Following the news can be stressful. Here’s how Floridians can cope.

Four experts offer advice on protecting psychological well-being.
Watching negative news on TV is linked to increases in anxiety and sadness, according to peer-reviewed research.
Watching negative news on TV is linked to increases in anxiety and sadness, according to peer-reviewed research. [ Times (2014) ]
Published Dec. 27, 2022

It’s a stressful moment in American history.

Climate change. Political upheaval. Inflation. The pandemic. The war in Ukraine.

If you flip on the nightly news, scroll through Twitter or catch up with friends, you’ll likely be hit with a cascade of demoralizing and distressing updates about the state of the nation — or the world.

It can take a toll on your mental health.

Watching negative news on TV is linked to increases in anxiety and sadness, according to peer-reviewed research. And politics is a major source of stress in the U.S.

A recent peer-reviewed study estimated that 40% of Americans consistently describe politics as a significant stressor.

“People are saying ... ‘I want to stop reading about politics, but I find myself incapable of not paying attention,’” said study author Kevin Smith, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Related: Tampa Bay suicide hotline operators struggle with surge of calls

So in the age of 24/7 news coverage and social media debates, how can Floridians take a step back and protect their psychological well-being?

Here’s advice from four experts.

Stay grounded in the present

If you become overwhelmed when reading the news and are worried about “what ifs,” try to stay grounded in the present moment, said Lori Aitken, a mental health counselor and co-owner of the Anxiety Center of Tampa, which treats generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions.

Focus on your surroundings, Aitken said. Go outside and name five sounds you hear. Or identify five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

Related: Coronavirus anxiety is real. Here are mental health tips to help.

People should also accept that uncertainty will always exist, she said.

Individuals who are panicking can use a breathing exercise to calm down, added Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.

Remember that anxiety is normal

Occasional anxiety is broadly viewed as a mental disorder, but it’s not, said David Rosmarin, a Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the Center for Anxiety, which has clinics in the Northeast.

“It is an internal, natural part of being human that in many ways is healthy,” Rosmarin said.

If you feel stressed after watching the news, that’s normal, he said.

Related: Kids are struggling with mental health. Florida schools are struggling to help.

“When people have a little bit of anxiety,” Rosmarin said, “they actually judge themselves and say, ‘Oh, my God, something’s wrong with me. I have a disorder. I’m broken.’ ... Obviously, that makes the anxiety a lot worse.”

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It’s important to break this cycle of thinking, he said.

Occasional anxiety is different from generalized anxiety disorder, a condition where people are excessively worried most days for at least six months.

Therapists can help when someone’s anxiety reaches an alarming level, Aitken said.

Limit your news intake

Individuals should limit how much news they consume, said Elyssa Barbash, a psychologist and owner of Tampa Therapy, a group practice.

Don’t read it or watch it just before going to sleep, she said.

If people are scrolling through articles at 11 p.m. or midnight, it will make them anxious, which leads to restless sleep, Rosmarin said.

Related: How to cope with Hurricane Ian trauma, stress and anxiety

Put down your phone at least 30 minutes before bedtime, he said. (He usually keeps his in another room.)

The Center for Anxiety treats over 1,000 patients per year, he said. If they stop checking the news right before falling asleep, they experience a “substantial drop” in anxiety within two weeks or less, Rosmarin said.

Ideally, people should not follow the news for more than 30 minutes per day, Barbash added.

Find a balance where you stay informed but don’t become too worried about current events, Brewer said.

Focus on local problems

If people focus on national or global issues out of their control, they get “more anxious, more frustrated, more stressed out,” Aitken said.

“Can I stop Putin from firing nuclear weapons? Absolutely not,” she said. “What can I do? Can I volunteer somewhere? Can I donate to something?”

Related: Climate change also affects mental health. Call it eco-anxiety.

Use your energy to tackle local issues, Brewer said.

For example, someone worried about climate change can easily be overwhelmed with hopelessness, but instead of focusing on the enormity of the problem, they can take action in their own community to help address it, he said.

“The more we focus on what we can’t control,” Aitken said, “the more out of control we feel.”