Managing Your Mental Health, Part 6 – Media Exposure.

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

Malcolm X

When I was growing up, I guess I wasn’t really aware of what was going on in the world, there were only four TV channels, the news was on at set times and most of the time I didn’t watch it, I was only really bothered about the sports pages of the newspaper, and there was no social media.

Now you have news 24/7, and social media in the palm of your hand; it’s very difficult to avoid it. 

The main problem with a lot of the media is that the focus is on bad news and it often paints a very bleak view of the world which can generate a lot of fear, and cause anxiety and depression. There are also parts of the media that like to spark controversy and pull people down, and it’s so easy to get sucked into this negative, sometimes spiteful world.

One of the main causes of anxiety is trauma; a lot of the time it’s trauma that has happened to us personally or it’s something that we have witnessed, but there is also something called Vicarious Trauma, and that’s where we are exposed to events that have nothing to do with us directly, but they still generate fear; the media is a main culprit of vicarious trauma.

The media are often very general in their geography, especially in the headlines.  I used to live in London, which is a big place, but the news sometimes made it feel a lot smaller.  I used to live in Chiswick, which is West London, and when I heard reports of crime in ‘West London’ the immediate reaction was that it was near home, but most of the time it wasn’t because West London is still a very big place.

The same goes for global news, the world can seem a very depressing place to live, and the annoying thing is that there are a lot of people doing a lot of good things, however we don’t get to see this because there is the belief that only bad news sells.

It feels a bit like the chicken and egg question; is it the fault of people because we crave bad news? We love a good true crime drama and will slow down on a motorway to see a crash, so is it inherent in us to want bad news, or is it that the media has trained us this way?  Who was the first to decide that Bad News Sells?

Another problem with the news is repetition, you will hear the same stories all day, and sometimes they can last weeks or even months, you can also hear the same sorts of stories repeated which can give the view that the problem is bigger than it may be. 

The more a traumatic story is repeated then the more real it becomes to our brain and this can lead to the brain making associations that are not accurate.  For example, if you keep hearing stories of knife crime in Manchester and then you need to go to Manchester you may become anxious because your brain associates Manchester with a high chance of being stabbed; again, Manchester is a big place.

The news uses a lot of images and videos; the brain actually interprets images quicker than words and sound and so the impact is more instant and long lasting. 

A big cause of fear and anxiety from the media is ‘Speculation’.

Media channels have so much time to fill that they end up finding as many experts as possible to share their views in order to fill the space.  A lot of the time these views include a lot of speculation. 

It’s important when reading or watching the news that you try and differentiate between what is fact and what is speculation, in other words, what’s real and what’s an educated guess.

The news surrounding the energy bills is a perfect example; we were given this picture of bills reaching ridiculous levels in 2023, and a lot of people were terrified and started to panic.  Because of the change of Prime Minister, there was a state of limbo, where no decisions on support could be made, so we were left with the speculators.  While the situation is far from perfect, it’s not as bad as the media were making out and we are not at the terrifying levels they continuously talked about.

The same has happened with potential energy blackouts in the UK, yes, the media said it’s a worst-case scenario, but that was only after they had already scared the shit out of people when there was probably no need (it certainly helped with a boost in sales of candles….)

For this sort of media, there are some things you can do to protect yourself and your mental health:

  • Reduce your exposure to it.  It can be good to keep up with what’s happening but not to a point that it starts affecting your mental health.
  • Avoid focusing on it when talking to friends and family.  If you have that friend or relative that always talks about the news, then ask them to stop, or change the focus to something more positive.
  • If there is a subject that is particularly triggering for you then talk to someone and ask for help.
  • Check-in with yourself after you watch the news or read articles, how has it left you feeling? If you sense a change in your mood or you feel angry, then it’s a sign that you need to reduce the exposure.

Social media is also a big issue where mental health is concerned, while it can be a place to find support and be able to connect with people who have similar interests, it can also be like the wild west, where people shoot out comments without thinking, and some people are there just to cause arguments. 

People can be very hurtful when they have the safety of their keyboard and hide behind the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion as long as it matches their own.

I’ve fallen foul of it a couple of times, where I’ve posted something with a good intention and expressed my view, only to be drawn into some pointless argument.  The problem is that it plays on your mind and it’s so hard to turn away from, you have to keep checking for a response; it really gets you fired up but not in a good way.

I very rarely comment on things on social media, even if it’s something I care deeply about, and that’s purely to protect myself.  Social media is not a place to fight battles especially if you are more emotionally vulnerable; I sometimes have to stop myself and let it go. 

I often want to post things about my work and fundraising and generally I will, but sometimes I’m too afraid to; the stupid thing is I don’t think many people see my posts anyway, so I’m probably worried about nothing, it’s the potential for harm that puts me off.

What can you do to help your mental health where Social Media is concerned?

  • Again, limit your exposure; it’s hard because we all have the apps on our phones and we generally always have our phones nearby and the temptation to check is always there.
  • Maybe look at taking a social media break for a bit.
  • When you’ve finished scrolling, ask yourself, how do I feel? If it has had a negative affect then you may need a break from it.
  • Look at who you are following.  Be selective, go through your lists and for each person ask yourself why are you really following them? Do they bring anything positive, or are they always spreading negative stuff?  Unfollow the people who don’t have good energy.  We are drawn to want to have lots of followers, but where your mental health is concerned it’s about quality over quantity.
  • Think before you type; ask yourself if it’s necessary to comment, what will it really achieve?  What impact will it have on your mental health?

It’s really important to be aware of the power of the media if you’re looking to improve your mental wellbeing, I feel that the old saying of ‘Ignorance is bliss’ is not too far from where we should be sometimes.

Good Luck

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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