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The toll of bad news on your health

  • Diane L. Oswald
  • Nursing
how bad news affects health

On location, the cameraman takes a wide-angle shot revealing the destruction of a small village. The lens zooms in on a muddy soccer ball, leaving the viewer with the impression that loved ones were lost, lives were forever changed and that a difficult future lies ahead. But, this isn’t a scene from an action film, it is b-roll for a news story with an on-site reporter giving an emotional account of the events that caused the devastation. As you watch and listen, have you stopped to consider what toll this story, and others like it, may be having on your health?

You might live a world away from a troubling event, but just turn on your television, pick up a newspaper or log into your favorite social media site to experience the pervasive influence of negative news. We print, air, tweet, post, blog and chat about traffic accidents, fires, mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other tragic events. It can be overwhelming, dredging up a range of emotions that lead to exhaustion or a general malaise. For those who struggle with anxiety or depression, the consequences of prolonged exposure to negative news may be more debilitating or have longer-lasting effects.

We live in challenging times to be sure, but with each day, we must take care of our families, go to work and live our lives. So, what are the possible health implications of being constantly exposed to negative news? How much bad news is too much for our own wellbeing? How do we stay informed without becoming overwhelmed?

Technology delivers powerful images and emotional story lines with news being reported almost in real time, in vivid colors and textures wherever we are. A steady diet of tragic news can impact our mood, leaving us feeling depressed, angry, hopeless, irrationally vulnerable or aggressive.

“Research has shown that there is a physical connection between what we think and the parts of the body that our brains control,” said Willa Decker, a clinical assistant professor and nurse specialist in psychiatric mental health with the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. “Intense negative emotions can alter our perspective and contribute to our having headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, a weakened immune system or other health issues.” With daily reports of tragic events occurring throughout the world, it can be easy to get caught up in the tragedy of it all.

Determining a personal threshold for exposure to bad news can be tricky, but it is important. When a violent or catastrophic story is covered non-stop in the news, there is a tendency to watch or listen for prolonged blocks of time. It may hold our attention out of our concern, anger or shock, but once we are no longer gaining new information through our attentiveness, we may be hurting ourselves.

“Self-awareness is key, the point at which negative news affects our emotional and physical well-being is different for each individual,” Decker said. “But, if you notice that your heart rate has increased, you’ve become irritable, overly emotional or if you just feel drained, you might be experiencing the adverse effects of the bad news, and it may be time for you to step away and regroup.”

Although we think of watching the news as an adult activity, children can also be bombarded by troubling headlines, images and stories throughout the course of a normal day.

“Whether children are exposed to tragic news through conversations with their peers, television, social media or other channels, they are also vulnerable to its’ potential harmful health effects,” Decker said. “Children may not know how to express what is bothering them, so they may become quite or aggressive for no apparent reason. We know that children whose parents are actively involved in their lives have an easier time adjusting through difficult circumstances. So, communicating with our children about what happened, reassuring them about their own wellbeing and modeling healthy responses can make a tremendous difference.”

Over the years, journalism has shifted away from straight news reporting to include commentary, and now the audience can even participate in the news process through sharing relevant photos or video, and expressing emotions, concerns and opinions on-line with a click of a button. This means that we are more intimately connected to world news than ever before, and we should consider what, if anything we should be doing differently.

“It might be helpful to schedule a reasonable amount of time each day to catch up on the news, and then focus the remainder of your day on living,” said Decker. “Taking care of ourselves by making sure we are getting enough rest, eating well and exercising is an important part of our overall well-being, and it can go a long way toward mitigating our exposure to so much disheartening news.”

So many things are out of our control, and although no one can do everything, it is important to remember that everyone can do something. When we volunteer our time or make a donation to alleviate someone’s pain and suffering, we make a difference their lives, and knowing that, might help us feel more hopeful. Finally, we all need to look for good news and positive human interest stories. Seeing the bright side of life not only provides a more realistic picture of the world, but it can create optimism—which is also good for our health.

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