Shootings and riots. Natural disasters. Terrorist attacks. That's what we see when we scroll through news reports on our phones first thing in the morning, and when we watch the evening news before bed. It's no wonder that there have been recent reports of heightened anxiety levels; hearing about the current state of the world is enough to put anyone on edge. And with 24/7 access to news, we hear a lot more about things that can stress us out than previous generations did.
Science shows that news-induced stress can have a major impact on our mental health. In a study of media exposure to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, researchers found that extensive, repeated engagement with media coverage of the bombings was associated with even more acute stress than actually witnessing the event in person. That's troubling, write the researchers, since those short-term stress reactions can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems. (Read 10 Weird Ways Your Body Reacts to Stress) Of people who report high stress levels, found one survey, 44 percent were stressed out about what their government or politicians were doing (sound familiar?), and 40 percent were stressed by watching, reading, or listening to the news. Those same people reported that this stress affected their family lives, health, and relationships.
That being said, not everyone who hears bad news, or even gets stressed out about bad news from time to time, is going to develop anxiety, says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C in New York. Some people are more naturally inclined to develop anxiety disorders, and are constantly hypervigilant when they hear about world events, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, she says. "Two people could see the same thing. One person will think that it's scary, and then move on. If the other has a predisposition to ruminate—it explodes in their mind."
If that sounds like you, Dr. Hafeez says your best bet is simply to tune out. "If you're the type that feels anxious about the news, you need to take it in small doses. Learn to disengage, and if you can, distance yourself from the media."
Sounds simple enough, but for some people, that's easier said than done. What do you do if your job requires you to pay attention to current events, or if the people you interact with daily are constantly talking about world events? When you can't turn off the media cycle, at least limit it. Before bed, put yourself on a wind-down schedule that includes a few hours of news-free time. (Psst...Here's Why Social Media Screws with Your Sleep) "Replace it with something like reading fiction, calling your friends and family, or practicing breathing and self talk."
Cognitive behavioral techniques like controlled deep breathing exercises (try these breathing techniques for anxiety and stress) can be helpful, says Dr. Hafeez, as can guided imagery exercises (lie in bed think of a happy place or memory, and keep expanding on it and adding more details).
Of course, if these techniques aren't working and it's not your first bout of anxiety, it might be time to consider professional help, which could include therapy and/or medication, she says.