important to pass along to others who may be unaware that they are harming themselves and maybe harming their family members just by trying to keep up with all the news.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Consider how many hours a day you watch the news on television and/or social media. Do you feel like it has to be on even in the background when you are doing other things?
  2. Would it make you anxious to think you need to stop watching news? This could be a sign that you recognize you will go into a kind of withdrawal if you do that.
  3. As with any addiction, do some research on ways to unplug and disconnect in order to promote your own physical and mental health.

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute