News headlines getting you down? Here's how to protect your mental health

Steven Stosny is a psychologist who coined the term 'headline stress disorder' during the 2016 election in the United States. It’s a state of fear and anxiety brought on by the intense onslaught of provocative news headlines, and it’s a condition he says has only intensified in the past few years. In a conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes, Stosny dissects headline stress disorder and offers some concrete ways to deal with it.

In 2016, just before the U.S federal election, psychologist Steven Stosny noticed his clients in Washington, D.C. were coming to him with a surprising new concern that was affecting their mental well-being: their newsfeeds.

People were so upset by the news that it was having an impact on their relationships and mental health. It was happening in so many people that Stosny gave it a name - "election stress disorder." He imagined it was a temporary situation that would end when the election was over.

He was wrong. 

The upsetting news seemed only to escalate when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency.  

One of his clients, a member of the Trump administration, came to Stosny with a crisis he was facing at home.

"His sixteen-year-old daughter threatened to commit suicide - and she hadn't been suicidal before - if he didn't leave the Trump administration... What this girl, the daughter, was under the influence of, was lots of social media about the headlines and they were blaming the Trump administration."

Stosny renamed the disorder to reflect this new reality, calling it 'headline stress disorder,' a situation which now seems here to stay.

"The ubiquity of [headlines], they're 24/7, there's a lot more competition so the headlines have to get more sensational to grab your interest. And the easiest way to grab people's attention is through fear or anger. "

Finding Solutions

Listening to your feelings is important, but remember to keep things in perspective, says Stosny.

"Your emotions are viewed as signals. They're like a smoke alarm. So when the smoke alarm goes off, you don't scream "We're all gonna die!" You look to see if there is a fire. If there is, you put it out."

Stosny has several recommendations for combating the powerlessness you feel when faced with an onslaught of bad news in the headlines. 

1.Read past the headline 

Read the entire article, not just the headline, say Stosny, and you'll probably feel better.

"People tend to only read the headlines or the brief summary, [but] if you really get into the details of the story... the details are usually not as bad as the headline sounds. Because remember: the headline is meant to grab your attention so you won't switch channels. And the easiest way to grab people's attention is through fear or anger."

2. Write down your concerns. 

"Write down your anxious thoughts. When anxiety is seizing your brain, your thoughts race. They go by very fast. And the faster they go, the less realistic they get. 

And then assign a probability. Anxiety is always the worst case scenario. So you write down what you're anxious about, then [you rate them] on a scale of 1 - 5, how likely is that to happen?

Anxiety is about possibility. And anything is possible. We have to live in the world of probability. How likely is it to happen?"

3. Connect with your friends and family.

"I don't think in the past 6 - 8 months that I have checked the news without going and hugging my wife." 

"What people tend to do when bad news comes, especially over social media, is disconnect. You know, you stay on your phone, you keep scrolling. ….so when we feel isolated, anxiety automatically goes up. You feel more vulnerable. There's more danger."

"Touch each other! Look in each other's eyes! It doesn't take much, just a few seconds, and that will be enough to give you a little oxytocin that will calm the anxiety."

"That's why after a disaster, like a flood or a hurricane, everybody on the TV is hugging. Strangers are hugging, people who ordinarily wouldn't like each other are hugging, because they are sensing that they need connection to keep from feeling out of control or despairing."

4.Take action to create the changes you want to see.

Stosny says creating change comes about when you focus on the kind of world you want to see, and then consider what can you do to bring it about. 

The answer may be "Not a lot, but you can do something! You can write letters, you can go to marches, but it's always got to be based on what you want. Not on what you don't want. That seems like a subtle distinction but it makes all the difference for how anxious you're going to feel, how resentful, or angry you're going to feel."

5.Connect to a spiritual practice

Even if you don't believe in a religion nor have a personal spiritual practice, Stosny says the idea of transcendence can still be very helpful in dealing with anxiety.

"Transcendence really means feeling connected to something larger than yourself. It overrides your immediate selfish concerns. And our brains function better when we are not self-obsessed."

Steven Stosny is the author of several books including "Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress."