by Jackie Bullis, PhD
Jackie Bullis Media and Anxiety

Why Can’t I Stop Watching the News?

We are living with unprecedented levels of uncertainty right now. How long will the current restrictions last? When we will be able to see friends and family again? Will the economy recover? How do we keep ourselves and our loved ones safe? 

When uncertainty is high, it can cause anxiety. One way we cope with this anxiety is by seeking as much information as possible. Our brains crave certainty in order to feel more in control of our lives. For example, many of us feel like it would be easier to cope if we just knew when the COVID-19 pandemic would be over. On top of the urge to stay informed, many of us have had our normal routines completely disrupted and have more time than usual to watch or read the news.

Is Watching the News Making My Anxiety Worse?

When we try to feel more in control of our lives by seeking certainty during an uncertain time, it actually makes our anxiety worse. Watching the news throughout the day or repeatedly checking our social media feeds for the latest updates may be comforting in the moment because it feels like we are taking steps to remain informed, which in turn reduces our anxiety. Unfortunately, this effect is short-lived. 

Staying glued to the news actually increases our anxiety in the long-term because it contributes to the false belief that if we have enough information, we can remain in control. In other words, the more we seek certainty over what will happen in the future, the more anxious we will feel because it is simply not possible to be certain about how long the current coronavirus crisis will last, what the world will look like afterwards, and so on. 

The best way to deal with this uncertainty is to practice acceptance of what is beyond our control and to refocus our attention on things we can control. For example, although we cannot control how long the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, we can take steps to minimize exposure to the coronavirus by practicing physical distancing, washing our hands frequently, and not touching our faces. We can also support our general well-being by doing our best to get enough sleep, eating regularly and staying hydrated, trying to find time to move our bodies, and connecting virtually with loved ones.

How Can I Stay Informed?

As our understanding of the current pandemic is continuing to evolve, so do the recommendations for how to stay safe. It is natural to worry about missing an important announcement or update, which contributes to the urge to check for new headlines multiple times a day. However, as we discussed earlier, this type of repetitive checking only makes our anxiety worse. 

Instead, try these tips to stay informed without making your anxiety worse:

  1. Ask yourself whether the information is helpful or unhelpful. If the news you’re consuming isn’t providing new information that educates you on how to protect yourself, it is unlikely to be helpful. Examples of helpful information includes guidelines for physical distancing or wearing face coverings. In contrast, news updates that report the new cases of COVID-19 in our town each day is not providing instructions on how to stay safe and is likely to contribute to increased anxiety.
  2. Be selective about where you get your news and stick to trusted sources of information, like the WHO and the CDC.
  3. Set boundaries around news consumption by limiting how often you check for new developments. For example, you can bookmark the above websites and briefly check them once a day for any new updates.
  4. If people you follow on social media are inundating your feeds with anxiety-provoking information, you can mute them or hide their posts from your feed. It is also important to remember that news we consume via social media may not come from legitimate sources and might contain more opinions than facts.
  5. Remind yourself that it’s normal and natural to be feeling anxious and worried right now. Do your best to practice acceptance of whatever emotion you’re feeling in the moment and remember that the emotion will dissipate with time.

About the Author

Jacqueline Bullis, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Boston who treats adults with anxiety, depressive, and related emotional disorders. She is a clinical researcher at McLean Hospital,an instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a clinical lead for Partners Healthcare’s implementation of internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy in primary care. Her research focuses on evidence-based and scalable psychological treatments for emotional disorders. Dr. Bullis has authored numerous publications on evidence-based treatments for anxiety disorders and is a co-author of the Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders, an Oxford University Treatments That Work series.