This story was updated on Jan. 1, 2019.
Seventeen killed and 17 wounded in a high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Eleven worshippers slaughtered in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Several hundred children separated from their parents at the U.S. border. Contentious Supreme Court hearings, the stock market tanking, the government shut down—again.
2018 was quite a year. And those are just a few of the headlines that rocked our world.
In a world where bad news already breaks at warp speed, the past 12 months have been particularly rough. And who knows what 2019 will bring?
A recent study out from the American Psychological Association confirms that issues in the national news are causing high levels of stress for many. More than six in 10, for example, say that mass shootings are a significant source of stress for them, with substantial numbers saying the same about rising suicide rates, climate change and global warming, separation of immigrant families, and similar issues making the headlines these days.
You want to stay present for the world. You want to know what’s going on. But you’d also like some tips on how to screen the noise, the invective, and the horror.
In these times, your cell phone, with its constant barrage of headline notifications can be your worst enemy. But used smartly, it can also be your best ally in protecting you against the anxiety that can arise over any bad news that unfolds in the year ahead.
Understand your tolerance level
“If knowing about the terrible things that humans are doing to each other prevents you from getting out of bed, or taking care of your children, then you have find ways to limit your exposure,” says Kelly McBride, senior vice president of the Poynter Institute.
In that case, she says, stay off of social media and limit your news consumption to about 30 minutes a day, preferably in print.
Likewise, if you battle depression or another form of mental illness, you have a responsibility to protect yourself and limit the amount of awful news you ingest, McBride says.
But if you’re simply feeling fatigued, sticking your head in the sand isn’t the answer.
“I had a well-intentioned friend tell me that she doesn’t consume any national or global news because she can’t do anything about it,” McBride says. “I find that selfish and irresponsible and lacking in imagination.’’
A better approach, she suggests: If the news feels overwhelming, turn off cable TV and get a subscription to a news magazine.
“It’s sort of like the slow food movement for news,’’ she says, referring to the grassroots movement to keep food local and authentic. “Slow news.”
Feeling worn out
It’s not just the tenor of the news that can be distressing, but the volume with which it comes at you.
According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, almost seven in 10 Americans are exhausted by the amount of news being thrown at them. And that feeling of information overload is more prevalent among older respondents.
“Americans ages 65+ were slightly more likely to feel worn out by the amount of news there is than younger age groups,” says Jeffrey Gottfried, Senior Researcher at Pew.
This isn’t the first time we’ve been here. This seven-in-ten number is in line with Pew’s findings during the 2016 presidential election, when a similar number of Americans reported feelings of news exhaustion.
The tensions between the Trump administration and the news media also have an effect, when both younger and older groups were each likely to feel that the relationship is unhealthy.
“Large majorities of each age group felt that the tensions were getting in the way of getting access to important political information,’’ Gottfried says.
The bottom line: Americans, no matter what age, are feeling overwhelmed.
It’s not just by news of shootings or natural disasters, but by a vitriolic climate in Washington. Volume, too, matters: a prevalence of screens, beeps, and buzzes means more exposure to the news cycle, even when it’s not necessarily wanted.
Goodnight, cell phone
There is one hard and fast rule when it comes to managing your news consumption: Limit your screen time however possible.
That might mean ditching your phone, at least for certain hours of the day, says Chelsea Connors, a therapist and life coach .in New York City.
“I’m a huge fan of creating a bedtime for your phone in the same way we create bedtimes for ourselves,” Connors says. “Setting an alarm for a certain time at night can be helpful in reminding you to put the device down and plug it in somewhere away from your bed or even outside of your bedroom.”
This sentiment is backed by Laura Hazard Owen, deputy editor of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. Owen says her problem is an addiction to Twitter, and what she calls an “artificial need to ‘stay on top of things.’”
“The screen time controls in the new iOS 12 are really useful,” she says. “They’re intended to be used to manage kids’ screen time, but I use them myself.”
Owen enabled “Downtime,” a new iPhone feature that’s designed to cut down on distractions during certain periods. Starting a 9 p.m. every night and going until 7 a.m. the next morning, it lets texts and calls come through, but blocks you from using apps on a list you control.
“I applied it to all apps,” she said. “I know that I can pretty easily get around it but I’ve found that so far, I don’t.”
Then, there’s the option of disabling notifications altogether. You can do this for news apps, or, if you want to cut down even further on the likelihood you’ll get sucked into your smartphone, you can disable them for all apps.
Go to black and white
A surprisingly useful tool in combating compulsive news-checking is turning your phone to “Grayscale.” By turning your phone’s screen to black and white, your apps — and, by extension, your news apps — can lose their alarmist luster.
Think of it. Photos at the top of news stories are less powerful. Notifications, stripped of their panic-inducing red badges, are just numbers. Suddenly, the news is just news.
“If you find yourself feeling depressed or anxious by the news, adding in some type of routine to separate your experience from the continuation of your day can be really helpful in teaching your mind and body how to disconnect,” said Connors.
“Often times we experience depression or anxiety physically, so adding in five minutes of meditation, 10 mindful deep breaths or a quick walk around the block to get some fresh air can help to create some distance between your experience of the news and the rest of your world.”
If you’d like to try mindfulness, the Headspace app is a good place to start.
Now here’s an idea
Incorporate something into your media diet that isn’t news, and doesn’t appear on a screen.
Turn off your phone and read a book.
“I’m doing solid chunks of reading physical books every night and it makes me feel less garbage-y,” said Owen.
The news can often make people so fearful that they become stagnant, says therapist and wellness coach Risha London Nathan. Her advice to patients and clients? Become a part of the solution.
“If you’re worried about climate change, can you volunteer somewhere?” Nathan says. “Or can you simply focus on adjusting your life and your plastic and chemical consumption?”
Likewise, if you’re worried about the current political climate, consider volunteering at your local polling site, or registering people to vote. By actively becoming a participant—whether it’s in the democratic process at large, or in a solution to a problem like climate change—you pare down your feelings of helplessness.
Help yourself to help others
“Remind yourself that you’ll be unable to help any situation or approach it from a grounded place if you’re constantly warped by the most recent update,” says Connors, the life coach.
It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but past a certain point, you’re not using your energy usefully. Yelling at the television can feel momentarily cathartic, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t move the needle. Likewise, becoming so overloaded with information that you reach a catatonic state isn’t going to help anyone, either.
So the next time a wave of bad news hits, just remember that managing your energy and mental well-being isn’t selfish. In many ways, managing your media consumption during a distressing news cycle is a form of altruism, says Connors.
“We can easily lose sight of the fact that we can’t care for others—or be as productive in the world—if we’re not taking care of ourselves first,” she says.