Earthquakes! Fires! Shootings! Storms! How Tech Can Help Ease ‘Disaster Fatigue’

One of the first things I do every morning when I wake up is check the latest news on my smartphone. In the last few weeks alone, that means — like so many other people — I’ve started the day with some of the most horrific news imaginable: a mass shooting, devastating storms, terrible wildfires. It’s taken a toll on my overall well-being — and very likely yours, too.

“We’re seeing more ‘disaster fatigue,’” says Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the connection between media consumption and stress. “In the digital age where studies show some three out of four people check their smartphone before going to bed and shortly after waking up in the morning, it’s getting harder not to feel overwhelmed.”

I’ve been calling it “the bad news blues,” which is just a general feeling of “how much more of this can we all take” whenever I see a stream of tragic news alerts hit my smartphone or social media feeds. Sure, it makes me want to help, but it also makes me sad. And overwhelmed. Dr. McNaughton-Cassill says that’s a normal reaction when bad things are happening away from our own community, where we can do little to aid those in need. She said people might also experience an increase in stress, depression, exhaustion, sleep problems, anger and growing cynicism.

For some people already prone to anxiety or clinical depression the toll can be even worse.

“There are clear increases in anxiety disorders, including cutting and self-harm, and suicide rates,” says Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “The barrage of ever-present ‘bad news’ — and, for young people, the barrage of social-media-related permanent records of negative social interchanges — is a factor.”

Experts say there are steps you can take to help fight the sadness and anxiety that all this bad news may be causing.

The first step in combating bad news burnout might seem obvious: Limit alerts and just stop checking your phone and social media feeds for news so often. But that could be harder than you think. The average person checks their phone some 150 times a day. And that constant connection wires us to want more.

“It’s the repeated exposure that is the problem,” Dr. Christina Mangurian, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in an email. Going without your smartphone can trigger a burst of the stress hormone cortisol and induce a fight-or-flight response that only settles down by checking it again. Still, you have to start somewhere. “I suggest limiting the alerts and turning off phones a couple of hours before bed,” Dr. Mangurian advises.

Experts say recharging your smartphone in another part of the house overnight can help, as well as setting time limits around news and social media check-ins. Dr. McNaughton-Cassill recommends logging a day or two of online activity, in the same way people who are trying to lose weight might write down everything they eat. Apps like RescueTime can help you get a clear picture of your online life, including how much time you check your newsfeeds. It can also temporarily block websites that may be contributing to the problem.

Remember the Good News

One thing I’ve done over the last week to help boost my own spirits is to focus more of my digital attention on uplifting apps, sites and tech tools, and there are certainly a lot of them out there. One of my favorites so far is one of the simplest: a free app called Uplifter. It’s basically a mobile journal with daily prompts like, “What three good things have happened recently?” or “What three things are you grateful for?”

“I talk about this in my clinical practice all the time,” said Dr. McNaughton-Cassill. “It’s basically cognitive behavioral therapy, the idea that people can think differently about the same event. So, if you only focus on the negative, you’re going to feel bad. Look for a silver lining, and try to find something positive to focus on, such as all the people who have helped others during crisis events.”

In a weeklong experiment I just finished on my personal Facebook page, I promised to post only uplifting stories and asked my some 5,000 friends to do the same. The response was overwhelming. Inspiring, compassionate, funny and heartwarming stories rolled in from sites like Upworthy, Sunny Skyz, The Dodo, GivesMeHope and even Awkward Family Photos.

Consider Online Therapy

A somewhat ironic upside of our near constant state of connection these days is that help is often just a few clicks away, and that’s the case with a growing number of therapy apps and sites. Doctor on Demand and Talkspace are among the apps that offer counseling with licensed mental health professionals. The American Psychological Association offers advice on choosing a reliable online therapy service and whether it might be right for you.

Practice Self-Care

The half-dozen doctors and mental health experts I talked with for this article all emphasized the importance of self care over the latest news updates. “Self care implies that I cannot absorb all of the horrible things happening in this world 24 hours a day,” says Dr. McNaughton-Cassill. “I have to find a way to step back. I can’t watch the news because I care too much, and I can’t see any way to fix it right now.”

In addition to exercise, sleep, eating well and making time for friends and family, “I would think about meditation apps too,” Dr. Mangurian suggests (see our guide on “Choosing a Meditation App”). “Taking time out to breathe is important. Taking time for yourself is important. We feel during difficult times that we can’t take time for yourself — but we must so we can care for others.”

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