Can tragic news make you sick?
On the heels of two mass shootings over the weekend, many of us have a hard time tearing our eyes away from the nonstop news coverage — ticker scrolls across the bottom of your screen, interjections mid-broadcast and constant headlines hitting the airwaves and your newsfeeds.
It can feel overwhelming. But can all that bombardment of information be making you sick?
“Constant and repetitive exposure to disturbing news stories can definitely cause a sense of fear and anxiety in people,” says Dr. Cheri Miller, a psychologist with Advocate Medical Group in Bloomington, Ill.
“The effects are very real,” Dr. Miller says. “Especially when acts of violence, like terrorism, are watched over and over, we see an uptick in depression, stress and even post-traumatic stress symptoms as well as substance abuse.”
In fact, a study following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings found that people who spent more than six hours a day watching media coverage of the incident and its aftermath experienced more stress reactions than people who were directly involved or affected in the attacks on-site.
Six hours may seem far-fetched, but it can add up faster than you think.
The American Psychological Association reports that one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and 20% of Americans “constantly” check their social media feeds where headlines show up almost instantly.
The type of media can matter, too. With smartphones capturing video moments, you can see clips of bystander “eyewitness” news, allowing you to feel even more like you are on the scene yourself even if you live across the world. That attribution can increase your likelihood to “feel” the stress, anxiety and shock.
The effects aren’t just limited to our mental and emotional health. Stress-related hormones like cortisol have been associated with conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and even cardiovascular disease.
So why are you so affected by troubling news?
The answer goes way back to our primal days when our survival depended on a hardwired “fight or flight” mentality.
Parts of the human brain are still trained to detect threats, making it harder to ignore those headlines that lead when they bleed, so to speak. News that cause us to be on high alert signals our bodies to pump stress-related hormones.
Dr. Miller recommends limiting our exposure to disturbing news altogether to help prevent becoming overwhelmed.
A few ways to do this? Try turning off notifications for news apps on your phone and only check the news one to two times per day, at maximum.
Don’t keep the news playing in the background of your home or office, and when you feel overwhelmed, take a walk, breathe deeply or engage in a relaxing activity.
About the Author
Katie Wilkes, health enews contributor, is a freelance public affairs specialist at Advocate Aurora Health. A DePaul University alum, she brings a decade of experience in media relations and content development to her role. Katie is also the co-founder and Emmy-nominated producer at Freeheart Creative, dedicated to sharing stories of brave women around the world. In her spare time, you can find her zen-ing out at a yoga studio and chilling with her 14-year old West Highland Terrier.