Ever since we went into our first lockdown a year ago, the news cycle has felt almost unrelenting.
Daily death figures from the coronavirus pandemic have been plastered on our screens alongside harrowing stories of police violence from the US, the nail-biting US election and, just last week, the senseless and rage-inducing death of Sarah Everard. Combined, it can all feel a bit too much.
“By consuming doom and gloom stories our brains focus on these as an event that has occurred,” mental health practitioner and Counselling Directory member, Claire Elmes tells Yahoo UK.
“We are still living in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is already telling us that the world is a dangerous and unsafe place and then last week with the stories of Sarah Everard, Meghan Markle and the recent Caroline Flack documentary, our brains would have trigger stacked these events reinforcing any beliefs that we hold that mean the world is unsafe.
"By constantly consuming these news stories only our brains focus on these and delete anything that doesn't fit the criteria.”
Elmes adds that if we have experienced any distressing events in our past, news like this can act as reinforcements to the old incidents - especially if we haven’t properly processed them.
“This is then distorted and generalised and our internal representation is that 'the world is unsafe',” she continues.
“If we feel the world is unsafe we then operate utilising our limbic system which is commonly known as 'fight or flight', our body releases hormones and we are more likely to experience anxiety, anger, frustration and fatigue.
"If you think we have been doing this for around a year on and off with the pandemic around us anyway, no wonder so many of us are heading towards burnout.”
News can have such a damaging effect on our mental health because our brain takes what we see, hear and feel, and filters the information it receives based on our thoughts, memories, beliefs, decisions and values. It can then distort this information to create our own “internal representation” of the world.
The best thing to do if you feel like the news is taking its toll on your mental health is to change how you consume it.
“By focusing on all news stories and not just the emotive ones, we are giving ourselves a more rounded representation of the world around us. If you have seen the story once, try not to revisit the same story over and over,” Elmes advises.
This means focusing on the positive news stories that come out daily, as much as you would the ones that encourage feelings of sadness or anger.
Elmes adds that we need to remember social media uses targeted ads as well, so the more we look at something the more we will be shown it.
For those facing news cycle burnout, a digital detox could be a good option.
“This can look different for different people and the key is to put some boundaries in. You may find it helpful to unfollow any accounts that don't feel aligned to you. If you search for things that bring you joy this will naturally balance out your newsfeed,” Elmes says.
“Consider having targeted times to look at the news rather than reacting to notifications. You may also decide to turn notifications off to all social media platforms for a period of time. Some people even turn phones off altogether.
"You need to do what works for you and it will probably be a bit of trial and error whilst you learn what works.
"The benefits of doing this means that our limbic system comes out of fight-flight, hormone levels return to normal, and we can feel safe again.”
Watch: 5 top tips to boost your mental health
Working from home means that most days revolve around rolling from one screen to the next, so it’s imperative to take some time away from being “connected” online, and spend time creating your own in-person experiences instead.
“In the pandemic with all the working from home, life balance has become very different and the boundaries have merged. It is so important to remove ourselves from the online world to look after our mental health,” Elmes advises.
“How often varies from person to person, but I would definitely recommend doing this at least once per day. Stepping away from screens, interacting with family and friends, going for a walk, doing a hobby like exercise, cooking, reading anything that grounds us in the present moment.
"By starting to practice mindfulness activities we can release the stress and strain that we have both experienced in a real and virtual sense.”
If you are facing burnout or strained mental health due to the news cycle, actively choosing to consume positive stories or taking a digital detox could be your best bet. When you take a step back and give your mind some breathing space, you’ll soon realise it’s not all doom and gloom.
If you're concerned about your mental health or want to talk to someone, you can contact your GP or call mental health charity Mind's helpline on 0300 123 3393.