The news this year makes it easy to believe that we’ve had unusually bad headlines and disturbing stories. But is that really the case- and how can we stop bad news stories from affecting our mood?
Terrorist attacks in France and Germany, war in Syria and Iraq, shootings in America, and the unexpected deaths of public figures – it’s easy to believe that 2016 has been an unusually bad year. But are things as bad as they may feel?
The first thing to bear in mind is that we’ve evolved to focus on threats. Threats, in the shape of bad news, activate our sense of fear. Our sense of fear then does two things to our brains. Firstly it shuts down some of our ability to reason, and the rational parts of our brain. Secondly it compels us to seek out more threats – or in this case even more bad news.
The way that news is reported also stokes our sense of fear. That isn’t about stories being overstated or distorted, it’s simply the 24 hour news cycle. The continual re-reporting of events and their immediacy only further arouses our fear response.
It’s not just having evolved to be aware of threats that skews our reactions. We are social animals, and so we respond to stories about other people, and especially where they are harmed or killed. However when we evolved we lived in small and stable groups of people. The empathy that makes us socially cohesive is now being exercised many more times in one year than it would have been in our entire lifetime.
There’s also a fundamental bias in the news – it’s about newsworthy events. Consequently continuing peace between countries or law and order where we live are very unlikely to make the headlines. They are much more likely instead to focus on events which by their definition are out of the ordinary. However our confirmation bias makes us think that the current situation is much more negative than it actually is.
So short of switching it off how can we stop the news from affecting our mood? The first step is to be aware of our tendency to focus on threats, and what that does to our ability to apply reason and a sense of perspective.
The second step is the same as developing emotional resilience for any other situation, which is to pay attention to your own wellbeing. Make sure that you sleep well; take exercise; spend time with friends; spend time in nature; and spend time doing the things you enjoy. These are the five planks of everyone’s emotional life-raft, and you don’t need to lose too many before things get difficult.
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