Trump, Brexit, anxiety and the importance of unplugging from the 24-hour news cycle

28 February 2017

Last month, I noticed a five-fold increase in the number of visitors to our online anxiety support page. The surge in traffic started in July, the month following the EU referendum vote, a monumental decision bringing with it a collective sense of uncertainty for many.

In January (the month of the US presidential inauguration) we noticed another surge, this time in UK and US Google Trends data. Search interest for the terms 'anxiety' and 'anxiety help' had reached record highs. We began to wonder if world events could be having an impact on our experiences of anxiety and decided to investigate. We commissioned a YouGov survey of over 1,700 UK adults to get a sense of what could be happening.

The survey found that around half of us (49%) reported experiencing anxiety specifically in relation to the US election and following inauguration of Donald Trump as president, with 29% going as far as saying they have experienced a 'fair amount' or 'great deal' of anxiety. Women were more likely to be impacted, with a third (33%) reporting a 'fair amount' or 'great deal' of anxiety compared to a quarter (24%) of men. Those from younger age groups were also feeling more anxious, with 38% of 18-24 year olds also reporting a 'fair amount' or 'great deal' of anxiety.

Closer to home, 43% of those surveyed reported experiencing anxiety specifically in relation to Brexit, with 1 in 5 going as far as to say a 'fair amount' or 'great deal' of anxiety about it.

It appears that though there are many factors which can contribute to our individual and collective experiences of anxiety, specific world events could certainly be playing a part.

'Our own mental health has to come first'

While it is important to stay informed, it is also important to not let ourselves become consumed by news that distresses us. Our own mental health has to come first, without it we have much less to give to any of the social or political causes we might be concerned about.

When George Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society established his 'cultivation theory,' he coined the term 'Mean World Syndrome' to describe what he had found. The more time people spent watching the news or 'living in the television world,' the more likely they were to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Gerbner argued that people who watch more television tended to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place and harboured more fear and anxiety about the world around them.

In the past, the solution might have been as simple as to suggest not watching the six o'clock news every evening. Today, avoiding the 24 hour news cycle is much harder than deciding not to watch it on TV. Smartphone and social media culture keep us connected to the shifting currents of world and home political affairs, making it much harder to maintain boundaries and take healthy time out from anxiety-inducing news content when we need to. 

So what can we do?

Spring clean your apps!

Deleting mobile social media apps or turning off notifications is a practical way of limiting the demands they place on our attention. Simply seeing a notification activates the brain's reward centres and can release endorphins that make us feel good.

This means that social media apps can be quite addictive, in fact they are often designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities to maximise our engagement with them. Because of this it’s not uncommon to find ourselves compulsively and sometimes unconsciously opening apps to refresh our news feeds. Deleting the apps and making the decision only to access our accounts in web browsers can be a good way to have more conscious engagement with our social media accounts.

Know yourself

Be aware of what you are feeling and take note of any particular triggers for strong reactions so that you can consider how to manage or avoid those triggers.

Pick your battles

Sometimes we see things posted online that trigger a strong reaction in us: we have to ask before commenting and committing our energy to something, whether or not this is likely to make us feel better or worse. Sometimes it’s better to resist the urge to immediately respond in a state of agitation and wait a couple of hours to see whether we still think it is worth responding to.

This doesn’t mean we should bury our heads in the sand, just that we need to put self-care and our mental health first. Without our mental health we have much less to give to any of the social or political causes we might be concerned about. When we’re feeling able to, taking action to feel part of the solution can be a good way to deal with and process things that are happening.

Stay connected

If you are part of a community or if you are religious or spiritual - these networks can give you a way of staying connected to something bigger and provide consolation in times of difficulty. 

Get help

It is better to act early if you feel rising levels of stress. There are a range of online resources and apps available plus effective psychological therapies through the NHS.

Take proactive steps to support good mental health

Many of the things that support good physical health support good mental health too. See our tips and free guides, and don’t be put off if some of the tips sound simple! Often the simplest things we can do like exercise or spending time in nature can give our mental health a big boost.

Look outwards

Keep an eye out for your friends and family who may be struggling.

Unpredictability and volatility are becoming the new normal. Now, as much as at any time, we need to find ways of supporting each other and building our collective resilience.