Whether it is the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, or the evergreen topic of climate change-induced natural disasters: We are bombarded with negative news on a minute-by-minute basis and it’s certainly taking a toll on our emotional and mental health.
“We’re exposed to all the news, all the time. Which makes us feel like we have to care about everything, all the time” — Hasan Minaj, host of the comedy talk show, Patriot Act
Psychologists refer to this condition as compassion fatigue, the emotional distress that results from being exposed to the trauma of others. The term was initially coined for the lack of emotional response in caregivers due to prolonged exposure to suffering.
But in the age of social media and uninterrupted connectivity, the scope of who can be affected by the condition has grown. Experts say it leads to a lower level of empathy among individuals, as our brains cannot cope with the overwhelming amount of bad news.
If left unchecked, compassion fatigue is known to lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
Take the case of Saranya M, a healthcare professional in Bengaluru, who made the mistake of watching news documentaries on current affairs at night as she could not sleep. Her job was already causing a lot of stress, and consuming news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made her mental situation even worse.
“I took the incident very personally and watching more and more news became my daily routine. I was so obsessed that it started hindering me from carrying out my work and in my daily life,” the 28-year-old said.
At the heart of the issue are social networks that have increased exposure to negative news and even research is showing this. A study done by the faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences at the University of Twente in the Netherlands found that the use of platforms such as Instagram increased exposure to negative news, resulting in increased distress and reduced quality of life.
According to Dr Aarti Jagannathan, an additional professor of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bengaluru, the issue surfaces when an individual gets involved in everything they see and consume around them. “They start personalising things and get affected emotionally and mentally,” says Jagannathan.
A constant flow of negative news affects everyone, but how they respond to it may differ depending on their upbringing, educational background, and social support system.
Dr Jini K Gopinath, Chief Psychology Officer at online counselling startup YourDost, says watching or reading stress-inducing information leads to the production of cortisol – the hormone responsible for stress.
Moreover, he believes the social systems in India are not conducive to managing trauma (or secondary trauma) from negative news.
It is this constant flow of negative news related to child abductions and sexual assaults that affected 27-year-old Yethy Krishna. “I built up a fear of travelling alone, even in broad daylight. I even stopped using public transport,” said Krishna who now lives in Kochi.
The impact of consuming negative news is often more pronounced for those with existing mental health conditions. Saranya was already suffering from episodes of anxiety when she got hooked on to news emerging out of Ukraine.
“Anxiety has bought so much distress in me. The global impact of the Ukraine-Russia war made me feel insecure about my job. So, I resigned,” she says.
Tackling information overload
While compassion fatigue and information overload may be issues of the 21st century, managing it may lie in the stoic philosophies of the Greek philosopher Epictetus. Putting those to practice would mean accepting ‘calmly and dispassionately’ whatever is beyond our control.
But this can be harder than it seems, making it necessary to build circles of support, according to Dr Jagannathan. The first one is a macro circle that includes immediate family members. The middle circle would consist of relatives and friends, followed by an inner circle comprised of extended family and mental health professionals.
Individuals suffering from mental distress should work their way out of these circles until they get the support and help, they need, she says.
For Saranya speaking with close friends and family helped her cope with her mental distress that developed due to excessive consumption of negative news. She also used other techniques such as moderating the use of her phone and indulging in hobbies such as sketching and writing.
But it isn’t a one size fits all solution. Even after moderating the use of social media and trying to build up resistance by consuming news on child abduction and sexual assaults, Krishna has found it hard to get over her fear.
She now uses location-sharing apps to share her location with family members whenever she travels alone, something that makes her feel safe.
A technique that experts recommend for improving mindfulness is ‘Self Efficacy’. It’s a person’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviours to achieve a specific goal. The higher an individual’s self-efficacy, the more demanding situations they can handle. It helps build resilience to stress, hopelessness and burnout.
This goes hand in hand with introspection, where individuals reflect on the way they handled or reacted to a situation. It can help understand if one has overacted, to then understand how they need to neutralise their emotions.
Experts say these techniques can be used to manage stress and anxiety that can emerge from being exposed to negative news, apart from dealing with difficult situations in general.
Tips on managing negative news
- End your day reading a lot of good news or books
- Have thankful and good thoughts before you sleep
- Get a minimum of 8-10 hours of sleep to reduce stress
- Introspect daily to improve your overall wellbeing
- Take charge of the way you interpret negative news
- Talk to friends and family if something is causing you stress
- Have a confident attitude and positive self-image