A self-care guide to coping with the barrage of bad news

Let’s face it: 2020 hasn’t exactly gotten off to the best start.

Headlines ranging from the tragic to the alarming have scrolled across newsfeeds throughout the month, beginning with devastating wildfires in Australia and growing tensions between the United States and Iran. Those tensions led to a plane crash near the Iranian capital of Tehran that killed all 176 people on board, including 138 bound for Canada.

And in the waning days of January, those stories vied for airtime with the spread of a new form of coronavirus and a helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

Given the breakneck pace and unprecedented reach of the 24-hour news cycle, experts say people face constant exposure to international tragedy and crisis, which can take a toll one’s state of mind.

The Canadian Press asked psychologists for self-care advice on how to stay informed without worrying about the fate of the world every time your phone buzzes with a new headline.

Beware of the “attention economy”

Today, people have access to more news than ever before, said Norman Farb, an associate professor of psychology at University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. The challenge is figuring out what stories you should pay attention to.

In the digital economy, businesses are locked in a cutthroat competition for eyeballs and clicks, and news organizations are no exception.

Between breaking-news alerts and an endless stream of stories on social media, Farb is concerned that the daily deluge of news creates a futile sense of obligation to follow every headline.

“In an economy where the goal is to capture your attention without your consent, you don’t owe people your attention,” said Farb.

“Just because there’s a story being presented on the news doesn’t mean that you have to drop everything and become fully engaged with that story, especially at the expense of everything that’s going on around you.”

Be mindful of what news matters to you

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said “self-awareness” is key to exercising healthy news habits.

When browsing through headlines, Kamkar suggests people check in with how a story makes them feel and how that fits into their responsibilities and values.

She said the stories that remind us of ourselves or the people we care about tend to hit closest to home. In some cases, those personal connections can be detrimental, she said. For example, survivors of sexual violence may choose to steer clear of stories that dredge up trauma.

Stay connected to people, not the news

Farb said the media provides context for how people relate to the rest of the world. And nowadays, the world can feel like a smaller — and grimmer — place than ever.

He said it’s easy to feel helpless when reading about calamities in every corner of the globe, not to mention the looming threats of climate change and geopolitical upheaval.

But the internet can make news seem more urgent and immediate than it is, said Farb.

He encouraged people to use news events as a “wake-up call” to take stock of what’s important to them. If you’re despairing about the wildfires ravaging Australia, look for opportunities to impact your local environment. If you’re grieving the death of a basketball star, hug your loved ones a little tighter.

Set limits, but be flexible

In the old days, Farb said, people kept up with current events either by reading their morning paper, or watching the evening news on TV.

But the online age has exploded such “appointment” news consumption.

Farb recommended that people set limits on the amount of time they devote to reading the news. While you may be liable to break the rules every now and then, he said one easy way to resist temptation is to turn off push notifications for news alerts.

Don’t get mired in online arguments

If you find yourself arguing about an article on social media, you’re most likely wasting your keystrokes, Farb warns.

Research suggests social media squabbles only serve to entrench the respective views of the participants, he said.

“There’s this idea that you’re doing something noble and virtuous and educating people, but the evidence says the opposite of that,” said Farb. “You just need to stop. Unless you really like that feeling of getting upset or giving it to somebody.”

If you want to change someone’s mind, you’re going to have to put yourself in a situation where your own mind could be changed, Farb said, and that’s probably not going to happen in the comments section.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2020.

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