“Media saturation overload.” “Doomscrolling.” “Headline stress disorder.”
These are all terms to describe what Don Grant, a researcher with expertise in technology’s impact on mental health, calls: “the psychological strain of living through and absorbing dismal news.”
It can feel like frightening, stress-inducing headlines are inevitable, and even inescapable, when we’re constantly being bombarded with a steady stream of news about public health crises, climate change, presidential elections, mass shootings, inequality, and war.
Part of the reason we feel inundated with bad news like this is due to negativity bias, or how we often gravitate toward the bad over the good. Being drawn to negativity is human instinct—it’s a tendency our brains evolved toward throughout history in order to keep us safe. Because of that, many people engage in fearmongering on social media, and traditional media outlets often disproportionately focus on sensational events rather than positive stories. This negative news tends to capture more attention and elicit stronger emotional responses and can influence public perceptions and contribute to skewed understandings of the world, heightening feelings of fear, anxiety, and pessimism.
When we’re overwhelmed by the state of the world, remaining focused and productive at work can feel like an impossible task. We asked psychologist Dr. Brittany Bate and clinical mental health counselor Dr. Kendra Surmitis to give their expert opinions on how negative news impacts mental health and how we can use coping mechanisms to survive at work and beyond.
The impact of negative news and current events on mental health
Constant exposure to information regarding crises, conflicts, disasters, and other distressing events can contribute heavily to stress and anxiety. The human brain tends to prioritize and remember negative information more vividly, which can intensify feelings of worry.
According to the American Psychological Association, clinicians look out for these symptoms in patients who describe a spiraling mindset over the news:
Intrusive thoughts about news articles or current events throughout the day
Persistent anger, resentment, or anxiety generated by reading news articles
Increased alcohol or drug use to self-medicate
Diminished interest in activities
When we begin our workdays, we don’t leave all of our emotions at the door. These symptoms of stress and despair follow us into our professional lives and can affect our ability to manage work-related challenges and make sound decisions. A negative mindset can make it challenging to find the motivations for certain tasks and projects.
“Notice symptoms such as obsessions, nightmares, and ruminations about news content as signs that you need to adjust your exposure and seek out additional support to help you manage feelings that may be impacting your ability to work effectively,” advises Surmitis. “You might notice some news content will leave you feeling a strong sense of helplessness.”
So, how can you stay focused and productive despite stressors?
When your mind is constantly whirring and trying to process new information, it’s easy to start to feel hopeless and disengaged. Work might be the last thing on your mind—that’s understandable. But in order to avoid underperforming and putting your job at risk, you need to communicate with yourself, your team, and your manager to get your work done.
When feeling overwhelmed, it’s also important not to fall victim to toxic productivity, the obsessive drive to constantly be producing, regardless of how it may negatively impact your mental and physical health. Overworking to the point of neglecting rest will only deepen feelings of burnout, especially if you’re trying to escape reality by keeping your head buried in work.
Bate suggests setting realistic goals with yourself as a first step in relieving some of the anxiety related to looming deadlines and other overwhelming feelings at work. “Setting realistic goals includes identifying key tasks and prioritizing them based on importance,” she says. “It may be helpful to break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable steps. Employing time management strategies, such as the pomodoro technique, can be effective in completing tasks efficiently.”
“Maintaining open communication with colleagues and supervisors about workload and challenges, alongside collaborating with team members to share responsibilities and support one another, can go a long way,” she adds.
If you want to talk to your manager about how you’re feeling, try starting the conversation like this:
“I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately with everything that’s going on in the world, and I’m having a difficult time concentrating and meeting my deadlines with everything on my plate. Can you help me prioritize my tasks and review deadlines with me so that I can stay on track?”
With this conversation starter, you open the discussion up for tangible action items, as well as offer an opportunity to talk candidly about mental health and what’s going on in the world.
What role should employer support play in this process?
Collaborative efforts between employees and employers are necessary for a resilient and productive workforce. Bate says, “Employers play a crucial role in creating a supportive environment that values employee wellbeing and provides the necessary resources to navigate external stressors.”
Healthy workplaces find ways to inspire and engage the humanity of their employees, according to Surmitis. “Employers can engage in dialogue and programming that aims to normalize that we are all humans and have emotional, inner lives that do not fade just because we enter the workplace,” she says. “Beyond dialogue, employers can support employees through wellness programming, mentorship programs, parental benefits, affinity groups, and effective mental health resources. Perhaps you can find ways to channel your news-related stress into meaningful action as an ally, advocate, or otherwise productive member of your community.”
Some employers offer Slack channels (with moderators) to provide teams with a safe space to discuss current events. Opportunities like these, coupled with mindful benefits, are especially helpful in providing relief for employees. “Employers can work to de-stigmatize seeking mental health services and consider different types of leave structures to support an employee's attendance at regular or semi-regular therapy,” says Bate. “This may be achieved via additional time off protocols or encouraging a more flexible working arrangement. Providing flexibility in work hours or remote work options allows employees to attend to their mental health needs, like therapy appointments, without having to seek them out after work or on weekends.”
6 coping mechanisms for navigating work when there’s ongoing chaos and negativity in the world
Learning how to self-soothe and regulate your own emotional state can be a lifesaver when you feel overwhelmed. It’s imperative to be strategic and intentional about increasing your mental wellness and resiliency and decreasing stress levels, regardless of what’s going on in the world. Here are six coping mechanisms to employ when you feel like the world is on fire.
1. Limit your news and social media consumption
Set specific times during the day or weekly to catch up on news and social media—avoiding excessive exposure. Turning off push notifications can help you avoid unhealthy obsession and the instant anxiety that comes with headlines popping up. You can also utilize screen time apps and timers to limit your access to specific apps.
Surmitis recommends being gentle and deliberate with your mind in terms of what you choose to expose yourself to. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I hope to learn and understand by engaging with the news today?’” she says. “Consider the ways that your chosen [social media app] or news source aligns with your goals, your values, and your needs for sensible information. If exposure to a specific news source consistently leaves you feeling angry, confused, or offended, consider alternative sources of information that you experience as useful and reputable.”
A good way to start assessing which news sources you rely on is to watch your local broadcast first. Watch one or two segments—ideally some national or international news—and write any follow-up questions you have. Then start seeking answers from other news sources. Which sources answer your questions, and can you find other outlets that confirm what they're saying?
Determine the appropriate level of stimulation and exposure that’s right for you. “This is an individual decision that ought to be made based on your own emotional and physiological responses to the news as a stimulus,” says Surmitis. “For example, some people find that reducing visuals and only reading the printed news helps reduce stress responses. Or, if you notice your muscles tense when you open your news app in the morning, wait to introduce an additional stressor until later in the day after you've demonstrated some mastery over your own personal, family, and work-related responsibilities.”
Bate echoes the sentiment of choosing a time for a social media or news break that won’t impact your work, family time, or rest. “Checking the news during your lunch break may not be the most effective for you if you find yourself impacted, distracted, or upset for the remainder of your work day,” she says. “Likewise, during or right before dinner may result in having the unintended consequence of being distracted and unable to spend time with family.”
2. Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques
To ease the stress and overwhelm of persistent negative current events, Bate suggests incorporating mindfulness practices into your daily routine. “This may be especially helpful to regulate and re-center following news consumption,” she says. “Find ways to incorporate deep breathing, meditation, yoga, adequate rest and sleep, regular movement, and consuming foods that best fuel your body into your daily routine. These techniques can help manage stress and improve overall mental wellbeing.”
3. Maintain healthy habits outside of work
To help foster long-term resilience, it is important to prioritize a balanced lifestyle. Part of a balanced lifestyle is making time for hobbies and activities that bring you light and joy.
“Engage in personal growth activities such as journaling, meditation, mindful walking or hiking, and connect with those who respect your identity and values, which all contribute to your connection with your inner-voice and sense of self,” says Surmitis. “Prolonged negativity should never be accepted as your normal. Know that you deserve excellent mental health treatment, a renewed sense of vitality, and a sense of mastery in your life. If your current approach to these concerns is not working, give yourself the gift of change and renewal, as this is your life to embrace and enjoy.”
4. Connect with people around you
Bottling up and holding in heavy, negative emotions is not good for stress, anxiety, and overall health. “Make sure you have supportive friends, family, colleagues, or a licensed therapist to share your feelings with. A supportive therapy group could also be beneficial. Whichever you choose, building a support system can provide emotional outlets and foster a sense of connection, which is vital during challenging times,” says Bate.
Surmitis adds that forums to process how events in the news are impacting you and your community at large are essential to seek out. She says hearing how others are impacted, especially when that impact is disproportionate across race or other factors of identity, can help you remain more open-minded and empathetic to your coworkers' perspectives.
5. Establish conversational boundaries
Maintaining values-driven boundaries can be especially important in creating and protecting long-term resiliency. Limit the amount of conversations you’re willing to engage in about the news and avoid heated discussions at work. Discourse about world issues is important to bring about change, but you shouldn’t have to compromise your mental health or professionalism in the process. You are the decider of when and where you have these conversations.
Whether it’s in casual conversation or in a meeting, if someone brings up current events or another topic that makes you uncomfortable, you can simply state, “I’d prefer not to talk about this right now. Can we talk about something else instead? I’d love to hear about your weekend plans.” If your request isn’t respected, excuse yourself to collect your thoughts and protect your peace. If your company offers paid time off, personal days, or mental health days, consider taking a day to relax, recharge, and avoid burnout.
“Communicate openly about your limits, and don’t hesitate to take breaks or seek help when needed,” Bate says. “For example, if you’re planning on eating your lunch in the break room at work, and a news channel is turned on, ask if you can change the channel, or put on captions and mute it if there aren’t differing accessibility needs.”
6. Talk to a mental health professional
If negative news is significantly impacting your mental wellbeing and performance, consider seeking support from a mental health professional.
Surmitis says, “I highly recommend working with a trained mental health provider or experienced coach to explore both your internal experience as well as your needs for resilience. Sometimes, both coaching and mental health therapy in combination can help you make deeper meaning of your interiority, including your inner dialog and the impact of early life on your lived experience today, while also achieving goals towards professional and personal success.”