Lisa Mainwaring explains how working in journalism has affected her mental health and why a news detox has restorative effects

I’ve often wondered if news to the mind is what sugar is to the body.

I don’t know whether it’s the type of stories that have been making the headlines recently or it’s the nature of rolling news channels, but I for one often feel low in mood and anxious after watching the news and the ‘unrelenting flow’ of negativity. I fear it’s bad for my mental health. And I’m not alone.

There’s a growing movement of people who are avoiding the constant treadmill of news and opting for a ‘news-detox’.

Apparently studies have shown that the ratio of bad news to good news is about 17:1, which means that 95% of news is negative.

Looking back on the last few months, we’ve had our fair show of bad news in UK: The Westminster attack, the Manchester Arena attack, the London Bridge attack, the tensions and hate leading up to and following the general election, the Grenfell Tower fire, and now Finsbury Park attack. That’s in addition to the number of tragedies we’ve witness internationally.

It’s easy to feel bombarded, especially when news channels are constantly upping the ante to have even more sensational angles to grab our attention.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, citizen journalism and social media, we’re hearing and seeing much more than we ever used to. And it’s easy to feel bombarded, especially when newspapers, radio stations and news channels are constantly upping the ante to have even more sensational angles to grab our attention.

Some research has even suggested that viewing traumatic images in the news can cause PTSD-like symptoms, such as panic attacks, anxiety, worrying about future harm, and reducing our self-confidence. Psychologists also say that reading negative stories and seeing terrorising images can impact our overall mood and make some people feel pessimistic and world-weary.

A news moratorium

My friend Trudi Murray, an illustrator who attends St Mary’s Church in Hampton, told me the secret to her recent contagiously serene persona: “I’m on a news-detox. It’s good to be informed, but watching too much is depressing and it’s making me feel anxious. That’s why I’m having a news moratorium at the moment.”

Trudi isn’t alone; many of my friends are either limiting how much news they imbibe or enjoying a full-on news detox – taking news alerts off their phone and shunning the news for a period of time, to help them connect with friends, enjoy their free time more and sleep better.

“After quitting the news for a year I felt more fulfilled on a personal level.”

Maria Rodrigues, a presenter at Premier Christian Radio did a news detox for a year. She said: “I gave up watching the news and reading newspapers for a year, with the outcome being that I felt much more positive about life and closer to God. Although it is important to be aware of what is happening in the world, meaning that I did listen to radio news bulletin for an overview, I didn’t steep myself in the gory details of every sad story that came along.”

And Maria isn’t the only one. Rachel Huston, a former news-reader, was so sick of reading about death and destruction, that she gave up watching and reading the news for a year to help her mental health: “After quitting the news for a year I felt more fulfilled on a personal level. The time I had spent learning about the tragedies of strangers I could do nothing about was spent learning more about my local area and connecting with family –informing me about things I could do something about”.

A fortnightly detox

Giving it up for a year is pretty impressive. Because of the nature of my job, I couldn’t do that (working on a current affairs show). Being a journalist I’m expected to neuter and cauterize my feelings when I cover traumatic stories, but I’m only human and I often find myself overcome with emotion. So every year I give up digesting news and facebook for two weeks, thanks to the house we stay in in France for our annual summer holidays that has no wifi or satellite TV; forcing me to completely switch off.

Here is what I notice when I take a break:

  1. I cry less. My mind is free from the splurge of daily negativity that I digest from what I read, hear and see on the news and my mood improves. I have found myself crying more and more as I get older at the things I witness in the news. I feel like a helpless by-stander, gawping like a rubbernecker on a motorway crash. Perhaps your empathy increases as you get older? Tell me I’m not the only one?!
  2. I feel less angry. I think that the way news is presented has evolved over the years, from mere information to producing news reports that sensationalise stories to increase ratings, to agitate and dismay. I no longer feel angry at a particular group or people.
  3. I feel calmer and more peaceful.
  4. I feel more centred and more positive about life. No longer fearful and world weary.
  5. I feel closer to God and I have a clearer mind. What we see, hear, and speak opens doors to unwanted spiritual activity. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Eyes are the windows to the soul?.” Well, it’s true. It is very important to evaluate what we watch. Things that we see, if not careful, can manifest in our hearts and minds and eventually turn into actions.
  6. I feel less weighed down by the world. No longer burdened.
  7. It doesn’t impact my knowledge. Most news junkies you speak to will say that you have to be constantly abreast of the news to be on top of everything. I found that after my two week break I quickly catch up with the most salient and important news that mattered to me and my job. It becomes clear that after all those years of news-watching amounted to virtually nothing in terms of improvement to my quality of life, lasting knowledge, or my ability to help others. I become more knowledgeable, not informed. I read more books and watch fun and inspiring films.
  8. I notice my surroundings more, rather than being glued to my phone or tablet.
  9. I sleep better and my dreams are different.
  10. I lose weight. My nutritionist puts it’s down to my reduced cortisol levels, as cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, released into your body when your brain perceives a situation as threatening. Apparently our bodies can misinterpret daily stressors as sources of true danger, and release cortisol into our bloodstream and high cortisol levels can cause increased appetite, and also promote excess fat storage in the abdominal area. So after two stress free weeks, my clothes fit better.

What I’ve learned is that if you want to improve your mental health then put away your phone, turn off the TV, put away your tablet and listen to soothing music or pick up a book, go for a walk, write in a journal, have a conversation with a loved one, exercise, meditate, pray and breath from the navel. Let your body and mind come together as God intended.