Election coverage can trigger depression and learned helplessness
This year I have been watching the election coverage more closely than normal. Early retirement affords me this luxury. But I am aware that this can cause me more depression.
How can “learned helplessness” help to explain the effects that political coverage can have on depression?
Too much political election coverage intake can have depressive effects.
The extreme sides of the political divide have been predicting almost cataclysmic disaster if the election results do not go their way. But listening to extremism can arouse feelings of hopelessness and create the perception that our situation is not safe. If we do not think that we have any impact on a dangerous situation we can feel helpless, depressed, and even give up.
This scenario was addressed in a classic psychological experiment about learned helplessness.
In Seligman’s experiment dogs were exposed to inescapable electric shocks. If a dog was continuously exposed to shocks which could not be avoided, eventually the dog stopped trying to get away from the shocks. When the experimenter changed the situation and the dog, which appeared to having given up, was finally able to escape, only 10% of the dogs did so. The dogs in Seligman’s experiments learned that they were helpless, and exhibited classic human depressive symptoms.
Similarly, if we think that we are in danger but we believe that we have no control over the outcome, we too can give up and become so depressed that we no longer try to move away from the dangerous situation.
Extrapolating from the learned helplessness experiment, we can make some psychological guesses about this election. What happens to us psychologically when we listen to election coverage that paints our situation as extremely dangerous? What is the effect upon us when we listen to politicians who claim that we have no control over the election (e.g. the election is rigged)? And how does it affect our mental health if we are told that we are facing a potential outcome that will bring the world to its knees (e.g. if Trump is elected it will be disastrous effects on our international community)?
Keeping the phenomenon of learned helplessness in mind, we can apply it to staying mentally healthy while remaining involved in the political process.
What can we do about this?
1. We can recognize the political biases of our news sources, the strength of those biases, and the emotional impact that they have upon us
Recognizing that political rhetoric can trigger depressive responses (which are already heightened in those of us with bipolar disorder), we can take an honest look at the bias, and the degree of that bias, of the sources to which we are choosing to expose ourselves.
One amusing, self-avowed right-wing website (rightwingnews.com) has created two handy list for us
- One lists the The 50 most popular liberal websites (Alexa ranking), including the most popular “liberal” websites such as CNN, Time, and National Public Radio.
- The second, corresponding list offers The 50 Most Popular Conservative Websites. According to this second list, we can to feed our hunger for conservative viewpoints at the popular websites Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.
I confess to be relatively politically uninformed, and so I did not realize that some of these websites had been identified as slanting one direction or the other. CNN is liberal? According to whom? But even in my political naiveté I had heard that National Public Radio was regarded by conservatives as liberal. And Rush Limbaugh’s political slant is screechingly obvious (his website is listed as the 10th most popular conservative website).
Having identified the political direction my news sources lean (The New York Times, BBC world news, National Public Radio, and The Washington Post), I was grateful to see that my news coverage was relatively unbiased. The New York Times (my American news mainstay) and the BBC (my favorite for international news) were not identified as having any particular political bias by this website. So two politically neutral websites as my main sources of information and the liberal NPR and conservative The Washington Post. Surely those last two somehow cancel each other out?
Then comes the question of the degree of political bias of news sources. Because I was raised as an intellectual and a summa cum laude skeptic, it is a relatively simple task for me to logically identify the biases of a source — although every last one of us can get tripped up trying to do that.
But identifying the degree of bias in a news source as it relates to depression is trickier. In this context, identifying the degree of bias of a particular source and its effect on depression, it is more useful to me to identify how that source makes me feel.
For example, if whenever I listen to a particular news source I feel an anger which appears to be greatly disproportionate to the objective reality that I can perceive, I know that I have been triggered and the source is probably biased. If instead I feel disgust or disdain, I’m probably responding to a slanted source that grates on my nerves because I’m trying to shut it out (it is probably information that is highly contradictory to my bias). And if I listen to a politician and afterwards feel confusion, hopelessness, or despair that is a sign that I am not getting balanced or organized information.
Once we recognize the political slant of a news source and have some idea of the intensity of any biases, we have a few choices we can make which may improve our mental health.
2. We can balance the slant of our news feeds
If the only news source that I turned to for political coverage were Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, that is a recipe for depression.
In my ill-informed political opinion, those two websites fall into the extreme 5% of conservatively biased websites. But more importantly, they are in the top 1% of conservatively biased sites that attempt to incite political rage, predict political disaster, and distribute cognitive distortions and logical fallacies (both of which are injurious to psychological health). For example, these sites routinely invoke the cognitive distortion “all or nothing thinking” and use the logical fallacy that we are on a “slippery slope” to disaster.
But there are “liberal” websites which are equally psychologically destructive. For variety I will pick on a website that is not on these two lists, care2.com. Eons ago I started using this website because it allows you to send free electronic cards (for birthdays and such). I have continued to use the website because I don’t have the money to send cards via for-profit websites, but some of the cards are also humorous and fun. But that fun is laced with a strongly biased, nefariously liberal agenda.
When you’re finished creating your card you’re given the opportunity to sign a petition. You can view a list of the petition categories, including Animal Welfare, Environment & Wildlife, LGBT issues, Corporate Accountability, etc. I would have to objectively verify this to be certain, but I do not believe that these issues are championed on Rush Limbaugh’s website.
I care about these issues, flat-out, end stop. But when this website grinds political issues into my face, and then adds an excruciatingly painful picture chosen to stir my sensibilities, reactionary conservatism starts to look good. I randomly chose one example today from the first category, animal welfare. This petition is not unusually incendiary. I have seen dozens like this one over the years and there are many others with this type of appeal now on that website.
Stop Tying Terrified Dogs Onto the Backs of Bulls in Bullfights
In the village of Chalhuani, near the city of Abancay in the Apurimac region of central Peru, local residents tie a dog on the back of a bull during Virgen de la Asuncion. Then, they are released into a bullfight, where both will be killed.
This situation is horrifying and worthy of an effort to publicize and correct it. It would take a cold, narrow person not to care about this terrified, powerless dog. Talk about learned helplessness. But my point however is not about these dogs, animal welfare issues, or liberal and conservative biases.
It is simply not healthy for me to watch or listen to much of this. It is probably not good for any of us to do so. Even the most caring among us would be likely to experience burnout. But for those of us who care intensely about animals and have clinical depression, listening to too much of this is a straight highway to psychological hell. If I only used information sources like this liberal appeal, without balancing it with something like “Here are all of the wonderful things that we are achieving at the Humane society,” I can make myself physically ill.
3. Finally, we can ration our intake of election coverage and of any other emotionally stimulating material
Because of an almost constant level of background depression I have to ration my exposure to news coverage.
When I first began this dance with bipolar disorder I recognized that it is particularly important for me to remember that I not only feed myself physically, but emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually as well. If I feed myself with sensationalized fear it can be disastrous to my mental health. So, like using a very expensive, strongly flavored spice, I have to ration it and feed myself only small bites. That leads me to point two.
Long ago I swore off late night news completely, particularly the local nightly news, because it was almost guaranteed to disturb my sleep and depress me with its focus on sensationalized, negative news in soundbites that didn’t allow me to see the overall picture .
Currently I limit myself to one home page of access to news. World news, particularly ecological disasters, can strongly and precipitously increase my depression. News rarely increases my sense of well-being. And no matter how important a world event may be, it does not help the world if informing myself about it results in my no longer being in it.
This is a picture of the “news” homepage on my android tablet.
An android aficionado with awakened political sensibilities, I have been sampling high-quality news apps. My mainstays to date have been the BBC app (which has a visual, magazine style and access to video clips, on the left above) and the New York Times app (relentlessly old school, text style, top right above, maybe their reporters are pre-MTV?). The New York Times offers free access to 10 in-depth articles each month before they cut you off while the BBC app is 100% free.
At this point in the election my interest in the 2016 election is naturally limited by the election time constraints, so I decided to treat myself. I found the Washington Post app (bottom right above), which has an interesting combination of image and text, with a carousel of images that allows you to click on an engaging slide to read an article.
By rationing the amount and limiting the emotional charge of my political intake I am improving my mental health. You will notice the absence of Fox News or any Rush Limbaugh widget on my news homepage. They have the capacity to strongly and abruptly increase my angst and depression (as in “Go directly to jail, do not collect $200!”). Even in the interest of equitable political intake it is best for me to stay away from them.
Sorry Rush, I recognize that I have not been painting you in a very balanced way in this article. No, I take that back. I am not sorry at all.
So I continue to balance and ration my intake of news and information, because of the strong negative emotional impact it can have on bipolar disorder. Yet another form of self-discipline required if you have bipolar disorder and need to engage in the mental health equivalents of regularly brushing your teeth.