I cried watching Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon’s tribute to late actor and comedian Robin Williams last night. I cried when the bad news first broke and again reading the details of his daughter's temporary social silence after being on the receiving end of appalling comments.
Now, by default, I’m a sensitive person. I grew up on Williams’ movies and have reported enough on the negative effects of depression to know suicide is 100 percent preventable. But it isn’t just Williams eliciting my tears. It’s the surreal situation in Ferguson, Miss. It’s the essential genocide in Gaza. It’s the over 2,000 lives lost to the worst outbreak of Ebola on record. And as it turns out, it’s not just me.
Yesterday, Huffington Post Live hosted a segment in an effort to shed some light on the impact of the world’s negative news, if the news does, in fact, impact a person’s mental health. The short answer is yes, much to my (maybe morbid) relief.
Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, an associate psychology professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, told HuffPost Live that she’s personally seen how a lot of coverage of something, like 9/11 and the movie theatre shootings in Aurora, Colo., can induce feelings of either depression, anxiety, or anger.
“People have never before in the history of the world lived where they were surrounded with so much media and information,” McNaughton-Cassill said. “So 100 years ago, if there was a disaster and you were in it, you actually had some direct things you needed to do to cope. But you weren’t aware of everything going on around you, therefore weren’t as overwhelmed.”
The main difference between today and prior news coverage is social media. Seventy-four percent of online adults use social media networks, according to Pew Research Center, with half of these users using the site for daily news. Additionally, 78 percent of Facebook users (which reaches more adults than any other site) indirectly see shared news stories. Cue the stress.
“When our brain perceives a threatening situation, our bodies begin to produce stress hormones that enter the brain and may modulate memories of stressful or negative events,” Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal, said in a press release.
This stress reaction, as Lupien found, is more prominent in women who read bad news than in men who read the same headlines. And women who read bad news can recall details easier than women who read neutral news. Lupien and her team speculated this gender difference has to do with a woman's instinct to protect her children, as well as their tendency to be more empathetic.
A steady stream of social updates, most times as news is unfolding, keeps the public in the know, but it also puts users, like myself, in a position to keep things in perspective.
“Be a little bit conscious of the way the news is affecting you. Understand what bothers you and why and how it contributes to your stress level,” Jesse Singal, senior editor of NYMag.com, told HuffPost Live, adding:
It seems a little bit silly, because we’re sitting at a safe distance from all this violence and all this carnage. But you need to do a little bit of what mental health advocates call self-care. If you find yourself obsessing over a Twitter feed of horrible images from Syria, that doesn’t help anybody. Just have some awareness of how the news is affecting you and why and what your sort-of trigger points are. You should shape your news consumption a little bit with that stuff in mind.
Shutting off your social sites to indulge in self-care doesn't mean you don’t care about the world around you. It means you recognize that it’s not helping anyone to feel so sad and hopeless. “The psychological term is compassion fatigue. Some people see this as negative, but I argue it’s a positive choice,” McNaughton-Cassill said.
In addition to self-care, McNaughton-Cassill recommends minding the gap, or the stressful things in life, not unlike the way you mind the gap between the subway platform and train car. A lot of what happens in the world is out of our control. It’s sad and infuriating and hard to read, but it can be consumed in a non-overwhelming way when we put some effort into how we think and react to the news.
I, myself, am stepping away from social sites. Well, after I share this story with you all first.