What is Headline Stress Disorder?

Online news, Twitter, Facebook, television, radio, print news… every where you turn, there is a bad news story staring you in the face, ringing in your ears, and filling your head. Wars, civic unrest, mass shootings, climate change, failing economies, social injustice… the list goes on. These things are real. They are important. Unfortunately, after a certain point, the bad news isn’t helping.

Back in 2017, Steven Stosny coined the term “headline stress disorder” in an article in The Washington Post. He recognized that people were having trouble coping from the constant onslaught of bad news, and the election of Donald Trump marked a sharp upturn in the frequency and severity of the problem.

Have you felt a mounting sense of anxiety as you reach for your phone, iPad, or laptop to get caught up? Do you glance at notifications at the top of your screen, and feel yourself tensing up? Seeing a headline, do you click on it, knowing that the news is going to reveal something awful, but unable to stop yourself? Is there a tightness in your chest and a weight on your shoulders? Are the stories still inspiring shame, outrage, pain, and anger, but you can’t figure out where to begin on any of it, so you sit there paralyzed by the mounting barrage of bad news? After a while, it seems like there is simply too much evil in the world. There is no way to fight it all. You wouldn’t be able to make a difference anyways.

Headline stress disorder makes us less effective. The bad news creates a sense of powerlessness that undermines our ability to create value and meaning in our lives.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

Canadians let an awful lot of news into our lives. We are tuned in, and the news is feeding us an enormous amount of information per day. It is like drinking from a firehose.

% of Canadians who check the news every day

% of Canadians check the news multiple times a day

Hours a day Canadians are tuned in to media

Source: News in Canada – Statistics & Facts

What can you do?

Limit and Structure Your Exposure To News

If too much bad news is making you less effective in your life, the first step needs to be restricting the amount you ingest. You are in control of how much news you consume, so you need to think about your news “diet”.

Start by taking some time to think about why you read the news, and what you are hoping to get out of the experience. Do all of the sources you currently ingest deliver a quality product you trust? Look at your news sources critically and thin them down to ones that provide high quality content on subjects you are interested in that is fact-checked. Decide how often you want news delivered to you. Do you need it more than once a day? How long do you want to spend watching, listening, or reading news? Set limits on yourself, and try to stick with them.

When you do ingest news, do it thoughtfully and critically. Don’t just suck in twelve horrible headlines in a row and let them fill your heart with dread and sadness, but no facts. Take the time to read just one or two of the stories, but read them all the way through. The headline is usually the most sensational part of the story, and it comes without context. If you take the time to go through the content completely and think it through, it may become more evident that the situation isn’t always this bleak, or it doesn’t happen that often, or there are reasons to be hopeful about the situation. You need to move past the headlines to the substance of the story, and as you go through this process, you will find a more balanced view of the top comes into view.

Consider seeking out a positive news feed to add to your diet. Find one that works for you… there are quite a few to choose from: UpworthyTiny Buddha, The Optimist Daily, Good News Network, Sunny Skyz, Positive News, and more!

Connect with Friends and Family

When subjected to negative news, it is a natural reaction to retreat away from the world, hoping to avoid or reduce the amount of negativity you let in. Make sure that you carve out enough time in your schedule to stay connected with the people in your life who matter. How much time are you spending ingesting news, versus having new experiences and forging new memories? Those are the people who bring you joy, who lend meaning to your life. If, like the Pale Blue Dot Foundation, you are trying to develop a bias towards positive action, it is because of these people that you do it. They inspire you to care for those around you, the earth that supports you, and people around the globe who share the human condition with you.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

– Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Use the time you spend with your friends and family to re-energize yourself. Remember what is good in this world. See that there are still positive things happening, even if they don’t make the news headlines. Simple human contact can help alleviate the sense of depression and hopelessness that is a symptom of headline stress disorder.

Engage in Activities that Bolster Your Immunity to Negativity

Many of the strategies that are employed to combat depression apply when dealing with Headline Stress Disorder.

Exercise. Get outside: expose yourself to fresh air and sunshine, away from the constant blue-white glow of TV, tablet, laptop, and phone screens. Exposure to sunlight can increase your serotonin levels, which can provide a temporary mood boost. Can you break away from your desk at lunch for a short walk outside? Can you leave the house and head down to the local park? On the weekend, can you find a way to get outside? These activities can help you reconnect with nature and soak in some rays at the same time.

Research demonstrates that music can be a great way to boost your mood and improve symptoms of depression. It may also help you strengthen your reception of positive emotions.  If you must read, read some fiction or take the time to learn about a topic that is important to you.

Stress and anxiety from negative news can feed depression. Explore some relaxation techniques to help you lower stress and invite more joy and balance into your day. Have you tried meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or journaling to improve your sense of well-being and feel more connected to what’s happening around you? Consider giving one or more of these a try.

When you employ strategies like these, you break yourself out of the overwhelming cycle created by non-stop exposure to negative headlines. This creates space for new things, such as taking positive action.

Take Action: Create The Changes You Want To See

The worst thing about headline stress is that it creates a sense of powerlessness. It makes you think that nothing can ever change, and there is no point in trying. After you have limited your exposure to negative news, connected with your family and friends, and engaged in some activities that help disrupt the negative patterns, now you need to find ways to take positive action.

You can’t fix the whole world. You can’t fix every problem. That’s okay: there are many problems where you can take an action to make things better today. Scratch some of the things off the list of things you are going to worry about today. Pick one thing. Just one. Find a small, personal action you can take today.

Once you’ve done a small thing, set your eyes on another small thing, and then another. This way, you have a list of tangible achievements and not an untouched to-do list. Taking action:

  1. Builds optimism, because you are showing that you believe in a better tomorrow enough to change something (no matter how small) today;
  2. Fights inertia, pushing you into motion, making it more likely that tomorrow you will repeat that action, or build something new upon it; and
  3. Inspires others, showing them that you haven’t given up, and neither should they.


Don’t let the endless flow of negative news get to you. Those headlines are structured to amplify emotion, and negative emotions sell more newspapers and win more clicks in the endless fight for your attention. Learn to treat news like any other item you consume in a day, and with a more balanced diet, you will find that you can see past the hopelessness to a world where you can, and do, make a difference.