Why Too Much Exposure to Pandemic News Might Be Stressing You Out
We know we don't feel great after catching too much of the news, and we wanted to understand why, so we reached out to Dr. Alison Holman, a psychologist who specializes in stress and trauma in relation to media exposure. She gave us some interesting insights into the pros and cons of media coverage, and some tips on how to deal with the stress in a healthy way.
Sweety High: What are some of the ways that the pandemic news might affect teens and their stress levels?
Alison Holman: The news stories parents tend to engage with are often about the state of the world. Young people aren't in charge yet, but someday they'll have a say and be affected by everything that's going on.
When they're exposed to news, they become more aware of the world around them. In some ways, this is a really good thing. It's good to be informed, and it helps them recognize what's important in the world. On the other hand, it can cause a lot of stress. It's a double-edged sword, and it's important to have coping skills in order to manage that.
It can affect teenagers particularly hard because generally speaking, they're at a phase in life where they're thinking more about the future—building a sense of who they are, where they're going and what they'll be doing with their lives. They wonder about college and jobs, and how they'll support themselves in the future, on top of a lot of other things.
What's unique about this particular collective stressor is that it's put the future in an uncertain place. We don't know what the future's going to hold for us, so as teens are starting to think toward it, what they're starting to build in their minds is being undermined by this public health event. The future is important to them, but it's become a huge question mark. The more they're inundated by news, the more likely it's going to be stressful for them.
Longer time exposed to media correlates to greater stress symptoms. In one study, we found that being exposed to graphic or gruesome images was associated with a greater risk of mental health symptoms months later, as well as poorer function and having a harder time functioning at work and in social relationships. These things can have a pretty significant impact. Both with how much you see and what you see may have an impact on how much stress you experience after engaging with media.
SH: What are some ways we can prevent ourselves from feeling stuck and stagnant during this time?
AH: Being stuck at home doesn't mean you can't do anything positive toward your future. It's important to remember there are ways to help contribute to the health and wellbeing of our communities. When we do that, those communities are going to support our health and wellbeing at the same time. Social responsibility is really important.
I would encourage people to draw upon past coping strategies—things that you've done in the past when you've felt like you've had an ambiguous or uncertain future around a particular issue. What has worked for you in the past? Talking to somebody can help if you don't know or you're not sure the best way to deal with it. Remember that different strategies work for different people. Some people like using humor when dealing with a very stressful situation, and some people find it offensive. Some people like making plans, and some people like taking immediate action.
The biggest thing I encourage is to do something you can control that's to the benefit of yourself, your family, your neighbors and your community. Contributing something can give you a sense of purpose, which is a really important part of well-being. What small thing can you do today to make your life, your family's life and your community's life a tad better given these awful circumstances we're coping with? Doing that may help you balance a sense of not being sure about what the future holds for you.
SH: What can we do to find a healthy balance between staying informed and being overwhelmed by the news?
AH: The best thing you can do is pick a couple of highly reputable, fact-based websites where you can get reliable information, such as the Johns Hopkins coronavirus Resource Center, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Find one that's not known for a lot of sensationalism and political hyperbole. The BBC is one media organization considered very well-balanced.
Visit them once—maybe twice—a day, but no more than that, and limit the time you spend there. Give yourself 15 or 20 minutes, and then be done for the day, and leave. Then try to focus your energy on what you can actually control.
You control your own behavior. Decide you're going to wash your hands properly, and not touch your face. Maybe you'll try to make some masks for people, or seek out neighbors who need help with something. Find things you can do. Finish your schoolwork. If you can't think of anything or you're feeling particularly stressed, try cuddling a pet, which can help decrease your anxiety. Working to have a sense of control in your day will help.
SH: How should teens talk to parents when they insist on having the news on all the time?
AH: I would suggest speaking to their parents in a polite and kind way. If the news is getting to them and their parents are keeping it on too much, they can show their parents this article and say, "I read a story that said having the media on all the time can be really bad for us. It may actually make us feel more anxious and stressed. Can we turn it off for a while, or keep it down, and limit the amount of time we spend listening to this? Because it's really scaring me."
I think the majority of parents are going to take this seriously and make some adjustments for them, especially when you come armed with facts and information. I believe in speaking up and being able to tell parents what you think and feel. That's how you have build communication. I encourage speaking openly, honestly, respectfully and kindly. Try saying "I feel like this when I see that."
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