Infections. Deaths. Racism. Brutality. Rioting. Looting. Shooting. Killing. It seems today’s headlines herald terrible news that the world we live in is in utter chaos. If you’re like me, you’re probably feeling somewhat frazzled by it all. And if you’re a news junkie, you may even be feeling downright depressed! There’s actually a name for that feeling.
Psychologist Steven Stosny originally coined the term election stress disorder to describe the feeling of anxiety caused by the onslaught of news surrounding the 2016 presidential election. Stosny later renamed the condition headline stress disorder when the anxiety persisted past the election. The term is pretty fitting for what’s happening today as well, don’t you think?
Headline stress disorder reflects the fact that to grab attention, news headlines often use words that create fear or anger in readers. Stosny recommends reading past the headline. Typically, once you read on and get all the facts, the situation being reported is not as awful as the headline portends.
But today’s news is stressful beyond the headlines. And we must learn to deal with stress in our lives because it can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health.
Stress is a natural response to life experiences. In potentially threatening situations, your central nervous system reacts to stress by initiating the “fight or flight” response. Your CNS triggers your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which increase heart and breathing rates and send blood to your organs and muscles to prepare them for action.
Ideally, when the threat is over, your body returns to a normal, relaxed state called homeostasis. But with chronic stress, your body remains hyped up on stress hormones. This can lead to symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches and insomnia.
Chronic stress can also elevate blood pressure, cause chest pain and sexual problems and worsen symptoms of existing diseases, including heart disease, cancer and lung disease. It’s also been linked to low back pain, inflammatory bowel disease, changes in women’s menstrual cycles and structural changes in the brain leading to memory, thinking and learning difficulties.
Some people living with chronic stress develop unhealthy behaviors as a way of coping. They may misuse food, alcohol, tobacco or drugs, or gamble compulsively, engage in sex, shop or use the internet excessively. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to cause more stress rather than relieve it. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Today, we’re bombarded with a nearly constant flow of news about COVID-19 and the riots surrounding the George Floyd protests. And the bad news is keeping some in a state of chronic stress beyond headline stress disorder. The American Psychological Association notes that a few lessons learned from past disasters are applicable to what’s happening now.
We’ve learned that social media may escalate anxiety more than traditional media, but too much media of any kind can undermine mental health. Also, it was found that trustworthy information sinks in. The bottom line: you can stay informed of events, but be sure to find authoritative sources and be mindful of how much time you’re absorbed in the news.
To help you tune out the bad news for a while, set a limit on how much time you spend looking at the news on TV or on your social media on your phone or computer. This can give you a chance to relax from headline stress disorder and allow your body’s stress response to return to homeostasis.
You can also benefit by engaging in stress management. Regular exercise is a good way to manage stress in your life, as is spending time with your friends and family. Practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga can also help with stress. If you find that you can’t handle stress on your own and it’s affecting your health, seek professional help.
It’s important that you take care of yourself, especially if you feel stressed about the latest headlines. Self-care enhances your nervous system’s response to stress, and that improves your physical health and overall wellbeing. And when you feel good, you can better handle the negative impact of headline stress disorder and whatever crises are in the news.