Distancing Survival Tips: UCI Researchers Warn of News Overload

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

During major events, we tend to seek out more information. But prolonged exposure to media during a crisis can lead to poor health, according to researchers at UC Irvine who published a paper in Health Psychology in March. Dana Rose Garfin, assistant adjunct professor at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing and one of the paper’s authors, spoke with us about her work and offered tips for O.C. residents.

Can you summarize your research?
What we find, across every data set, is the more media people are exposed to, the higher their psychological distress. The distress can activate the fight-or-flight response, which leads to chronic health problems such as a suppressed immune system. Ongoing fear and worry are linked to cardiovascular problems. Over time, that means arterial walls thickening and increased blood pressure.

You looked at this after 9/11 and other terrorist events as well as natural disasters?
My colleagues and I have been studying the effects of mental trauma for decades In all these studies I run, one of the most robust predictors of distress is media exposure. There’s a cycle to it.

Was there anything surprising in your research?
In a study on the Boston Marathon bombings that was published in 2014, we found that people who had three to six hours or more of media exposure a day were experiencing more distress than people who were actually at the event.

So should we ignore the news?
It’s important to stay informed and know what the recommendations are. There’s a big difference between checking your local news or the CDC site a couple of times a day versus having the TV on all day in the background or reading about it all day. It’s those high levels of media exposure that reinforce the fear circuitry in the brain that activates the stress response.

How do we monitor that?
Tear yourself away from the news in an ongoing capacity. Repeated exposure is what’s dangerous—such as going to three news stations to see the same story three times.

Is there a point you want to emphasize?
Know that everybody responds to stress and trauma differently. Some people might be resilient and just roll with the punches; others might be experiencing high levels of anxiety or depression. Hold that space for yourself and other people. All those responses are normative after a traumatic event. Some people might want to talk, and you can be open to that and let people know you’re there. But don’t force people to talk about it. For some people, that can be another form of exposure. We want everyone to feel that their emotions and experiences are valid, and it’s OK.

What would you say to people going forward?
I hope that out of all this adversity, people can find a way to come together. I hope we will take away something positive—reprioritizing what’s important and cherishing the relationships we have.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Social-Distancing Stress? Here are Garfin’s tips for handling it

Use technology to stay connected with people. Have happy hours with colleagues where everyone logs on. If you live by yourself, maybe have a dinner date on Zoom. Video conferencing for a family meeting. Make phone calls and send texts.

Exercise is really good for your mental and physical health. It’s a good time to start a routine or continue the one you have. Go on walks if you can. Just get outside on the patio.

Find peace through meditation, mindfulness, or prayer. That can be helpful for people experiencing high levels of stress and trauma. Start a practice or look for online religious services to go to in real time.

Be of service. People feel good when they’re helping. They fare better when they have a sense of meaning and purpose and can make sense of things, even if it’s something small. Offer to do the dishes. Don’t yell at the person you live with. Small acts will help the other person and yourself.

Be compassionate with people. A consequence of our busy, productive society is that we haven’t cultivated much patience. It will be a challenge to find that with ourselves and each other.

Local gyms offer classes online live. You’re doing it with other people, and that can help people feel part of something.

Have a routine. Find a way to stay engaged working from home. If you’re unable to work, try to do something to stay engaged with your life.

Find telehelp resources. It might be easier to use now as you don’t have to go to an office. It’s not hard to make an appointment and see someone.

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