The effect of negative news on our mental health is not a new feature of modern life, but it can sometimes feel that there is an increasingly worse situation in the world. It is important to understand how we can build resilience and coping for ourselves in this situation.

News that may have a negative effect on mental health in recent times have included the COVID-19 pandemic; the war in Ukraine; the ongoing climate crisis; and the current conflict in Gaza. There are many other situations in other parts of the world that are also a potentially high source of stress for individuals.

For example, in Finland there has been a recent Presidential election, which while conducted in an orderly and democratic way, has brought out media reports of high levels of heteronormativity amongst Finnish voters. These kinds of news items can be stressful or upsetting for those who can relate to feelings of marginalisation.

Psychologists are aware of the difficulties in staying positive in a world where conflict, environmental crises and discrimination exist. However, while individual psychologists cannot resolve these kinds of societal conflicts or crises, we can offer strategies to maintain good mental health in the face of them.

There are two main strategies that are recommended. The first is to develop a more healthy and adaptive way of relating to the news and media. Understanding that social media is designed for unlimitless scrolling (“doomscrolling”) means that we need to set other limits, for example setting time limits on use of social media or deleting certain apps. In studies on emotional stress and news consumption, those who relied on newspapers and TV news (finite sources of news) were less distressed than those who relied on social media. If you feel that you cannot set limits on your own use of social media, you can seek help from a psychologist for guidance.

The second strategy is to understand that the news cycle is built on reporting negative events, particularly unusual and upsetting events, to gain our attention. In reality our world is full of people who are mostly kind, helpful and caring. In the past psychologists have unfortunately contributed to the idea that the world is a dangerous place by running experiments that attracted a lot of attention (i.e. the Prisoner experiment) by demonstrating that people can behave quite negatively towards each other. Many of these experiments are now known to have serious flaws and to not be representative of humans in general. The book Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman describes many of these experiments and the problems of the news cycle in detail, concluding that the world we live in is more kind that we are led to believe. I highly recommend this book if you feel you some balance in your view towards society and humanity in general.

For children there is a book written with these themes by psychologist Dr Jacqueline Toner, called “What to do when the news scares you”, which can be a good place to start if you are concerned about how your child or children are processing the news.