Is “global stress disorder” real? Yes, but those who thrive in the news often lose sight of it

Michael J. Socolow, University of Maine

It all started with a basic “news you can use” feature from National Public Radio. Titled “5 Ways to Cope With the Stressful News Cycle,” producer Andee Tagle’s article, published in late February, offered advice on how to cope with news-consuming anxiety in times of Of voltage.

Among Tagle’s advice: “Do something that’s good for your body and helps you get out of your head.” Also: “The kitchen is a safe space for many of us. Maybe it’s the weekend that you finally recreate Grandpa’s famous lasagna… or maybe you just get lost in kitchen organization.

Tagle’s simple self-help advice quickly sparked social media scorn, seemingly striking a chord with many commenters.

Dan McLaughlin of the National Review tweeted that the piece reported that NPR employees “really don’t think of their audience as adults.”

“I’m all for mental health awareness and therapeutic care,” tweeted Daily Beast editor Anthony Fisherbefore ultimately dismissing Tagle’s article as “a lifestyle guide for narcissists”.

The article and its condemnation raise questions involving research into the mental and psychological toll of everyday news consumption that has gone largely unnoticed by the public in recent years. Recent surveys and research on the subject have only occasionally been published in the mainstream press. The global COVID-19 pandemic – and the apocalyptic news stories it has sparked – have drawn a bit more attention to this research.

Yet the mental and psychological toll of news consumption remains largely unknown to the general public. Although the research isn’t widely known, the emotions felt by what a Northwestern University Medical School paper called “headline stress disorder” likely exist for some unknown proportion of news consumers. After all, if those sentiments didn’t exist for at least some of their audience, NPR would never have published this article. Fox News would also not publish a similar article to help its viewers cope.

The news may have a mental and psychological impact on some people. DjelicS via Getty Images

News threatens mental stability

The idea that more information, delivered faster through new addictive technologies, can cause psychological and medical harm has a long history in the United States.

Media scholars like Daniel Czitrom and Jeffrey Sconce have noted how contemporary research has linked the emergence and prevalence of neurasthenia to the rapid proliferation of telegraph news in the late 19th century. Neurasthenia is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a condition characterized primarily by physical and mental exhaustion usually accompanied by symptoms (such as headache and irritability)”. Early 19th century scientific exploration in neurology and psychiatry suggested that too much information consumption could lead to “nervous exhaustion” and other illnesses.

In my own research on social psychology and radio listening, I noticed that the same medical descriptions repeated themselves in the 1920s, once radio became widespread. News reports chronicled how listening to the radio and consuming news on the radio seemed to threaten some people’s mental stability.

A New York Times front-page article in 1923 noted that a Minnesota woman was divorcing her husband on the then-novel grounds that he was suffering from “radio mania”. The woman felt that her husband “paid more attention to his radio set than to her or their house”, which had apparently “alienated her affection”.

Similar reports of new media addiction, mania, and psychological entanglement emerged again as television proliferated in American homes in the 1950s, and again with the proliferation of the Internet.

Public debate about psychological addiction and the mental damage caused by new technologies, and the resulting moral panics, arise periodically as new communication technologies emerge. But, historically, the adjustment and integration of new media happens over time, and disorders such as neurasthenia and “radio mania” are largely forgotten.

A 1923 New York Times story with the title,
A story from December 2, 1923, front page of The New York Times. New York Times Archive

Anxious about scary news

“Headline stress disorder” may sound ridiculous to some, but research shows that reading the news can cause certain subsets of news consumers to develop measurable emotional effects.

Many studies focus on this phenomenon. In general, they find that some people, under certain conditions, may be vulnerable to potentially harmful and diagnosable levels of anxiety if exposed to certain types of news stories.

The problem for researchers is to isolate the exact subset of information consumers at whom this occurs and to accurately describe the effect that occurs in response to specific news topics and information consumption methods. identified.

It is not only likely, but even likely, that many people will be made more anxious by the widespread spread of scary news. And if a news consumer has an anxiety disorder, depression, or other identified mental health condition, the likelihood that obviously distressing reporting will amplify and inflame those underlying issues seems almost certain.

Just because popular culture manages to pathologize much of everyday behavior doesn’t mean the issues identified aren’t real, as those who skewed the NPR story have implied.

We all eat; but some of us eat way too much. When this happens, everyday behavior turns into actions that can threaten health and survival. Similarly, most of us strive to stay informed, but it’s likely that in some situations, for some people, staying informed when the news is particularly scary can threaten their mental health.

[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]

Therefore, the question is not whether the problem is real, but how research might quantify and describe its true prevalence, and how to fix the problem.

And that’s precisely why NPR’s article caused such a stir. Many people who consume news without a problem couldn’t understand why others might benefit from learning to cope with “headline stress disorder.”

In reality, the criticisms directed at NPR say nothing about those who find our current series of bad news particularly anxiety-provoking. That says a lot about the lack of empathy from those who would scoff at the idea.

Michael J. Socolow, Associate Professor, Communications and Journalism, University of Maine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Comments are closed.