Welcome to Am I Normal?, where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".

The headlines hit me right in the guts. Each more depressing than the last.

A rapid-fire assault on the senses that leaves me despairing at the state of the world.

Another horrifying terrorist attack with countless dead.

Devastating bushfires, a financial downturn that could decimate the economy, and a looming climate catastrophe.

War and famine and drought and domestic violence and a worsening global refugee crisis.

In the age of the 24-7 news cycle, the doomsday headlines seem never-ending.

And they’re right there in the palm of my hand every time I look at my phone.

Sometimes the news feels so overwhelmingly awful I can’t bear to look.

I’m flattened by a sense of helplessness at the sheer scale of the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems.Then I feel guilty for turning away when I should be doing something to make it better.

This is what it feels like to battle with a modern phenomenon dubbed “headline stress”.

While it’s not an official diagnosis, some psychologists are using the term to describe the increasing number of people they’re seeing who are struggling to cope with the bombardment of bad news in the digital age.

Sydney-based clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh said those feelings of anxiety can start from the moment we wake up and check our phone.

" ... we're often viewing stories that are out of our control."

“When we look at negative news stories first thing in the morning it can elicit feelings of stress, hopelessness and helplessness because we’re often viewing stories that are out of our control. It's just not a great way to start your day" Dr Keogh said.

But while we might not be able to solve all the world’s problems, there are steps we can take to make this seemingly relentless stream of bad news easier to manage.

“Try to focus on what you can control. You might not be able to fly to Syria and help out on the ground, but you might be able to volunteer for a charity or donate money,” Dr Keogh added. She also recommended starting the day with meditation, music or exercise rather than automatically reaching for your phone. 

And if you do go online, make sure you’re actively seeking out the positive news before you consume the bad. There are many sites that offer a fresh perspective and focus on everything that’s going right in the world, not what’s going wrong.

Making time to laugh is also important and Dr Keogh suggests bookmarking funny YouTube videos or your favourite comedy shows to lighten your day.

And she recommends taking news or social media apps off your phone, turning off notifications and setting time limits for how long you spend looking at negative news stories.

“Don’t allow yourself to be bombarded all day. When there’s a crisis and they have non-stop coverage on every channel, put an alarm on your phone for half an hour and when that time’s up you switch off the television and stop looking at your phone,” Dr Keogh said.

And those big feelings of sadness, fear, anger or guilt? Try to make space for them.

Dr Keogh explained that when we accept and label our emotions rather than try to push them away, it can help to alleviate distress.

" ... make sure you're actively seeking out the positive news before you consume the bad."

“If you’re watching the news and there’s a story about a natural disaster you would label the feeling – ‘I feel depressed, I feel scared’ – give the emotion a name. This helps the part of your brain that regulates emotions, the amygdala, to process the emotion so you won’t feel it so intensely,” she said.

“Once you’ve given it a label, acknowledge that you feel sad or angry or guilty or whatever it is and then allow yourself to feel it. Try to sit with the emotion and ask yourself where exactly in your body are you feeling it? Does it have a shape? Does it have a colour? Give room for your emotions. Breathe into them and just allow them to be.”

After making space for your feelings, Dr Keogh suggests shifting your perspective by investing time and energy in something productive such as a walk in nature or something that you value.

Another helpful strategy to counter the negative is to practice daily gratitude.

Our brains have a natural negativity bias – a throwback to our cavemen days when we were constantly scanning the environment for threats – and this can mean we are predisposed to notice the bad stuff while good news tends to be filtered out.

That’s why practicing daily gratitude is so important. Actively seeking out things to be grateful for has been shown to lower stress and boost feelings of calm and contentment.

“There are some birds outside my place and they’re quite loud. I could just say all day that this is just so annoying but instead I say, ‘I wonder what they’re saying to each other’?” Dr Keogh said. “So I laugh about fifteen times a day thinking about that when I could choose to be angry fifteen times a day. It’s so important to try and build that gratefulness into everyday life.”

Tips for coping with headline stress:

  • Start your day with a calming and enjoyable activity, not by looking at your phone
  • Seek out positive news, try to restrict your access to negative stories and when you do feel overwhelmed by bad news, focus on what you can control
  • Label what you’re feeling, make room for your emotions and practice daily gratitude

Related reading: Changes in kids behaviour after seeing scary stuff in the news

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