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Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. Nearly 40 million American adults have some type of anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

One type of illness, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), causes repeated, excessive worries about many different things. People with GAD may find it difficult to control their worry, whether it’s about money, work, family, health, or something else.

Life events can cause a spike in anxiety for people with GAD and other disorders, with the global pandemic COVID-19 the latest example.

One reason? Information and misinformation. The American Psychological Association’s 2019 “Stress in America” report found a link between news consumption and anxiety. Read on to find out how media can affect your mood and tips on how to manage it.

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How Does the News Affect Stress?

With the vast amount of media outlets – written, broadcast, and online – there are many different outlets for news. But while that might make it easier to find information, that information may cause stress.

According to the 2019 “Stress in America” report, 54 percent of people said they want to stay informed, but the news causes them stress. Generation Z and Millennial adults show the greatest link between news and stress, with older adults the lowest.

The disease COVID-19 caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has caused millions of illnesses and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide.

During the pandemic, people are consuming media more frequently. A March 2020 global study conducted by Kantar showed a 70 percent increase in Internet browsing and 63 percent increase in TV viewing.

“It’s hard not to see wall-to-wall news coverage of pandemic talk, daily death counts, and infection counts and not feel anxious,” says Robert Hudak, MD, medical director of the OCD Intensive Outpatient Program at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.

Factors like 24/7 news channels and the wide scope of the Internet may play a factor in that anxiety.

“I truly believe that it makes it worse,” Dr. Hudak says. “Now, it’s 24 hours a day. It’s extremely tempting to want to check your phone or check your computer and refresh it to find the latest news and the latest death count and how many cases are reported in the county. Obviously, that’s extremely stressful.”

With COVID-19 specifically, many people have seen their daily routines upended. Because of social distancing recommendations, many people are working from home, and many businesses and schools have shut down. Other people may have lost their jobs or seen their income affected. Those stressors just add to the wall-to-wall coverage and can increase anxiety, Dr. Hudak says.

Also, while there’s a lot of information out there, there also is the potential for misinformation. That, too, can cause anxiety.

Social Media and Stress

The use of social media has increased dramatically during the 21st century. According to the Pew Research Center, about 70 percent of U.S. adults use some form of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). That includes about 90 percent of adults aged 18-29. Overall use has increased for all adult age groups since 2005, Pew Research Center reports.

Many people also use social media daily. And like traditional media, people are using social media more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kantar study showed a 61 percent increase in social media use worldwide.

Social media has positive effects, giving people the chance to connect with friends and loved ones and the ability to stay informed.

But social media also has been linked to increases in stress and anxiety for some people. Misinformation, fear of missing out (FOMO), and attention-seeking behavior – such as striving for “likes” – can all lead to greater anxiety.

Not everyone will experience greater stress or anxiety because of social media.

Groups at risk include:

  • People with anxiety disorders
  • Adolescents
  • People with high-volume social media use
  • High emotional connection to social media
  • People who engage in problematic social media use

How to Manage Anxiety Disorders During COVID-19

Stress in general can increase someone’s existing anxiety disorder, Dr. Hudak says. But the COVID-19 pandemic will affect people in different ways.

“People are individuals,” Dr. Hudak says. “This certainly can impact some people and not impact others. Some people can tolerate the increase in stress and anxiety without having an exacerbation of their anxiety disorder.”

People with anxiety disorders should pay attention to stressors to make sure the pandemic isn’t making things worse. There also are many steps people can take to try to manage the stressors that the news can cause:

  • Limit media and social media: Knowing when to turn off the television or close the computer can help limit the amount of anxiety news can cause. The same goes for social media. A 2018 study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology showed limiting the amount of time spent on social media can help reduce anxiety.
  • Get news from trusted sources: If you do want to seek out information about COVID-19, do so from government or health sources, or from trusted news organizations.
  • Engage in anxiety-reducing activities: If you find the news is causing you stress, find something else to do. That includes interacting with loved ones, exercising, and meditating, among other things.

If you do believe your anxiety disorder is getting worse during COVID-19, you can talk to a therapist or someone else you trust.

For more information, contact UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 412-624-2100.

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Stress in America 2019. American Psychological Association. Facts and Statistics. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Social Media and Mental Health. HelpGuide. Melissa G. Hunt, Rachel Marx, Courtney Lipson, Jordyn Young. No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Media Habits and Expectations . COVID-19 Barometer: Consumer Attitudes. Pew Research Society. Social Media Fact Sheet.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.