It’s been a horrific time for the people of Ukraine – and our thoughts are with them. If you’ve been doomscrolling through social media more than usual, and endlessly watching it all unfold on Twitter, Instagram and TV, you’re not alone. But this can be detrimental to our mental health – especially if you already struggle with anxiety. So don’t feel bad if you need to take a break. It’s important to strike the right balance between being informed and becoming totally overwhelmed. Here’s how to deal with news anxiety in times of crisis.

Why does the news make me anxious?

These are troubling times. We’ve just started to get a grip on COVID, and now there’s a war on. Information can make us feel more in control. But a constant stream of disastrous news has a negative impact on our mental health. And the news is always available, since the way we consume it has changed immeasurably in recent decades.

We used to consume the news intentionally, by buying a daily newspaper, or switching on the Six O’Clock News. Today, it’s hard to avoid. It’s a constant stream of social media in our pocket, and available 24-hours a day on TV and radio. This total immersion in the never-ending news cycle may feel normal – but it’s a relatively new phenomenon.

The 24-hour news cycle started in 1980 with the launch of CNN. The 1991 Gulf War was the first war we watched unfold in real time on TV. Social media and smartphones are barely 15 years old. And it’s only in the last few years that video has become widely consumed on them. Now we have access to live streaming news content at any hour of the day or night on a device that most of us have in our pocket at all times.

Watching the news is a different experience to reading a newspaper. Events from natural disasters to wars may be many miles away – but modern media makes us feel more engaged with them. It brings events into our living rooms and onto our phone screens, 24 hours a day. While this can be a positive thing – we’re more informed, have greater empathy and feel more empowered to act – there is a downside too.

Our brains haven’t caught up with this modern technology. They’re wired to screen for perceived danger, and still respond in an evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ way to it. While we might not be in imminent physical danger, our brains are still flooded with the same stress chemicals. Over time, this can cause emotional difficulties – and just become exhausting. And it doesn’t help that the pandemic has meant that we’ve already spent the last two years or more in a state of background hyper-vigilance.

If you’re feeling anxious, depressed, sad, stressed, overwhelmed or exhausted, there could be any number of reasons for these feelings. But don’t underestimate the impact of the 24-hour news cycle. And if you were already struggling with anxiety, news of world events may exacerbate it. So it’s important to look after yourself, give yourself a break – and try to find some balance.

The psychological effects of bad news

Research has warned for decades that negative news takes its toll on our mental health, in the form of increased stress, anxiety and depression. Doomscrolling has also been a subject of research more recently, with researchers encouraging us to monitor the frequency and volume of news we consume. Constant exposure to disastrous news can trigger or exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety, and catastrophic thoughts. It may also cause tiredness and trouble sleeping – and even physical health problems such as high blood pressure.

For those caught up in the war or disasters, or with friends and relatives directly affected, the fear and anxiety will be acute. But even if you’re watching from afar, you may experience feelings of anxiety, helplessness and overwhelm. Here are some of the ways you may be affected by the news:

  • Stress. Bad news can trigger stress responses, including that ‘fight or flight’ feeling, and lead to feelings of overwhelm. It can trigger our autonomic nervous system, leading to a spike in the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. And what psychologists call an ‘intolerance of uncertainty’ is a stressor that many people experience as we lurch from one crisis to another.
  • Anxiety. Worrying about and ruminating on events can lead to a cycle of anxiety, overthinking and negative thoughts such as catastrophising. It doesn’t help if those feelings are constantly fed by over-consumption of news media.
  • Helplessness. The stress and anxiety that you may be feeling is linked to a sense of helplessness. Distressing news events remind us that many situations are outside of our control. You may also feel frustrated and angry – a sort of impotent rage that you can’t do anything about the situation.
  • Overwhelm. You may feel overwhelmed, shocked or numbed by the situation – especially if you are directly affected. It may be hard to focus or know what to do.
  • Depression. We may experience feelings of depression, and despair at the state of the world.
  • Tiredness. All of these feelings are exhausting. It takes a lot of cognitive energy to process disastrous events and your feelings about them. And the stress hormones that may be in your system take their toll – especially over the long term.
  • Trouble sleeping. You may have a disrupted sleep pattern, particularly if you’re experiencing high levels of anxiety. Consuming too much news late at night can also make getting to sleep harder. Not just because of the ‘blue light’ your screens emit – but because of the disturbing content of what you’re watching.

10 ways to cope with news anxiety

First of all, don’t feel bad for wanting to take a break from the news and protect your mental health. Just because you don’t stay glued to 24-hour rolling news, talk radio or Twitter doesn’t mean you don’t care or lack empathy. It just means you need to find a healthy balance between being informed and overwhelmed. This is especially important during a global crisis. After all, if you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to help other people. Here are some things to try.

  1. Accept your feelings – and recognise that they’re normal. If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, depressed or despairing about current events, there’s not necessarily anything ‘wrong’ with you that needs to be ‘fixed’. It’s normal to be worried about the world right now. Your feelings are valid, and you’re entitled to them. Bottling them up and suppressing them – rather than experiencing and expressing them – can cause more harm than good.
  2. Avoid catastrophising. Notice any catastrophic scenarios you might be creating in your mind. When you notice that you’re having a catastrophic thought, tell yourself it’s just that – a thought. Instead of trying to predict the future or imagining the worst-case scenario, focus on living each day moment-by-moment.
  3. Count your blessings. Practising gratitude can lower stress and feelings of depression. If you’re fortunate enough not to be caught up in disastrous events, recognise that privilege. Be grateful for your security and safety – and also for the positive sides of humanity that are also on display during times of crisis.
  4. Find a balance. Managing your media consumption can help you stay up to date while also reducing your stress. Try to strike a balance between being as informed as you need to be, and being overwhelmed by news media. Take a news diet, or go on a social media detox. Stick to one news outlet you trust, and set a time limit. Try limiting your social media time to two 5-minute check-ins a day – or even delete your apps, even if only temporarily.
  5. Set aside ‘worry time’. If you find that you’re worrying about world events much of the time, consider setting aside discrete ‘worry time’ to check the news and focus on your anxieties. Then at least you’re not worrying all the time, which may help make things more manageable. And try to distract yourself with other activities at other times.
  6. Get a good night’s sleep. News anxiety can easily disrupt our sleep patterns. Aim to practise healthy sleep habits, or good ‘sleep hygiene’. Try to go to bed consistently at the same time each day and give yourself time for around 7-9 hours’ sleep. Try to minimise screen time and watching the news before bedtime. And don’t stay up endlessly scrolling through Twitter, TikTok or Instagram. Ideally, leave your phone in another room.
  7. Take action. If your worries are related to feelings of helplessness in the face of world events, is there something you can do – however small – to feel more in control? This could involve helping others, or getting engaged in politics. For example, you could make a charitable donation, volunteer or sign a petition.
  8. Practise meditation and breathing techniques. Our bodies don’t do well if we’re constantly on high alert. News anxiety can trigger this feeling of vigilance. Bring your attention back to your body, your breath and the present moment each morning with a short mindfulness meditation. There are lots of apps available to guide you. Meditation can help change your relationship with your thoughts. You can observe which thoughts are causing you anxiety – without ruminating on the anxiety-provoking thoughts themselves. Breathing slowly and deeply also gives your parasympathetic nervous system a boost, which promotes a sense of calm. Simply breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds – and repeat as needed.
  9. Practise self-care. Take some time out every day to do something you enjoy – and to focus on something other than the news and world events. You might take a bath, read a book, go for a walk or listen to music, for example.
  10. Talk to someone. If you’re struggling with stress, overwhelm, anxiety or depression, especially if it’s interfering with your daily life, it can really help to speak to someone. This may be a friend, family member, your GP or a therapist.

You can’t control world events, or the sheer amount and availability of news media that surrounds you. But you can control your relationship with it. So try to find that healthy balance. Unplug from time to time, take a deep breath, and do something completely different to take your mind off things. The news will still be there when you get back. But you’ll have a calmer and clearer mind, and be better able to deal with it.