Headline Stress: Why it’s Worse in a Crisis and How to Overcome It

Living through multiple crises simultaneously is emotionally taxing, and the borderline between informed and overwhelmed is narrow. How do you remain engaged despite the anxiety caused by the news?

I cannot be the only one whose Facebook feed has become increasingly depressing over the past years. From what used to be cat videos and close-ups of lunches, my Facebook and Instagram feeds have turned into a source of anxiety and stress. This is, of course, not the lunches’ or cats’ fault, but rather the events’ which are unfolding in the world. Never before has it been so easy to be informed about every single event happening globally, and never before in my lifetime have there been this many crises happening simultaneously.

Besides the “obvious” issues of COVID-19 and subsequent economic crisis, and the long-lasting crisis of police brutality against black people in the United States, there are other, silent, crises you may have missed. Rivers are dying at an alarming rate in the UK, Greenland’s ice sheets have reached a point of “no return” and this year’s Atlantic hurricane season is predicted to be a record-breaking one. Climate change is only going to accelerate in the coming years, further destabilizing societal structures and bringing about new potential pandemics. Meanwhile, the internet and social media are here to stay, with increasing number of people saying following the news gives them anxiety.     

Climate change is only going to accelerate in the coming years, further destabilizing societal structures. Meanwhile, the internet is here to stay.

Some psychologists now refer to the anxiety and stress caused by constant influx of bad news as “headline stress.” Steven Stosny, a couples’ therapist from Washington D.C., originally dubbed headline stress as “election stress disorder,” but now believes headline stress better describes the increased anxiety and stress caused by news. Potential remedies include focusing on what you do have control over: your own actions. Volunteering, seeking out positive news and, if all else fails, decreasing, or even eliminating your consumption of news.

However, complete disconnection from the headlines is hardly a lasting solution. Even if we are privileged enough to only be learning about disasters, catastrophes and crises in the news, rather than living through them, the number of people affected by some aspect of COVID-19 and/or climate change is only going to increase. Being willingly uninformed about the news might lead to inaction over, for example, climate change, and thus lead to the crisis becoming worse and more impactful.

On the other hand, overconsumption of news will only lead to information fatigue and headline stress. You are aware of what is happening, but unable to affect it in anyway, as you are completely overwhelmed by the overflow of information and headline stress. Being knowledgeable is unlikely to make you happy or effective in bringing about change if you are too anxious to implement the necessary changes. Knowledge is power only if it can impact your actions in some way.

What we are likely to see with climate change’s impacts is the same pattern shown to us by COVID-19. Initially dubbed as the “great equalizer”, COVID-19 has brought to light pre-existing economic, racial and post-colonial inequalities. The virus itself is neutral; it cannot be racist, classist or colonialist. Yet, what we have seen are BAME groups being disproportionately affected by the virus, those living in socio-economically deprived areas dying at higher rates, and tribes, which have already all but disappeared due to colonialism, are now being threatened by the virus. Climate change is likely to follow the same pattern as COVID-19, affecting those with the least power in global capitalism the most. The power imbalance is why it is so important to stay engaged: to be able to amplify the voices of those most affected by the issues they did not create and help create a more just future.

How can we remain engaged and active while also ensuring our own well-being and mental health?

So, what is the right solution to headline stress? How can we remain engaged and active while also ensuring our own well-being and mental health? The solution could lie in the  method of consuming news. Under the current economic system, our greatest identity is a consumer identity. Consumer capitalism has worked tirelessly for decades to ensure that we don’t simply consume out of necessity, but out of self-expression. The commodification of identities, ideologies, and even activism, ensures that our instinctive solution to caring about something, is to spend, spend, spend in favour of it. Unfortunately, buying a cute tote bag that tells you to recycle is unlikely to help us overcome the anxiety, sadness and anger raised by global injustices in the long run.

Something else Stosny talks about in relation to “headline stress,” is the agitation caused by feelings of powerlessness. This is an emotion which arises when faced with something as major as climate change or COVID-19, especially when you cannot single-handedly end climate change or fossil fuel use. That is fine.

There are two ways to counter this “headline stress”. Firstly, in the world of simultaneous crises don’t shame yourself for not responding perfectly to every crisis. Educate yourself about the connections between ongoing crises and the things you can change, such as who you vote for and how you spend your time. Planning your response based on these connections is more likely to achieve change and not give you overwhelming anxiety as you can understand the potential power you hold.

don’t shame yourself for not responding perfectly to every crisis.

Another method to help overcome anxiety caused by the news is to shift your focus. Too often activism becomes centred on negative things, or things we do not want. This, of course, results in quite a bleak worldview, in which negative things are amplified and positive achievements are not. Taking time to think about what kind of a society we wish to build, rather than focusing on what we are trying to prevent, can help in curbing some of that headline stress. Something that helped me with this was Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, where Solnit discusses, with examples from the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, the ways in which crises bring out the best in people and communities.  

A consumer will consume to bring meaning and purpose to their life. Instead of consuming the news, study it. What are the reasons behind minorities being disproportionately affected by COVID-19? What can you do to help against racism, COVID-19 and climate change? What could your community achieve if you became organized against one of these things? Become an active thinker and organizer instead of consumer. Instead of only superficially learning about the events happening, dig deeper and change your actions by what you learn.  

Art by Alex Rive

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