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The Impact of the 'Breaking News' Cycle on Our Health

Whether we hear the news on our way to work, read it over breakfast, or see it regurgitated and analyzed repeatedly through our online and social media channels, it seems inescapable. And like it or not, it infuses itself into our psyche, taking direct aim at how we feel and react.
10/28/2014 12:15pm ET | Updated December 28, 2014
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Beheadings of American journalists in Iraq. The seemingly-unstoppable spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. Ongoing bloodletting between Israel and Hamas, bursting forth anew between periodic cease fires. Planes that inexplicably fall from the sky or disappear completely. Racial tensions erupting into violence in Middle America.

Whether we hear the news on our way to work, read it over breakfast, or see it regurgitated and analyzed repeatedly through our online and social media channels, it seems inescapable. And like it or not, it infuses itself into our psyche, taking direct aim at how we feel and react.

The onslaught of negative news has made deeper inroads into our daily lives, driving us to speculate about the impact of these threats to our safety, well-being and peace of mind. Despite advances in health care and technology that have improved our lives, is our world a worse place to live than in the past?

Or has the pervasive presence of 24/7 news coverage so engulfed us with graphic details, repetitive and sensationalized negativity, and dire possibilities of what lies ahead that the balance between good and bad has been lost?

Educators, including myself, spend much intellectual energy and community outreach on combating mental illness. But we are equally committed to the other side of the coin -- preserving and bolstering mental health and emotional well-being. While the cascading effects of bad news do not in and of themselves result in deep-seated mental disorders, they certainly are not good for our health. They can cause anxiety and a heightened sense of vulnerability. For some, they contribute to a sense of helplessness and even hopelessness. They make us worry not just about our safety, but also about the futures to be faced by our children and grandchildren.

As research has documented, stress can cause unhealthy eating habits, increase the use of alcohol or tobacco products, wreak havoc on the immune system, inhibit sleep, increase blood pressure, and cause stomach problems, chest pain or headaches. In other words, it can make us feel lousy.

Although we cannot have a direct impact on these world events, if we put our minds to it, we can control our reactions. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and legendary psychiatrist believed that attitude outweighs actual experience when it comes to coping with adverse or traumatic events. The better developed our coping skills, the more likely we are to handle our thoughts and behaviors in ways that strengthen our resilience and speed our healing.

Some cultures exhibit a propensity for resilience that seems built-in. Buddhism, for example, offers its followers guidance on dealing with disaster and hardship by teaching that all people are endowed with the innate ability to create value out of any situation, no matter how tragic. There is much to learn from belief systems that incorporate resiliency into their very essence. Intentionality is a big part of resilience, the determination to take charge of our situation, whatever it may be, and to make a conscious effort to understand the obstacle or the situation, and to put it in perspective.

Even for those of us who have not been raised with this inherent resilience, there is much that we can do -- not to control or counter the bad news, but to consciously shape our reactions to such events, and to develop a sense of optimism that can smooth away the rough edges of the pessimism trumpeted in our daily news coverage. That means understanding that while stress is a normal reaction to trauma or disaster, it can be addressed; it means holding fast to your circle of friends and family and to talking your fears and anxieties out with them. It means taking care of yourself and, just as importantly, taking care of those around you.

Bad news is never going to go away, but research shows that close social ties -- to family, friends, co-workers and community -- is a cornerstone of resilience. Each of us can be part of that foundation of strength that gets us through the bad news and helps us create our own positive news cycle.