Scientists can study how the human brain and body deal with information that people are likely to experience as distressing. We show test subjects a barrage of images or words designed to burden their nervous systems – exactly the sort of stuff we all encounter daily in the news (in fact, some of our most troublesome material comes from news reports).


After a moment, we see changes in patterns of brain activity that are important for regulating bodily systems. Some changes occur in brain regions that have been dubbed the home of ‘fight or flight’ circuits, but really these regions are more generally important for coordinating and regulating your nervous system, immune system, and metabolism.

As a result, we observe test subjects’ pounding hearts, sweating palms, and gushing cortisol as their brains prepare their bodies to act. Even though they are safely tucked away in a comfy lab chair, just imagining an unpleasant event can bring on an electrochemical storm of changes.

As an example, my lab studied people’s responses to news stories about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. When the stories contained a higher proportion of negative words, our test subjects reported greater distress. Afterwards, they were also more physically reactive to images of the bombing.

Even news that is unexpected or ambiguous, like a newly rising infection rate or the perils of governments ignoring carbon emissions, can turn the dial up on your distress. Such feelings arise when your brain works a little harder than, say, when you encounter news that you expect or that reinforces things you believe. This extra work adds a small burden to your metabolism in the moment, and it may feel unpleasant.

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A little unpleasantness in the moment, perhaps, is the price we pay to be informed citizens. But over time, little burdens can accumulate, particularly with news outlets reporting more negative stories and using more negative words.

Negative news is more likely to be shared on social media, which creates an incentive for news outlets to emphasise the negative, producing a positive feedback cycle of yuck. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself treading water in a sea of badness. It can leave you exhausted, with a creeping sense of impending doom, even if your daily life is not so bad.

Even if you manage to keep the news from infecting your mood, there’s another consideration: your experiences today seed your brain for what you experience tomorrow. When you’re swamped with negative news, the onslaught can shape your overall world view, leading you to expect bad news and act accordingly. This process is gradual and subtle, not something you’d notice, but it adds up over time.

So, what should you do? Try taking it in small doses, and afterward, replenish what you spend. Take a walk with a friend. Get a good night’s sleep. You can also give your nervous system a momentary break by consuming positive news, or even negative news that lets in some rays of light amidst the doom.

In my lab’s Boston Marathon study, for example, we found that stories of resilience, heroism, or kindness in the face of adversity can help a person cope. Our test subjects reported less distress when content about the bombings was more positive. They were less reactive to bomb-related images, and better able to distinguish shooters from non-shooters in photos.

Whatever you decide, don’t consume negative news together with food. Stress within two hours of a meal leads your brain and body to metabolise what you eat in a way that adds the equivalent of 104 calories to the meal. If this happens daily, that’s about an extra pound a month.

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Lisa is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain (£14.99, Picador). She is one of the most cited scientists in the world for her research into psychology and neuroscience. Lisa is Chief Science Officer for the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, and received a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award for her revolutionary research on emotion in the brain.