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How to Establish a Healthy Media Diet

Overwhelmed by bad news? Try this mindful approach to media consumption.

by James Napoli
January 11, 2021 | Living
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Credit: Rudzhan // Adobe

I've struggled my entire adult life to stay informed about current events without becoming overwhelmed by an increasingly negative and anxiety-inducing news cycle.

And last year certainly didn't help.

By the end of 2020, I was regularly listening to 10 daily news podcasts (on double speed), checking Twitter dozens of times a day, reading several email newsletters and browsing updates from hundreds of outlets on aggregator apps like Feedly and Apple News. 

I used to think that staying on top of all the latest developments was a good way to assert some control in my life when the world seemed very uncertain.

However, being subjected to an endless barrage of news actually has the opposite effect. It leaves me feeling anxious, disrupts my sleep and adversely impacts my ability to function in everyday life.

As an editor who works in public media — a job that requires staying abreast of politics, social issues and cultural trends — I'm likely a bit of an outlier when it comes to extreme news consumption.

But I'm certainly not the only one whose mental health has suffered because of the news. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of adults experience media-induced stress. 

If you've been struggling to stay informed without overindulging in negative news and doomscrolling, the following tips will help you cultivate a more mindful and balanced approach to media consumption.

Understand the impact of negative news

Knowing what's at stake is critical to establishing a healthy news diet. So, how does excessive media consumption actually impact your body, brain and emotions? 

"With negative news or anything that stirs us up in a negative way, our brain releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. It's the same process as when something really scary happens, just on a smaller level," said psychotherapist Annie Miller.

The signs of unhealthy news consumption won't look the same for everyone, but there are a few common stress-related red flags to watch out for.

"The physical effects on the body can look like pain," Miller said.

"For some people, the heart beats faster. Some people get hot or feel flushed. Some start gritting their teeth or clenching their fists. Others get a headache or stomach ache. These kinds of reactions tend to happen if you're living in that stress response more of the time."

Though we might experience pain, discomfort and sleep-disrupting levels of stress from consuming too much media, it's not easy to break the habit.

"There's an addictive quality to news cycles that's happening both on the physiological and psychic level," said Dr. Logan Jones, a New York-based clinical psychologist and head of Clarity Therapy.

"There's a lot of things we find stimulating while watching the news — rotating banners and infographics. On your phone, you can refresh your feed and have a whole new sparkly thing to be drawn into for a dopamine hit. It's almost like you're at a casino."

Examine your current habits

The first step to creating healthier media habits is to take stock of your current modes of consumption and acknowledge how they're impacting your life.

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Though we might experience pain, discomfort and stress from consuming too much news, it's not easy to break the habit.  |  Credit: Lightly Stranded // Adobe

Jones recommends stopping to consider what you actually gain from the news.

"Something I do in my everyday life is ask: Who do I want to be right now? How do I want to use my time today? What is the news doing for me? Is it cathartic or does it feel contaminating?" he said. "Asking yourself those questions will help you be grounded in the present."

The diet metaphor is also helpful for thinking about establishing a healthy balance of viewpoints in your news consumption.

"You want to be mindful of what you're consuming, how credible your news is and what amount of variety you have," Jones said. 

"If people are only consuming one form of news, that diet will be kind of junky."

Limit your exposure

Another strategy for establishing a healthy media diet is to limit the amount of news you consume every day.

Miller suggests that this could take the form of a "worry planning time" that you actually build into your daily schedule.

"I like to recommend that people have distinct periods, like at the end of the day, when you can look at the news, scroll through anything you want to, and look at social media," she said. "But keep it contained during a certain time."

This can be challenging, Miller adds, because so many people get news notifications on their phones throughout the day. She says it's best to not engage with those updates and to put off any media consumption until the scheduled worry planning time. With practice, it'll get easier to not let news intrude on other parts of your day as much.

Jones and Miller both stress the importance of keeping certain parts of your day, specifically when you first wake up and before you go to bed, as sacred times free from news or other stressful media.

"Give yourself a buffer zone before bedtime when you can do things that are relaxing and positive," Miller said. "You want to keep your bedtime protected and really be mindful of what you're consuming close to that time."

Replace bad media habits with healthier alternatives

To help you cut back on excessive media consumption, experts recommend filling your time with more positive and productive experiences.

"You don't want to go cold turkey with the news. You don't want to remove something without putting a new support beam in its place," Jones said.

"You could replace the news with more self-soothing practices, something more creative or mindful, to nourish yourself in other ways."

Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, has replaced news consumption with a variety of other activities, such as reading biographies and listening to audiobooks.

"For example, when I'm making a cup of tea and waiting for the water to boil, I have an audiobook going," she said. 

"Whenever you would listen to the news, always have another activity planned that's also pleasurable."

Miller recommends meditation as an activity that can counter the negative effects of consuming media.

"Meditation has the ability to change your brain in a positive way. It actually can help combat the cortisol and adrenaline rush you get from watching the news and endlessly scrolling," she said.

"If you find yourself experiencing that feeling, it's important to notice it and find something to pull you back into a more balanced place."

Ultimately, establishing a healthy media diet is about taking control over the information you consume, and choosing when and how you want to consume it.

"Focus on things you have control over," Breuning said. "If you only focus on things you don't have control over, you'll just end up miserable and you'll feel powerless."

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James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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