Analysis: we are rarely afforded the time to emotionally process the high frequency of difficult news stories around us

Thanks to a 24 hour news cycle, news notifications and social media, we are now treated to an unrelenting play-by-play of shocking, distressing and upsetting daily stories. From headlines to images and videos, the feeling that bad things are happening all the time can be overwhelming and a source of stress and anxiety for some. However, it can also be hard to look away when we like to feel informed. 

As social beings, empathy can play a key role in our relationships with those in our life as we listen to, console and support friends, family or colleagues going through a difficult time or simply having a bad day. Our ability to feel empathy and sadness for others, even those we don't know, is instinctive, but what happens to that ability in the face of a constant stream of difficult news stories? Do we shut off and become desensitised?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Pat Dolan from NUI Galway and actor Cillian Murphy on the importance of empathy 

"Part of what makes it difficult to understand and emotionally cope with a difficult news story is the sense of shock that we feel, that it is so out of the ordinary that we struggle to understand how such a horrible event could ever have occurred," says Dr Mark Smyth, president-elect of the Psychological Society of Ireland

"The more that similar events occur and the more we hear about them our sense of surprise and shock diminishes over time. One example of this would be mass shootings in the USA. Unfortunately these occur with such a high frequency that it comes as much less of a surprise to us when it is reported and elicits less of a typical empathetic response."

If the event is so emotionally traumatic for us to engage with we can instinctively emotionally "shut off"

Exposure to high frequency, difficult news means we develop quick response coping statements like "that's shocking" or "that’s so sad," Smyth says. "Emotionally processing the reality of these events can take longer but we are rarely afforded the time to do this, because with instant news feeds, notifications popping up and our timelines putting more and more of these stories in front of us, we move from story to story with only surface level emotional connectedness to each one." 

How able we are to emotionally connect or relate to a story can also impact on our ability to empathise. While a story about a vulnerable child is still likely to evoke a strong emotional response for us, the extent of our empathy is likely to decrease with repeated exposure to an event, like road traffic accidents that occur relatively frequently, Smyth explains. "That is, unless there is a personal connection for us in the news or it reminds us of some previous or ongoing trauma in our own lives," he adds. 

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The level of stress and anxiety we feel around a news event is also shaped by proximity, says Smyth. Some events can cause us to feel anxiety or stress, particularly if they happen closer to home, near where we live or work. When that happens, "we need to be able to reassure ourselves that we and our loved ones are safe in this moment right now because to feel or believe that we’re not could leave us feeling overwhelmed."

How we react to a tragic news story can change over time and empathy can be replaced with other emotions. "Interestingly, other emotional responses can often replace (empathy), such as frustration or anger," Smyth explains. "People feel and express frustration or anger at having to engage with this traumatic news and feel that not enough is being done to prevent future such tragedies occurring. So in these instances it’s not that we don’t feel anything, we experience different emotions than we might have when we initially were exposed to these news events."

Shocking news shakes our belief that the world is a safe and predictable place

But this repeated exposure to difficult or emotive imagery leads many people to become desensitised, Smyth says. "For others if the event is so emotionally traumatic for us to engage with we can instinctively emotionally "shut off" as a means of protecting ourselves from feeling overwhelmed. This is a natural and understandable response to something that feels so shocking that we are unable to process at that time or in one go."

But how do you know if you might be experiencing a degree of desensitisation? 

"If you are exposed to a traumatic news story and when you look around you your family, friends, colleagues are all experiencing an emotional reaction but you’re not, then that may be a sign that you have become desensitised to that particular news story type. Another sign would be if you are finding it hard to have empathy for the people and the situation that has occurred, when in the past you would have felt a connectedness to the people and events," he says.

"The most important thing a parent can do is to validate for their child that it makes sense that they feel that way"

Children, who before might have just changed the channel, can also find themselves exposed to upsetting or scary stories in the news, on their smartphones or through their friends. The most important thing a parent can do in that situation, is to listen and validate for them that it makes sense that they feel that way, Smyth says.

Not all children will be able to understand what they are feeling, so parents can help by labelling the emotions with prompts like "it’s looks like you are feeling anxious/sad/scared and that makes sense, I feel the same way about hearing that news." What parents shouldn’t do, is jump into reassurances by saying "don’t worry that will never happen here" or "it’ll be grand don’t worry about it," because it has happened and they already know it’s possible, Smyth says. 

"What happens is our perceptions and anxiety about our sense of danger becomes much more heightened than it needs to be. This is where using facts appropriate to the developmental level of the young person is helpful. Yes a bad thing happened, it is very sad, some people were hurt or died, but despite how anxious you feel right now you are not in any danger and mum/dad are here to keep you safe right now." 

From RTÉ Radio 1, Online media analyst Stephen O'Leary joins Marian to talk about the pressure to fill 24 hour news channels and how it affects journalism

As adults, parents should put limits on how much news young children are exposed to and what type of content they see, because young children can't be expected to know how much is too much. With older children, parents need to be their sounding board, Smyth says. "They need to know and be confident that they can come to us and talk through any they see in the news that they find difficult. We shouldn’t set up a false expectation that we will have all the answers, because we don’t, but what we can promise is that we will listen, we will try to understand and together try to understand and validate the emotions they are feeling." 

So how can we practice "self-care" around our consumption to avoid feeling overwhelmed? The answer isn’t necessarily to cut yourself off from consuming news entirely. But a good idea is to switch off your devices when you can and to engage in other activities that help refresh you and reduce stress levels, Smyth says. "Connecting with others, exercising, sleeping well, and generally doing things that we enjoy and are fun. Don’t wait around for something enjoyable to happen, plan it, schedule it so you have something positive to look forward to."

From RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland, Dr Kevin Cunningham, Journalism and Politics lecturer at DIT, discusses how we consume our news in the digital world

"One of the most important things we can do here is to try to stick to our routines," Smyth says.  

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"Shocking news shakes our belief that the world is a safe and predictable place. The more that we can return and stick to our routines the more it will help to re-balance our belief that at least some aspects of our lives can remain somewhat predictable and safe even if chaos and unpredictability is occurring elsewhere."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ