The news can tend to be a downer, but lately—from the plane crash in Ukraine, to Ebola in Africa, to Robin Williams’ untimely death—most will agree it’s been especially depressing. And whether you watch the news in the morning, listen to it on your commute, read it at your desk, or skim your social media feed, it’s nearly impossible to escape. “Even if events don’t directly affect your life, they can impact you emotionally,” says Mary McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
Our brain doesn’t discriminate between different kinds of stressors. Being chased by a lion, a fight with your boss, or stress engendered by the media all activate your fight or flight response and cause emotional distress, she says. Even more: The more news you consume, the bigger toll it may take. After the Boston Marathon bombing, a University of California, Irvine survey of nearly 5,000 adults found that those who watched six or more daily hours of bombing-related media experienced higher stress levels than—get this—those who were at the marathon. “Most people don’t sit down and watch six hours of news, but between TV, radio, Twitter, and Facebook, you may be exposed to more news than you think,” McNaughton-Cassill says. “We’re so immersed, we just keep absorbing it even if we’re not aware.” She also credits the graphic nature of stories today for making us more on edge than ever.
Besides feeling stressed, what effect can especially dismal info cycles have on your wellbeing? Pass the chips: Sad news can make you overeat. In a Cornell University study, people who watched a depressing clip downed 36 percent more buttery popcorn than those who watched a happy one. People who watched a sad clip were also willing to pay four times more money for a bottle of water than people who watched an emotionally neutral one. If you’re not getting enough sleep, the effects may be even worse, according to a University of California, Berkeley study. When sleep deprived people viewed disturbing images like those you’d encounter in the media, the emotional centers of their brain were 60 percent more reactive than subjects who got a normal night of sleep. “Whatever you do when you experience stress in your own life can occur even when you’re exposed to stress that has nothing to do with you,” McNaughton-Cassill says.
So whether you tend to overeat, overspend, drink, feel anxious, sad, scared, or angry, veg out, isolate, or cry, you may find yourself going into stress-mode even when news events are happening thousands of miles from where you live. Fortunately, the same steps you take to bring your stress levels down when you feel on-edge work here too, so be sure to keep your regular gym appointments (or add in a few extra yoga classes this week), get plenty of sleep, and make time to hang out with your friends. In fact, researchers in Germany found that when we feel stressed, we’re more likely to reach out to others, be more trustworthy, and share more about ourselves since we know (consciously or not) that having the support of others buffers against stress.