How To Read the News Without Sacrificing Your Mental Health | Sojourners

How To Read the News Without Sacrificing Your Mental Health

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Original image by Luis Cortés via Unsplash. Graphic by Mitchell Atencio/Sojourners.
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When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Daniel Burke felt overwhelmed by the pace of the news cycle.

“The images and the stories, particularly about young children and schools … being bombarded [were overwhelming.] I have young kids and I felt pretty deeply affected by these stories,” Burke told Sojourners. “The way we make news these days … it’s like a firehose … it’s really easy to become overwhelmed.”

Burke, a former religion editor at CNN and contributing editor at Tricycle, is not alone in feeling overwhelmed. Forty-two percent of people in the U.S. will “sometimes or often actively avoid the news,” according to a 2022 Reuters Institute and University of Oxford report, and nearly half of those respondents said they felt the news had a negative effect on their mood.

Yet the majority of people in the U.S. — 81 percent — say that news is “critical” or “very important” for democracy, according to Gallup and the Knight Foundation. This can be especially true for Christians who follow 20th century theologian Karl Barth’s adage to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

If God is calling us to build more just communities, we are first called to know what is happening in those communities — and for that, we often need the work of journalists. But engaging news should not come at the expense of one’s mental health and emotional wellbeing. Here’s how engaging the news can be a personally and societally beneficial process.

What makes people turn away from the news?

Since 2016, news avoidance researchers Benjamin Toff, Ruth Palmer, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen have conducted over 160 interviews with people in multiple countries who consume little to no news. Through one set of interviews in the U.K., the researchers found that news avoiders not only felt that the news was negative and irrelevant to their lives, but they also anticipated it would make them feel anxious. That anticipated anxiety was key to how news avoiders explained their decision.

“News is seen as emotionally taxing — a source of uncertainty and lack of control — making it an obstacle to deeper political engagement in a complex and upsetting world,” the authors write (italics original).

Even though some respondents felt that they had an abstract responsibility to follow current events, they still consumed little of it, “associating news with anxiety and believing it offered little to make them feel more in control or certain about how to navigate their lives,” the authors write.

Engaging with large scale problems — pandemics, climate change, or wars halfway across the world — can create a sense of powerlessness. It’s hard to imagine what you can individually do to stop oil spills or end U.S. drone strikes.

In his research and interviews, Toff told Sojourners that he came to realize that much of what might be perceived as “extreme behavior” of news avoidance “actually seems quite reasonable.”

“You can understand, given the way that they live their lives day to day, why they don't have a stronger appreciation for the value of news,” he said.

For many people, Toff explained, “it's very hard to tell what it is that you're supposed to do with all this information about things happening elsewhere in the world that you ultimately probably don't feel like you have much an ability to do anything about.”

How to take care of yourself

The good news is that we aren’t powerless against the stress and anxiety that following the news can cause. And we can practice engaging the news, rather than just passively receiving it.

Matthias Roberts, a psychotherapist who focuses on issues of sexuality and faith, told Sojourners that paying attention to how his body physically and emotionally feels when reading or watching the news — or on social media — is a primary practice to help build healthy engagement.

For Roberts, this often means noticing when he doesn’t have a reaction to news that would normally cause heartbreak. Dissociation is “usually a pretty good indication to me that something is off,” he said.

“… Staying connected to our emotions can create more action and more ability,” Roberts said. “Even if that action is just grief; even if that action is wailing in lament or being really angry, we actually can do something with those emotions.”

If we aren’t allowing our bodies to respond emotionally, we might even keep ourselves from acting for justice.

Our bodies can help us process the news as well, said Hillary McBride, a registered psychologist and author of The Wisdom of Your Body. She said that processing the news is not just cognitive, but a somatic process.

“I don’t think our bodies are designed to know about things that are happening — that we can’t do anything about — to people who are outside of our communities,” McBride said. “When we are continually exposed to things that leave us feeling powerless and overwhelmed, that we can't do anything about — or we learn not to do anything about … I think that creates an intolerable [cumulative stress] in our system.”

When Daniel Burke realized how the news from Russia’s war in Ukraine was weighing on him, he set himself boundaries and a process. He limited himself to only reading about Ukraine in the morning, for 30 minutes, and only from reputable sources like The New York Times. Then, he closes his computer, goes on a walk, and doesn’t read any news about Ukraine until the next day.

“That put limits on myself. It was hard because I was really interested in what was happening there,” Burke said. “But at the same time, with my own mental health in mind, I had to say, ‘This is the best way for me to approach it right now.’”

McBride said that going for a walk is a great example of bilateral stimulation — a pattern of stimulation for the body’s senses that activates both sides of the brain — which can help process emotions.

Less passive, more engaged

“Emotion is a body process, and so if we’re experiencing activation in our body, we need to release it to our body,” McBride said. “I wanna encourage people to … first of all, create a little bit of space to notice what you feel like as you engage in the news. And then when you do feel something, put your phone down. Go for a walk. Go for a run. Jump up and down on the spot. Cry. Hold yourself. Shake. Go for a bike ride. Swim in the ocean. Put your feet in the grass. Do something that’s in your body to signal to yourself that you sense the activation and it has a way to come out through your body.”

Feeling our emotions may be the first step to actively engaging with the news, rather than passively receiving it. When we respond and act in the world because of news, we are more likely to combat feelings of powerlessness. For Burke, this has meant finding constructive ways to spend his attention after the 30 minutes of reading.

“I’m gonna turn my attention to something else: See what Catholic Relief Services is doing and if I can connect with them in some way,” Burke said. “Whether it’s through amplifying them on social media or contributing in some way myself. It’s not much in the face of an aggressive invasion. But mental health-wise it can be helpful.”

McBride said that paying attention to our social location can also guide what news to follow more closely and what news to follow more cautiously or not at all.

“I live in Canada, and I’m a settler on Indigenous land. When there were conversations happening in Canada last summer about residential schools and mass graves, it felt really important — painful, but really important — to be witnessing what was happening in the news as a way of honoring the sacredness of the lost and of the stories.”

Limiting our news intake may feel challenging when there are so many important problems to solve and pay attention to, but McBride suggested thinking of news as medicine — a balanced dose can make the difference between healing and hurting.

Local news may provide “more opportunity for engagement, application integration, processing,” McBride said. But national or global news doesn’t have to always inspire a sense of powerlessness. In the right doses, she said, one might read national and global news and listen for calls-to-action or opportunities to interrogate how processing the news can be personally transformative.

Roberts said that remembering the structure of much news, particularly on social media, is meant to be addictive and never ending, can help us notice how our body is responding.

“They’re designed to keep us engaged and designed just to keep us coming back. Just even noticing and realizing that is a huge first step,” Roberts said. “We do have a level of agency in that. We can turn off notifications. We can choose the way that we consume our news … I’m not super great at it, but I have tried to subscribe to a [digital] newspaper … and get my news media from the actual paper instead of the news app and instead of Twitter.”

It can also be helpful to engage news in the context of community. McBride and her husband would alternate reading “fast news” — breaking news, social media, and daily news — and “slow news” — magazines and longform stories. They would share important news with each other while helping regulate the activation and anxiety that came from the unending “fast news” cycle.

Burke said that after 16 years of working in the nonstop cycle of journalism, the new pacing and boundaries have helped his mental health and mood — without sacrificing his engagement in the world.

“I’m definitely much happier. I feel mentally better with this way of engaging media,” Burke said. “I guess I had this notion that engaging the media meant engaging the world, but that's not true, right? You can still engage in the world offline in a million ways. And because I was so plugged in for so long, I had forgotten that. But I'm really happy to reconnect to that way of thinking.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly titled Hillary McBride as a clinical therapist, she is a registered psychologist. The story was updated Oct. 20 at 4:15 p.m.