What Constant Exposure To Negative News Is Doing To Our Mental Health

02/19/2015 08:49 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2015
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It's nearly impossible to turn on the TV, open up a web browser, or scroll through Twitter without being assaulted with notifications of a new world disaster (or two, or three...). Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, alerts of shootings, plane crashes, ISIS beheadings, crime, war and human rights violations are constant -- and this incessant news of violence and destruction may be messing with our heads.

The world isn't falling apart, but it can sure feel like it. The news can be violent, depressing and emotionally-charged.

"Terrorism is newsworthy because it is inherently dramatic and threatening," political scientist Shana Gadarian wrote in The Washington Post in October. "Media competition means that journalists and editors have incentives to use emotionally powerful visuals and story lines to gain and maintain ever-shrinking news audiences."

This may be driven partly by our natural negativity bias, which leads us to pay more attention to things that are dangerous or threatening.

According to some psychologists, exposure to negative and violent media may have serious and long-lasting psychological effects beyond simple feelings of pessimism or disapproval. The work of British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, who specializes in the psychological effects of media violence, suggests that violent media exposure can exacerbate or contribute to the development of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood -- especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story," Davey told The Huffington Post. "In particular... negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be."

According to Davey, the way that negative news affects your mood can also have a larger affect on how you interpret and interact with the world around you. If it makes you more anxious or sad for instance, then you may subconsciously become more attuned to negative or threatening events, and you may be more likely to see ambiguous or neutral events as negative ones.

On a neurological level, when we're confronted with images of violence, we know that images or videos depicting violence are categorically different from actual violence -- so we don't process the input as threatening stimuli. However, we internalize the negative stimuli, which can affect mood and cause one to feel more negatively towards the environment more broadly.

"These images change our overall mood to a more negative one -- more sad or more anxious -- and it is this change in mood that leads to psychological changes in the way we attend to things around us (e.g. we are more likely to pick out things in our environment that are potentially negative or threatening)," Davey explains. "This can have a vicious cycle effect on mood generally for some time."

Some research has even suggested that viewing traumatic images in the media can cause PTSD-like symptoms. A 2001 study found that watching the events of 9/11 on television was enough to trigger PTSD symptoms -- such as worrying about future terrorist attacks and reduced self-confidence -- in some viewers. Severity of symptoms, interestingly, was directly correlated with the amount of time the subjects spent watching television.

A recent study also found that being frequently exposed to graphic, uncensored images of violence is emotionally distressing to many journalists working in newsroom settings. The journalists who were regularly exposed to violent video footage scored higher on indexes of PTSD -- including re-experiencing, avoidance and general anxiety -- as well as increased alcohol consumption, depression, and somatization (physical signs of distress in the body).

The researchers noted that over time, exposure to graphic violence can cause a process of either sensitization, in which the individuals becomes more sensitive to emotional distress upon viewing the images, or desensitization -- a sort of numbing process in which individuals become habituated to what they see -- to occur. This numbing effect, which causes the brain to exhibit less of an emotional response to disturbing stimuli, has been observed in those who have been repeatedly exposed to violent video games.

The diagnostic criteria for PTSD -- which was appended for the DSM-5 to recognize that not only experiencing something traumatic oneself but also witness a life-threatening trauma to another could lead to symptoms of the disorder -- acknowledges this to some degree. Davey notes, however, that the DSM description does say that these events should be witnessed in person.

Of course, it's important to note that exposure to negative news is unlikely to cause depression, anxiety or PTSD in individuals who are not already prone to these conditions. But it can still lead to a pessimism and world-weariness that leads us to perceive the state of the world in an overly negative light -- leading us to ignore and overshadow the many things that are working.

What's clear from this research is that more positive news is needed to outweigh the violence and destruction we're exposed to every day. As psychologist Steven Pinker and international studies professor Andrew Mack write in Slate, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket, despite what the headlines suggest. Violence has actually decreased, and quality of life has improved for millions of people. Journalism should reflect these truths.

As Positive News founder Sean Dagan Wood said in a recent TED talk, "A more positive form of journalism will not only benefit our well-being; it will engage us in society, and it will help catalyze potential solutions to the problems that we face."

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