The poet Gwendolyn Brooks once wrote, “One reason that cats are happier than people is that they have no newspapers” (1968). Although you could find exceptions to this rule (Garfield and Grumpy Cat being the first to come to mind), her observation begs the question: How are you affected by news consumption? After reading or watching the news, do you tend to feel more at ease? A sense of relief? Or do extended periods of watching, reading, and listening to the news have the opposite effect? Do you notice more stress and rumination about decisions being made or about events over which you have little control?
If you suffer from insomnia, the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors brought on by news consumption and other related stressors can have a significant impact on your ability to sleep. While it would be preposterous to suggest that you should immediately cut ties with news and social media platforms, it is vitally important to contemplate the side effects of news consumption on your overall wellbeing and to develop healthy ways to stay informed.
What does the research say?
Research on this topic shows that there is a clear link between stress and insomnia. Individuals suffering from sleep loss exhibit signs of hyperarousal, or an abnormal state of increased responsiveness to the environment, throughout the day and night. This heightened state of arousal is perpetuated by factors such as stressful events or a tendency to anxiously ruminate about those events (Basta et al., 2007).
One study in France examined the relationship between individuals’ news consumption through both traditional and social media and associated symptoms of insomnia after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris (Goodwin et al., 2018). This research demonstrated a significant association between insomnia and two different types of media: traditional (TV, newspaper, and radio) and social (Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube). Media use directly after the attacks was significantly associated with insomnia one month after the event occurred, even when the researchers controlled for location (proximity to the event) and PTSD symptoms. While an event such as a terrorist attack is at minimum considered life-altering for most people, the repeated exposure to such an event causes even greater damage.
In some cases, people find themselves drawn to traumatic content, watching the same images over and over despite feeling increasingly anxious and fearful. For those of you who experienced the 9/11 terrorist attacks, perhaps you can relate to this propensity to over-expose yourself to upsetting information. News outlets showed the planes crashing repeatedly into the World Trade Center. At the time, it was important for all citizens to be aware of what was happening, so it made sense that news outlets were broadcasting the same information on repeat to ensure that the information spread. Many people, however, spent a great deal of time watching the same footage over and over again, thus traumatizing themselves through repeated exposure to the traumatic event. Brosschot et al. (2005) call this “perseverative cognition” and posit that this can contribute to stress-related responses that have negative consequences for physical health.
Consuming news in the time of COVID-19
In our current news climate, information about COVID-19 is widely available and pertinent to our daily lives. One study conducted in France during the lockdown (starting March 17, 2020) surveyed 1,005 adults four weeks after the lockdown was initiated (Léger et al., 2020). Their aim was to examine the relationship between media overexposure and sleep disorders during the lockdown. The results of this study identified a strong association between increased media exposure and aggravated and severe sleep problems with daytime impairment and/or sleeping pill use. The authors highlight the significant role of the lockdown, indicating that these circumstances likely reduced the availability of coping tools (i.e., exercising, consistent routine, spending time outside, and avoiding screen time) and increased environmental exposure to the bright blue light of screens and the noise of radio and TV, all of which are factors that have implications for sleep.
Another recent study on the relationship between media exposure of coronavirus on overall mental health recommends limiting “repetitious exposure to media stories that provide little new information, while staying abreast of critical updates” (Garfin et al., 2020, p. 356). Garfin et al. (2020) also recommend seeking information from authoritative sources such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than media sources that may tend to sensationalize or depict unnecessarily disturbing images.
Why do you watch, read, or listen to the news?
People have a wide variety of reasons to watch, listen to, or read the news, and the effect it has on any individual is equally varied. Perhaps you believe that it is every citizen’s duty to be informed about what decisions are being made in their country. Maybe you watch or read the news so that you can stay informed about world events or be aware of safety issues in your local area. Or it could be that you enjoy a particular news station, anchor, or journalist. Whatever the reason, there are steps you can take to ensure that being an informed citizen can be achieved without sacrificing your sleep.
How to be a healthy consumer of news
Consider the following suggestions and feel free to respond with additional ideas:
- Talk with others about the impact that the news is having on you. Discuss not only the content of the news, but your emotional and/or physical response to the information you are receiving.
- Check in with yourself before consuming news and ask yourself questions such as, “What information am I seeking?” “How might this information make me feel?” “Are there any alternative ways of obtaining this information that might improve my mood?” “How will I know if/when I have watched, read, or listened to enough news?”
- While consuming the news, be aware of the natural tendency to repeatedly seek out distressing information. If you find that you are not receiving new information and are instead becoming increasingly upset at the information being presented, consider taking a break.
- After watching the news or reading a particularly upsetting news column, check in with yourself. Are you repeatedly thinking about the information you received? What do you need to do to reduce any negative impact that news of world events is having on you?
- Consider seeking out “positive news.” This can be in the form of getting updates from friends and family members, searching the internet for “positive news stories,” or reading the “good news” section that many news sources have created to purposefully increase attention to good things happening in the world. Making a concerted effort to counteract our “survival mode” tendency to attend to negative stimuli is a great way to remind yourself that good things are happening simultaneously with the bad.
- Finally, it is important to note that insomnia is often caused and perpetuated by a myriad of factors. Monitoring your news consumption alone may not adequately address your insomnia symptoms. If you suffer from insomnia, we encourage you to read about the services offered at our clinic that can help you achieve healthy sleep.
- Basta, M., Chrousos, G. P., Vela-Bueno, A., & Vgontzas, A. N. (2007). Chronic Insomnia and the Stress System. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 2(2), 279–291. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2007.04.002
- Brooks, G. (1968). In the Mecca. Harper & Row.
- Brosschot, J. F., Pieper, S., & Thayer, J. F. (2005). Expanding stress theory: Prolonged activation and perseverative cognition. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30, 1043–1049. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2005.04.008
- Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-2019) Outbreak: Amplification of Public Health Consequences by Media Exposure. Health Psychology, 39(5), 355-357. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hea0000875
- Goodwin, R., Lemola, S., & Ben-Ezra, M. (2018). Media Use and Insomnia After Terror Attacks in France. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 98, 47-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.12.006
- Léger, D., Beck, F., Fressard, L., Verger, P., Peretti-Watel, P., & The COCONEL Group. (2020). Poor sleep associated with overuse of media during the COVID-19 lockdown. Sleep, 43(10), 1-3. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa125