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Why is reading the news affecting our mental health?

These days, even if you do not actively follow the news, it is difficult to avoid being confronted by it. Most of the news content we are exposed to can be negative: natural disasters, economic decline, crime, and, currently, the COVID-19 crisis. In this blog, Katia Correa Vione, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, explores how exposure to negative news affects our mental health.

By Dr Katia Vione - 22 May 2020

A study by the British Journal of Psychology published earlier this month showed that daily news exposure can affect emotional states. In this study, participants reported their exposure to news and their emotional states five times a day, for ten consecutive days. The authors found that when the news was perceived as negative, participants also reported negative emotional states, such as feeling insecure, lonely, anxious, irritated, down, or guilty. This was especially worse when people considered that the media were reporting issues that could have important consequences for themselves or others around them. In fact, this is not the first study to demonstrate that exposure to negative news leads to negative emotions and this evidence is pretty much undisputed in psychological literature.

Why does news have such an impact on people?

Psychologists explain these effects based on the cognitive appraisal theory. When a person notices the presence of a stressor, they evaluate and react to it. The appraisal process consists of two parts: in primary appraisal the person evaluates the severity and relevance of the stressor; and in secondary appraisal the person evaluates their ability to cope with this stressor.

Primary appraisal is the process involved when one is exposed to negative news. When we read or watch news reports, we evaluate whether this is positive or negative, how serious it is, how relevant it is to us, and whether we have any control over it. In most cases, we perceive the negative news to be outside of our control, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness.

The good news about hopelessness is that it has been extensively studied and psychologists know how to overcome this feeling. This work has been mainly represented by Martin Seligman’s studies, especially in the context of pessimism. Martin Seligman theorised three thinking styles that determine to what extent a person is an optimist or a pessimist. These thinking styles refer to how a person attributes the cause of negative events and how they perceive these events in terms of permanence, pervasiveness, and personalisation.

A pessimist tends to consider the cause of negative events as permanent, thus, they believe such events will always be present and affect their life. The pessimist also tends to believe that bad events are pervasive, that is, that they will extrapolate to other situations and contexts. Finally, the third thinking style that reflects pessimism, personalisation, reflects how one tends to attribute blame. We can blame ourselves (internalise) or others (externalise). Pessimists tend to internalise the blame.

Staying optimistic when hearing bad news

The optimistic person, on the other hand, believes bad events are not permanent. That they have specific causes, and that external circumstances or other people cause them. When it comes to positive events, the optimist believes these are permanent and that they contribute to their occurrence. Martin Seligman demonstrated in several studies that optimistic people are more successful at work, in school and university, in sports, and in overcoming health problems.

Although optimism might not be the answer in all situations, it is very effective when you are concerned about how you feel. To start thinking in a more optimistic way, you first need to notice when there is an adversity (e.g., negative news or events), then notice what are the first thoughts and beliefs that pop into your head (e.g., the whole world is a mess because of the pandemic), and what are the consequences of these beliefs (e.g., sadness, hopelessness, fear). Then, you need to follow the most important step, which is to dispute these beliefs (e.g., the whole world is not a mess, in fact, there is a lot of solidarity at the moment).

It is important that you learn how to dispute the negative beliefs that arise when you are confronted with negative news and experiment with taking a social media and news break.

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About the author

Dr Katia Vione
Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology

Lecturer in Psychology Dr Katia Vione joined the University of Derby in April 2017, having previously worked as a lecturer in Brazil and as a teaching assistant at Cardiff University.

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