In 2001, a few months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, a team of American researchers showed that the more people listened to the news of the attacks in the days following the event, the greater the likelihood they would develop significant symptoms of stress. In another study, researchers showed that the number of hours spent watching the news after 9/11 was associated with a greater likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder in people who were not directly exposed to the collapse of the towers.
In 2019, another study showed that the more participants listened to weather forecast media before and during Hurricane Irma in Florida, the greater their likelihood of experiencing psychological distress and/or symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after the hurricane.
In an effort to explain these effects, researchers focused on the biological stress response. The first thing you need to know about stress is that our brain is a threat detector. The brain’s primary function is not to carry out mundane tasks (or perform any other action requiring our attention) that are not essential to our survival. No, the brain’s primary function is to detect threats in the environment so that we can do the only two things when faced with a threat: fight or run away. When it detects a threat, the brain activates a complex biological response that ultimately leads to the production of stress hormones by two small glands located above our kidneys called the adrenal glands. After being produced, the stress hormones will act throughout our body to give us the energy that is necessary to fight of flee. These hormones will also act in our brain to change the way we interpret our environment in order to respond to the threat.
If you watch the news carefully, you will notice that the vast majority of it is negative. Increasingly more researchers believe that the media is so popular with the public because they present threatening information that the brain of the public is able to quickly detect. Since the brain’s primary task is to detect negative information in the environment, in order to survive, humans are very large consumers of negative news, by nature.
However, this normal human attraction to negative news comes at a price. Statistics report that 84% of Americans consider news media to be depressing.
In 2012, my research team conducted a study to determine if reading negative news had an effect on stress response and memory. For one month, we selected negative news and neutral news segments from two major Quebec newspapers. Interestingly enough, it was very easy for the research team to find negative news in the newspapers evaluated. However, it was very difficult to find neutral news segments. I remember one of my students being very discouraged, telling me that even in the ‘health’ section of these media posts, most of the news had a negative headline such as “The association between X and Y for the health of Quebecers: An explosive cocktail!”
Once the neutral and negative news items were identified, we presented the headlines and the accompanying short summary to men and women. Half of the participants read the neutral news and the other half read the negative news segments. After participants read the neutral or negative news, we exposed them to a laboratory stressor and measured their stress hormones. Twenty-four hours later, we called them and asked them to recall the news they had read the day before. The results showed that participants who read the negative news reacted to stress by producing higher concentrations of stress hormones when compared to participants who read the neutral news. In addition, we showed that after a 24-hour delay, the recall of negative news was significantly higher than the recall of neutral news. With this study, we showed that when we expose ourselves to negative news, it increases both our responsiveness to stress and our memory of negative news.
Another interesting fact is that the majority of studies (including ours) have found that women are more sensitive to negative news than men. In our study, we found that women showed the greatest response to stress after reading negative news and had a better recall of negative news when tested 24 hours later. It is believed that women’s greater sensitivity to negative news may be related to a greater tendency to ruminate. When exposed to negative news, women may have a greater tendency to keep negative news active in their memory for a long period of time.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media has been bombarding us with information – mostly negative – from morning to night. If you keep the television on the news channel all day, it may well be that your feeling of restlessness and the late afternoon headache is partly related to the fact that your brain is reacting to every negative news item you hear by producing a stress response.
Given that we will be confined for a few more weeks, we may need to think about reducing the hours of news viewing in order to protect ourselves (and our families) from the effects of negative news on our stress response.
When was the last time you played music in the house? If you don’t have an answer to this question, it might be time to think about making a ‘world’s best music list’ to help reduce your stress response! I’ll explain in another blog post why music can help reduce our stress :).
I have another tip for you. In 2008, a Danish journalist, named Catherine Gyldensted, developed the notion of ‘constructive journalism’. Together, with Karen Elisabeth McIntyre, a Ph.D. candidate in mass communication, she defined constructive journalism as an emerging form of communication in which journalists commit themselves to adding positive elements or elements of solution to the negative news they describe. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you listen to Catherine Gyldenstend’s 2016 TED Talk by using the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN3-bPjgFNU.
In Quebec, we are fortunate to have a website dedicated uniquely to positive media news. In 2008, Laurent Imbault, a Quebec actor, founded the ‘Global Goodness’ website which presents only positive news that he gathers from around the world (web address: https://globalgoodness.ca). When I have an overdose of negative news, I visit the Global Goodness web page and soak in positive news. It does me a lot of good.
Try it, you’ll see. One piece of good news a day to share with your family members could do you a world of good!
From Sonia Lupien, PhD., Director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress