Why Your Brain Craves Bad News

I was sitting at my cubicle, in a crowded office, when news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting first hit. And, like most Americans, I couldn’t look away from my screen. For hours and hours, I scrolled through every news article, every update.

The tragedy was soul-sucking, but I couldn’t step away from my computer. I couldn’t focus on anything else. Nothing else seemed relevant. Nothing else mattered. I had to know why, how… and even now, I remember that day as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Bad news — political drama, disastrous hurricanes, murders — it’s all so addictive. And it’s so much more addictive than good news, but why?

Bad news hits differently

The way our brains respond to bad news makes it stick a lot easier than good news.

Illustration of woman crying after reading bad news on her smartphone. pbs rewire
As interesting as reading about tragedies is, we can become stressed when we read too much.

“When we’re reading a depressing news story, the cerebral cortex in our brain surges in response to this negative stimuli and makes us more likely to remember this bad news (compared to good news),” said Sal Raichbach, a licensed psychologist at Ambrosia Treatment Center.

Negative stimuli can come from anything unpleasant or threatening: something frustrating, painful, irritating or sad. This includes hurtful comments, a passing ambulance, bad news or a dangerous situation.

“Bad news can excite our nervous system,” said Steven Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and behavioral specialist in suburban Philadelphia. “The brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli (which produces) a greater surge in electrical activity… When we read an article about (a negative event), we actually visualize the event in our minds. This moves the brain to be more electrically charged.”

While this can help us in some situations, it also “predisposes us to fear,” Raichbach said.

When we’re reading bad news, we’re usually in a safe, comfortable place. And the information can be much more impactful than we realize.

Our brains keeping us safe

When we hear or read bad news, we immediately feel stimulated. We’re compelled to keep reading, gather information, and protect ourselves. What happened? How did it happen? What if that happens to me? How would I respond?

“We are neurologically programmed to scan our environment for negative stimuli,” Rosenberg said.

And that’s a good thing. It’s what keeps us safe when we find ourselves in dangerous, life-threatening or new situations.

In our brains, we’re constantly preparing ourselves for danger, so when something bad does happen (even if it doesn’t happen to us), we want to know everything on the off chance we encounter it ourselves. And once we read a negative and compelling headline, we can’t help but read more.

A review published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology focuses on the way the nervous system responds to negative events. In simple terms, three things happen, internally, when negative events occur:

  1. Our “input mechanisms” start working to gather sensory information.
  2. Our “evaluation systems” start to evaluate the information and prepare a proper response.
  3. Our “associated and output processes” store the information and work with the brain and the body to activate a defense or action.

All of this is happening really quickly, which is why we’re able to respond immediately to life-threatening situations like near car accidents.

But the problem is that the same response can occur when we’re sitting on the subway or waiting in line at the pharmacy, if we’re reading bad news. The negative stimuli immediately alters our mood, even if the event occurred in another state or another country.

Bad news can be triggering

We can’t always prevent triggers, but we can monitor how much good or bad news we take in.

If you are already feeling pessimistic or depressed, bad news can be really damaging to your well-being.

Even if you’re in a good mood, bad news can give you anxiety and make you feel unnecessarily stressed. That’s why sitting on your computer for hours and scrolling through bad news is not a good idea.

News stories can make you feel exhausted, sick to your stomach and angry, so pay attention to the way your brain and body is responding, mental health professional Adina Mahalli said.

“Reading bad news isn’t necessarily bad to do, but it’s important to make sure that you’re not reading enough to make you feel overwhelmed,” she said. “As interesting as reading about tragedies is, we can become stressed when we read (too much).”

[ICYMI: Why Are Instagram and YouTube Telling Us to Get Offline?]

Give yourself a break

Likely, work stress and relationship stress is already weighing you down. Why add more if you can help it? I’m not saying that you should stop engaging with the news, but you should set limits for yourself and prioritize self-care.

If you notice that you’re feeling worn down by the information you’re taking in, take a break. Turn off your news alerts. Skip the nightly news. Unfollow some outlets. Set a limit of 30 minutes a day or an hour per week. Sign up for a daily newsletter that curates a healthy mix of good and bad news so you’re updated but not overwhelmed.

“During the day, change the light intensity of your environment,” Rosenberg suggested. “Turn off the television. Put your smartphone away, or put it on mute. Be active and exercise regularly.”

Sarah Sheppard

Sarah Sheppard is a freelance writer, editor and writing instructor. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University and is working on her first novel. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or contact her at sarahsheppardwriter.com.