Bad news fatigue – why I took a break from the news this Christmas

bad news fatigue

Bad new fatigue is a real thing. It’s what happens to us when we face an onslaught of negativity, whether that’s on our social media, the news we actively consume, or circulating around us as we navigate our day. Overwhelmed by the seemingly endless pile of ‘things to be sad about’ and ‘things to incessantly worry about’, we can find ourselves in an unhelpful spiral of moodiness and general powerlessness.

For an eternal optimist like myself, this disconcerting phenomenon happened in the last few weeks of my first term here at SOAS. Not only am I studying Development Studies for my masters, a course that expertly picks apart and analyses all the various ways our institutions have failed to make the world a better place, I’m also a former politics student, in the habit of reading The Guardian – and a host of other news outlets – every single day to be as informed as possible.

I never assumed that this could be a bad thing for my mental health, until a few weeks ago. Months of reading about Brexit and immersing myself in the extensive analysis of what will happen once we leave, especially in the event of a no deal, made me feel desperate and jaded. Like I had lost all control in the shape of my future here in the UK. Recently, climate change has also been a hot-button topic, and every article warns us about the increasing reality that it’s too late to save the planet: we’re doomed.

I decided, after increasingly starting to question what the point of anything was, to allow myself to remain ignorant for the duration of the Christmas break. Ignorance, after all, is bliss, and I needed a few weeks to detach myself from the onslaught of negativity: I didn’t want to know.

So I fell behind on Brexit, I skipped watching the news in the evenings with my family, and I temporarily disabled The Guardian notifications on my phone. Three weeks later, when Term 2 began, I had regained my optimism for life in general, although I’m still worried about what’s happening to our planet and our politics. It’s just that now, instead of putting on a heavy coat of cynicism as soon as I get up in the morning, I feel more motivated to actively talk about current issues and seek – and read – possible solutions.

The importance of taking a break from the news might be obvious to some, but it was a mini revolution for someone like me, with interests and degrees based on real-time events that require staying informed, all the time. But there is now a recognised, clinical term for what I didn’t realise was a common issue: compassion fatigue. Symptoms include feeling exhausted, numbness, depression and general ‘fed-up-ness’, and only recently has it been applied to the general population. It doesn’t help that some of the most prominent news articles geared towards millennials are full of bleak predictions for our future: we will never be able to own a house, we’re the most anxious generation in history , we’re inheriting the Brexit legacy (or for those who don’t live in Britain, you can take your pick of current political disasters – Brazil? Italy? America?) So, the cycle seems a little unescapable, even if you take regular breaks as I’m now committed to doing.

But not all news out there is as bleak as I assumed it to be. The Week, which I am subscribed to, offers a small section called ‘It’s not all bad’ that details some of the bright spots of the week. The Good News Network publishes its own barrage of positivity, and has been actively trying to combat the daily grind since 1997. A friend of mine introduced me to a beautiful online article that quotes Tony Morrison about living through difficult times:

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to  succumb to its malevolence.”

So follows the lurch from optimism to despair and back, perhaps that’s the inevitability of having so much information at our fingertips. It does raise the question however: ‘how does constant access to negative news affect us as a population?’ Has it made us more fearful, more pessimistic about humanity’s future? Or perhaps, even more alarmingly, more disconnected and apathetic to tragedies such as humanitarian disasters when they’re churned out on a weekly basis.

I’m not about to opt out of reading the news, I think that’s a privilege many people being written about don’t get to have. I am, however, going to try to balance out my intake so that the serious, significant pieces retain my attention without wanting to make me throw my laptop out of the window. Maybe my next blog will focus on the amazing things happening in the world right now – we’ll have to see what the headlines proclaim!

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