Author: VicHealth works with health promotion experts to create a Victoria where everyone can enjoy better health and wellbeing. Last updated: 01 Dec, 2020

What science tells us about our response to both good and bad news.

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Although we’re now heading towards COVID normal in Victoria, we’ve faced plenty of bad news this year.

So we all remember how it feels to get bad news and the flow on effects it can have on our physical and mental wellbeing.

So what is the science behind the emotions and physical responses we feel when we receive good or bad news?

VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio spoke with Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne about ‘negativity bias’, and why it’s hard-wired in our brains. He talked about how ‘doomscrolling’ can affect our mindset and provided tips to limit your exposure to bad news.

 

What is ‘negativity bias’ and why are we programmed to think that way?

Have you ever decided to back out of a situation because you’ve had a similar negative experience in the past? You’re not alone. In fact, we’re predisposed to think this way.

Sandro said that negativity bias is something which has been hardwired into our brains, which our long-lost ancestors used as a subconscious protection from things which could harm them.

“It makes sense because if you think about our distant ancestors living in caves, they see something moving in the bushes and think ‘Is it a tiger?’ Sandro explained.

“Back then it was better to think it’s probably a predator of some sort…rather than thinking whatever it is could be harmless.

“Our brains are wired to have a negative bias and retain negative experiences over positive ones as an evolutionary advantage.Once an evolutionary advantage to avoid becoming lunch for a tiger, now it can be quite a disadvantage, making us wary of new experiences and fixate on the negative. .

“Nowadays the things that stimulate that response might be slow internet, being stuck in traffic or ‘doomscrolling’,” Sandro said.

 

How does ‘doomscrolling’ affect your physical and mental health?

‘Doomscrolling’ is a relatively new term, but is something most of us have probably done at some stage. Particularly through the pandemic.

Sandro said ‘doomscrolling’ is when people scroll through their social media feeds or other online platforms, and absorb all the bad news making headlines.

“You can sit there scrolling on your social media accounts for hours on end looking through endless bad news,” he said.

This can have serious consequences for your physical and mental wellbeing.

“We know bad news does negatively influence your health, it increases your blood pressure, it increases your cortisol levels. It has various effects on parts of your physiology which over time, if you’re exposed to bad news repeatedly, it can increase your risk of poorer health outcomes.”

 

Can positive news support your physical and mental health?

Yes!

The flipside of 'doomscrolling’ which triggers our ‘negative bias’, is that when we see or hear positive news, our bodies produce hormones which make us feel happy.

“All of those happy hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, they do the opposite [of stress hormones]. They bring your blood pressure down, they improve your mental health and they reduce your chances of some chronic diseases,” Sandro said.

 

VicHealth’s Be Healthy blog channel has a range of content which can help people navigate their way through physical and mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

 

How can I tell if I’m watching too much bad news?

Sandro said it’s relatively easy to tell if you’re responding negatively in situations where something bad is happening.

“Signs like feeling your heart rate increase, feeling your blood pressure go up (a good way to tell this is if you can feel your pulse in your ears), starting to sweat, or you get angry or fired up about something. These are all ‘fight or flight’ responses which allowed our ancestors to run, hide or attack,” he said.

“If you find that it’s affecting your mood or your outlook, then maybe think about cutting back.”

 

Tips to help you limit/deal with bad news (from VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio)

  • Limit the amount of time you follow media headlines and stories. It’s important to limit the amount of time. Maybe don’t listen or watch news throughout the day particularly if it’s making you anxious or your blood pressure is starting to rise.
  • Balance what types of media you follow. If you’re finding that you see a lot of negative news on TV or social media, try listening to radio programs or podcasts which don’t focus as much on daily news.
  • Offset bad news with good news. If you’re seeing a lot of negative news on TV, online or in newspapers, Sandro recommends focussing on the news which makes you happy, or doing other things to occupy your mind. Exercising, catching up with friends or diving into your hobbies are all great ways to give yourself a boost of ‘happy hormones’.
  • Control the controllable. It’s important not to get too bogged down about the things that you can’t control or have any influence over. Start with small things in your daily routine which can help you maintain that positive state of mind.

 

We all get bad news from time to time, but it’s important to understand some of the underlying reasons for why we feel the way we do when this happens. And to always remember that there are ways to overcome those feelings.