Covid-19 and news-related anxiety: How has coronavirus changed our relationship with news?

Written by Dan Wiggins

In a Twitter poll asking whether the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a change in the amount of news viewed by individuals, 51.9% of 77 respondents said they were viewing less, or actively avoiding the news altogether.

This distinct aversion to the news, though extreme, seems to be a particularly common reaction to the crisis.

Another 40.3% said they have actually been consuming more news than they did before the outbreak, and just 7.8% said they had not changed their newsreading habits at all.

Source: Anonymous Twitter poll

So why has there been this polarising reaction to news coverage? It’s perhaps not surprising to see people reading more news, the circumstances of a global pandemic mean keeping up to date with developments and the latest advice is key to keeping safe.

One of those who has been reading news more since the virus outbreak is Orwane Torres, 22, of Bristol: “The reason I first started reading it more was because of my situation as a student nurse. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me with everything that was going on around coronavirus.

“The uncertainty was making me so stressed and I just wanted some indication of where I was going to end up. At the time I thought it was helping with the stress, and it helped to keep up to date with all the rules.

“Looking back now though it probably made me more stressed because I never did see any updates on my own situation but I was overwhelmed with news about how bad things generally were getting.”

The feeling that news is stressing you out or making you anxious is getting more and more common in the age of the 24-hour news-cycle. This phenomenon has been dubbed ‘headline stress disorder’.

With constant global news tracking the environmental crisis, civil unrest, war, politics and more, many people can feel like it’s all a bit too much. The challenge of coronavirus and social isolation on top all these pre-existing concerns may explain why a majority of those who responded to our poll have distanced themselves from news coverage.

“You can definitely be way too saturated with information.”

In a survey between 2016 and 2017 the American Psychological Association (APA) found that the hectic news-cycle of that year: Trump’s election victory, North Korean nuclear tests and the Brexit vote, to name a few key events, had coincided with increased average stress levels among Americans for the first time in a decade.

In their 2019 update to that survey the APA found that those aged in their thirties and younger were more likely to suffer from news-related anxiety and that 39% of Americans had taken steps to avoid news in the last year due to the stress it caused them.

A 2012 study by a team of researchers in Montreal also found women were disproportionately affected by news related anxiety and stress, and for longer.

Whilst these were American and Canadian studies, and there are some differences in output between the American and British news media, they can still provide valuable context for what we appear to be seeing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with large numbers of people taking a step back from news.

Within Britain, psychology Professor Brian Hughes has also likened the psychological trauma of Brexit on the UK population over the last few years to something on the scale of a major war or natural disaster, citing research from the UK Mental Health Foundation.

The undoubtedly significant psychological impact of the Covid-19 lockdown, on top of Brexit and all the other stress inducing news topics outlined above may explain why so many people are feeling the need to avoid news updates for the sake of their mental health.

Jo Kamal, 22, is a student based in Sheffield: “I would read news once or twice a week before, it was already something that I struggled with and found quite stressful.

“Initially for the first week or two of lockdown I was reading lots more and it was making me extremely anxious, almost obsessive with checking the news for updates.

“I realised I had to do something about it because I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I decided to do a complete 180 and avoid getting news directly. I’ve found it much easier to keep up to date through other people.

“That’s made it much more digestible for me, where I can have a conversation about it and voice how I feel rather than sitting alone looking at a big scary headline.

“Having seen the impact it can have on my own mental health, you can definitely be way too saturated with information.”

How to cope

For those experiencing news-related anxiety it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and many of your friends or family will be feeling the same way, so don’t be afraid to talk about what’s bothering you.

Consciously limiting how often you check news and how long for can help you to stay informed whilst not overloading yourself with too much.

Taking a longer break from the news, as many are doing, can also be invaluable, instead try spending the time you free up to focus on stress relieving activities like exercising, reading, or listening to music.

Further advice and methods of coping with anxiety, as well as support if you need it, can be found on the NHS website.

Written by Dan Wiggins

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