HAPPINESS COLUMN | How 'Headline Stress Disorder' is affecting you and what to do about it

CBC Happiness Columnist Jennifer Moss addresses "Headline Stress Disorder" and how it's affecting our relationships, bad habits and stress levels.
The term "Headline Stress Disorder" was coined in 2016 after the U.S. presidential election when a therapist noticed increasing anxiety in his patients as a result of negative news and overconsumption of media. (StanislauV/Shutterstock)

The news got you down? You're not alone.

Headline Stress Disorder is a real issue and it isn't going away. Researchers say an increase in news consumption is not only upping stress among some people, it's making them worse partners with more bad habits. But the solution may not be to simply turn off the news.

During the U.S. Presidential election in 2016, therapist, Dr. Steven Stosny coined the term, "Headline Stress Disorder" after he started to notice increasing anxiety in his patients with negative news and an overconsumption of media at the root of their stress.

As a result, more people were arguing with their spouses and coworkers, battling friends on social media, they were even drinking more and started smoking again.

This wasn't just a United States phenomenon — research shows that this particular election triggered something in people globally. Stress around the world was increasing and trust in the media and government declining.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 70 per cent of Americans say they are worn out by the amount of news available to them.

Data shows that 83 per cent of Canadians check the news every day and 56 per cent say they check it multiple times a day. We are obviously our own worst enemy when it comes to managing Headline Stress Disorder.

Bingeing is bad, full stop

The human brain unconsciously processes roughly 11 million pieces of information per second, but can only consciously process about 40 pieces per second.

Now we're asking our brain to process unsustainable amounts of data and attend to more of it. Imagine how long it took for humans to evolve from walking on all fours to walking upright — it certainly didn't take 10 years. That is essentially what kind of demand we're placing on our brains currently.

Today, Canadians spend almost 10 hours dialed in to media per day, which is mostly digital technology. It's a shocking revelation, especially if you compare it to only a decade ago where that number was 3.3 hours daily.

We've even upped our consumption by an additional 80 minutes since 2015. This rapid and exponential shift in the way we digest our media is causing our brains to feel like they are constantly buffering.

And, since our survival depends on it, our brains are wired to find rewards and avoid harm. Our deeply rooted negativity bias is also why we are so attracted to stressful information — our brains will supersede looking for rewards over detecting threats to keep us safe.

To push back on this genetic hangover, we have to remind ourselves that most of what we see on the news is out of our control. We tend to forget that historically, we've been through bad times before and made it through, so it's important not to catastrophize our own personal life and connect it to what is going on in the news.

The importance of trusting the source

In 2017, 90 per cent of Canadians said they had fallen for a fake news story until finding out otherwise —  and the majority of those false news stories originated on social media.

Feeling duped increases cynicism, so ensuring that we're consuming a healthy media diet is an essential first step to mitigating Headline Stress Disorder.

Trusted news sources should offer a balanced approach to the stories they cover and aren't tied to an agenda. They are the carrots and celery in your diet versus social media, which is like bingeing on cotton candy.

There's also a rise in what's called, constructive journalism, which essentially focuses more on solution-focused news instead of negative and conflict-based stories.

Last year CBC launched CBC News Snapchat Discover in order to better inform young Canadians and foster media literacy. It, like other examples of constructive journalism, asks, "How can we change this?"

When journalists forget to ask future-focused questions, they don't explore solutions which can trigger actions based on those perspectives.

Turn negativity into action

Like CBC, Huffington Post has also launched their special sections experimenting on constructive journalism and Washington Post has an online section they've aptly named, "The Optimist".

Podcasting has also grown exponentially as an antidote to negative news and in support of constructive journalism.

Finally, if you feel like you're suffering from Headline Stress Disorder, fight back by channeling that negativity into action.

As Canadians, we are less able to influence another country's elections, which can make us feel hopeless and frustrated. Instead, focus on the things we can change.

Get engaged in local politics. If you're frustrated with your politicians then write them a letter, ask to see your local MP and express your concerns in person.

Along with supporting efforts to help children in need around the world, take the day to volunteer and help children in your own community. Headline Stress Disorder causes a feeling of powerlessness, so taking some form of positive action helps reduce that feeling by counteracting it with hope.

Although it is worthwhile to take a break from the news if you're feeling overwhelmed, the real issue lies in how we are interpreting the news we're consuming. First, it's important to understand that