First the good news about all the bad news you might be reading and seeing these days: Bad news cannot cause depression. Depression is a complex biological illness, and in my professional practice as a psychiatrist, I have seen nothing to suggest that depression rates are rising in a response to the barrage of negative stories we’re hearing and seeing in the media these days. And none of the copious research on depression has concluded that it can be caused by exposure to negative media.
The roots of depression go deeper than environmental factors. After all, some people can suffer trauma and go on to live a normal life, while other people might become depressed over seemingly slight setbacks. Our responses to life’s vicissitudes are determined by the interaction of biology and environment — nature and nurture — and are as individual as each of us.
However, if you’re predisposed to depression or are already in the throes of it, you may find that a lot of time spent absorbing the news — through television, newspapers, or online — can make you feel worse. It’s a bit of a conundrum. Staying informed is important, but it also puts you at risk of being dragged deeper into depression.
The three treatment modalities for depression — talk therapy, medication and, since being approved by the FDA in 2008, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which stimulates nerve cells to alleviate depression — are effective for most people. Even as you are being properly treated for depression, you might also want to consider some strategies for managing your mood while still staying informed about what’s happening in politics, the environment, world affairs, the economy — all those things that are stressing a lot of people these days.
- Don’t use TV for escape. A factor analysis of the Depression Coping Questionnaire, which was developed in the 1980s to measure gender differences in coping strategies, has found that male or female, people with depression often use television as a coping mechanism. This is counterproductive for obvious reasons if you’re watching the news: News programs are rarely uplifting (there’s an old expression among news people: “If it bleeds, it leads”). On top of that, if you’re parked in front of the television, you’re also not doing things we know can help alleviate depression, such as exercising or connecting with friends and loved ones.
- Read positive news, too. The news media tends to focus on the worst: natural disasters, political squabbles, murder, mayhem. This makes people tune in, but it can also make the world seem like a terrible place. We can counteract the despair this might trigger by taking concrete steps to remind ourselves that things aren’t all bad all the time. Consider the findings of a study out of the University at Albany-State University of New York, which collected data from Chicago residents and found that people who live in distressed neighborhoods better coped with their circumstances when they sought out and paid attention to positive local news. Balancing your consumption of negative news with positive can help brighten your view of the world.
- Stay aware of your biases: We know that if you’re already depressed, you are likely to pay more attention to negative news than positive, which will make you feel hopeless. Stay conscious of your depressed cognitive biases, to remind yourself that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. Don’t let your mind slip into automatic dark thinking; remind yourself that thoughts aren’t always reality.
- Read or watch, then relax. If watching the news leaves you all keyed up, learn a progressive relaxation technique to use afterwards. A study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests that focused relaxation — more than distraction — can help dissipate that anxious, unsettle feeling you might have after news consumption.
- Monitor your moods and behaviors. Don’t let depression or anxiety sneak up on you. Notice if you are slipping into behaviors that suggest a worsening of your condition and take action — see a mental health professional, discuss your treatment with your doctor if you are already in care, do whatever you have learned helps lift your mood. Remember those cognitive distortions, which are one of the hallmarks of depression. If you slide too far down into the pit you may “forget” there’s a way out.
- Get involved. Responding to bad news with concrete action — getting involved with an organization aligned with your beliefs, for example — might be helpful. The feeling that you have no control over circumstances — an external locus of control — is correlated with depression. By getting involved with a cause that inspires you, you may find that the sense of having more control helps you feel better.
- Do something else! Put down the newspaper, close the computer, turn off the television. Go outside and take a walk in nature. Read a book. Call a friend. Just because the news cycle is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, doesn’t mean that you are required to soak in every word. Self-care is more necessary than ever these days, especially if you suffer from depression.
Kleinke, C. L. (1988), The depression coping questionnaire. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44: 516–526. DOI: 10.1002/1097-4679 (198807)44:4<516::AID-JCLP2270440407>3.0.CO;2-B
Yamamoto, M. (2018). Perceived neighborhood conditions and depression. Health Communication, 33 (2), 156-163. DOI: 10.1080/10410236.2016.1250192
Szabo, A., Hopkinson, K.L. (2007), Negative psychological effects of watching the news in the television: relaxation or another intervention may be needed to buffer them! International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 14(2), 57-62. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17926432