“If I open up Twitter, scroll through 10 tweets and don’t find a single mention of North Korea, then we’re not going to die today,” I think, tapping the app’s icon on my phone and swiftly scrolling down as far as I can bear with one eye closed. Not finding what I am dreading, I move onto the BBC News homepage. “If there’s no mention of a terrorist attack somewhere in the world, then I can get on the Tube and go to work, no problem.”
This, my friends, is the fun ritual I have started doing as a result of 2017, aka The Year The News Got Real. And it’s exhausting.
Cast your mind back, if you will, to the twilight days of 2016, when the most popular joke on everyone’s lips was about saying goodbye to the “worst year in history”. What sweet summer children we were back then. How innocent, how naive. How blind to what 2017 was to bring.
In the 10-and-a-bit months of 2017, there have been hundreds of terrorist attacks, perpetrated by everyone from white supremacists to Al-Shabaab, Islamic State to so-called "lone wolves". Five have taken place in the UK; four in London and one in Manchester.
Also in this time, over half a million Rohingya people have fled murder and persecution in Myanmar, South Sudan has been locked in a brutal civil war, the Black Death has broken out again in Madagascar, and the brutalities in Syria continue en masse.
Oh, then there’s climate change, a series of awful natural disasters around the world and yes, of course, there is also Donald Trump.
Statistically, in a lot of ways, the world is a safer place than it’s ever been. The number of deaths from wars around the world is exponentially lower than even just 20 years ago. Deaths from disease are down and life expectancies around the world are up.
The anxiety epidemic is directly related to the continuous, immediate access to news stories via websites and social media.
So why, then, are people struggling? A few months ago, I, a fully grown-up, functional human woman, had to take nearly a month off work in the wake of the rising tensions between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. I know it sounds ridiculous to say out loud, but from the ‘fire and fury’ day, I was a mess. I spent days sitting on my couch, crying, not eating and watching rubbish movies. No matter what anyone said to me, I could not get my anxiety under control. I didn’t sleep, I was shaking, couldn’t breathe properly and was afraid to leave my house. In the end, my therapist (you’ve probably guessed that I suffer from anxiety) sent me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me a new medication, and Valium. Now, two months on, I am back at work, shakily, and doing my best to stay away from all and any news.
Rachel*, 26, who works in fashion, had a similar experience with panic and stopped using the Tube to get around London altogether after the terrorist attacks earlier this year. “I know the statistics and recent attacks have been on the road rather than underground, but the idea of being confined to such a small, inescapable place makes me anxious,” she explains. “I once turned up to work an hour late after taking a different route to work – all because of a hoax text about terrorism.”
Dr. Steven Raphael, a GP who works in Woolwich, says he’s noticing the effects of world news on his patients more and more. “These [terrorist] attacks have elevated the anxiety levels of people who already suffer with anxiety disorders but have also triggered the onset of anxiety disorders in people who did not previously have anxiety problems.”
But here’s a question: Is it the incidents themselves that are triggering us, or the manner in which we come to know about the incidents? For Dr. Steven, it is clear. “I think the anxiety epidemic is directly related to the continuous, immediate access to news stories via websites and social media.”
This was what war looked like, in all its ugliness, and it had seeped into the cosy and “safe” space of our living rooms.
The news cycle over the past few years has changed exponentially. Pre-internet, people cited the first Gulf War as a turning point in our relationship with news. As the first war to take place in this new age of technology, our knowledge of its atrocities was no longer limited to accounts in newspapers or blurry black and white pictures on screen. Instead, videos of real and shocking events were beamed directly, via satellite and in full colour, into living rooms across the western world. This was what war looked like, in all its ugliness, and it had seeped into the cosy and “safe” space of our living rooms.
These days, as you well know, things have become 10 times worse. Between social media, live video online and 24-hour news channels, it is now unlikely that you’d be able to avoid knowledge of some major event happening in the world for more than a few hours. “There is so much media coming from all corners of the world and it’s constant,” says Nathalie Nahai, author of Webs Of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. “It permeates all of our news feeds, all of our social channels, there really is no respite from global news.”
Sensational news has always sold; it’s why front pages carry stories of socialite cocaine scandals over stories about tax reforms. Online, though, this concept is more insidious. “The kind of headlines that get the most clicks, that drive the most traffic and get shared the most are the ones that are the most emotionally impactful,” Nathalie says, adding that this usually means news which provokes 'anger' or 'fear'. As online media is driven by commercial revenue, which relies on how much engagement a piece gets, articles that perform well will inevitably be replicated. For instance, if “Shocking Story Of New Bride Who Killed Herself After Being Denied A Mental Health Bed In A&E” provokes a huge reaction one day, you can bet your bottom dollar that if something similar happens, then a similar story, with a similar headline, will be written, published and pushed out ASAP.
The fact that psychologically provoking stories may be all some people are seeing of the news is problematic enough, but add social media into the mix and things get a lot worse. “Social media spreads emotional contagion very quickly,” explains Dr. Aaron Balick, psychotherapist and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: Connected-up Instantaneous Culture and the Self. “Not only do you get a news story, you also get the shared outrage associated with that story which hits us like a wave, creating emotional contagion, outrage and fear.”
How on earth can anyone have even the smallest chance of doing anything to control Donald Trump? We can’t. And yet we engage with opinions and news stories about him as if we can.
This outrage is usually overegged. “Social media encourages us to respond in real time, without thinking and without having to concentrate,” says Nathalie. This means that one of your favourite comedians writing a 280-word prediction for what a new terrorist attack means for the stability of Britain, five minutes after the news breaks, might not be such a healthy opinion to take to heart.
Control plays a huge part here. Those with generalised anxiety disorder often experience deeply entrenched issues of control. Reading these multiple “shocking” headlines and the subsequent ill-thought-out reactions could cause anyone to feel out of control, especially someone who strives to keep it together at all costs. How on earth could I have even the smallest chance of doing anything to control the war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un? I can’t. And yet I was engaging with opinions and news stories about it as if I could. I was reading about it compulsively, in a desperate attempt to claw back the control I felt that I’d lost.
Another issue is push notifications. These “operate very much in the same way that fruit machines do,” Dr. Aaron tells me. Over time, we’ve been conditioned to react to them. Studies show that notifications make our brains produce dopamine, which is positive. However, it’s not enough to keep us satisfied for long and soon we return to the phone in order to check for more. Between notifications informing us of positive things like Instagram likes and negative stuff like tweets telling us that some awful person has driven a bus into a crowded shopping centre, though, things can get confusing.
“It’s called variable ratio reinforcement,” says Nathalie. “It refers to the process of getting a trigger that may be followed by some kind of reward, but you don’t know when or if you’ll get a reward or how big it will be. When there’s this sense of uncertainty following a trigger such as the ping of a notification or the little icon showing you’ve got a new comment / email / response, you’re more likely to engage in and escalate that behaviour.”
She tells me about a trial conducted with pigeons (bear with me). The pigeons came to learn that if they pushed a certain lever they would get food. However, not knowing when, if or how often that food would come, they learned to repeatedly push the lever in the hope of recreating that marvellous time when it activated a food delivery. It’s what we’re doing when we pick up our phones to aimlessly scroll; it’s what I'm doing when I check Twitter for bad news.
So for people with generalised anxiety disorder, the solution seems clear; stay off the news as much as you possibly can. This feels like an awfully privileged thing to be able to do from our nice safe homes, when people out there are suffering enormously, I tell Dr. Aaron. “Yes but those people are reacting to real events that are really going on around them,” he stresses. “Actually, we find that people generally have the skills to deal with truly bad things when they’re happening, it’s the concern that they may or may not happen that they struggle with.” He cites my actions; no amount of reading about the North Korea situation is going to change a thing, so what’s the point in engaging with it?
I read the headline and logged off. I think self-preservation, particularly when you have mental health issues, is vital to living life.
It’s something I hear again and again. “I advise all of my patients who suffer with anxiety to leave social media, turn off push notifications and avoid passing the time with website browsing,” says Dr. Steven. "The brain isn't supposed to be stimulated continuously with information that activates anxiety pathways.”
Knowing this, what have our sufferers done? Rachel has been picky in her internet usage: “I have been strict, and immediately shut my apps when I see a horrible news story – after the recent Manhattan attack, I read the headline and logged off. I think self-preservation, particularly when you have mental health issues, is vital to living life.”
As for me? Well, I’ve deleted my news and Twitter apps. I don’t check the internet before bed and I disconnect almost fully at weekends. And it seems to be working... for now. It's important to know what's going on in the world, and, if there's anything you can do to help in a certain situation, then do it. It is important though to engage with the news in the right manner, for the right reasons. So, if you are suffering too, then consider joining me on a break – just for a little while.
*Name has been changed