Can You Truly Focus When Current Events Distract You image

Once upon a time, the news media was like a stream—a steady flow of information pouring forth from journalists dedicated to publishing carefully verified facts. We relied on the network news to give us our once- or twice-daily briefings (with occasional breaking news) and on newspapers and magazines to give us more in-depth insights.

Then came new media, and that stream of information became a deluge. Cable news channels blast out stories and analysis around the clock. When we check social media, open a web browser, or even just look at our phones, we’re likely to be swept away by notifications reminding us that there’s lots and lots of news, and all of it’s bad.

The flood of negativity can have detrimental effects on our mental health, creating anxiety, worry, and fear. A 2002 study following the events of 9/11 discovered that exposure to violent images can even cause PTSD-like symptoms. At times, it can be too much to take.

What to do when bad news affects your focus at work

Coping with negative news not only leaves us emotionally drained but also affects our ability to concentrate. At home, we can hide away from the world for a while. But at work we’re expected to stay on task and be productive regardless of current events. Unfortunately, we have to use more brain power to accomplish tasks when we’re anxious. Struggling to meet workplace demands can create stress, which research has shown to be as detrimental to our health as secondhand smoke.

Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the strain world events put on your working life. Here are a few tips to help you cope with the day-to-day struggle.


Believe it or not, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends work as a way to relieve workplace stress. Work not only helps you stay financially solvent but also gives you a sense of purpose and identity, which helps bolster your self-esteem. So, think twice before you call in sick to spend a day wallowing in the misery of bad news—working may be just the thing to get you back on track.

Tune out social media for a while

Oxford Dictionaries made recommends work its Word of the Year in late 2016. Australia’s MacQuarie Dictionary chose fake news. Slate picked alternative facts as an early frontrunner for 2017. These new buzzwords make it clear that facts are harder to come by in modern times. While fake news may not have been as influential in the 2016 U.S. election as some thought, the spread of misinformation through social channels is still a problem.

Unless it’s essential to your job, tuning out social media while you’re at work may help alleviate some of the strain. (At the very least, it’ll help prevent you from becoming distracted by the need to drop a Snopes-size truth bomb on your weird aunt Lucy’s latest sketchy social share.) If you simply can’t keep yourself from navigating to Facebook and Twitter throughout the day, apps like Cold Turkey (Windows, MacOS, Android) and Self Control (MacOS) may help.

Be straightforward with your coworkers

When you’re at the office, overhearing coworkers talking about current events is probably inevitable. The trick is to not engage. Getting into a debate can ramp up anxiety levels. But what if a colleague challenges you to jump into the fray? Try a simple “No, thanks.” If that doesn’t work, be direct and let your coworker know that talking about politically charged topics or stressful events is distracting to you, and you don’t want to break your focus.

Remember that we’re naturally drawn to bad news

Because having finely tuned danger sensors worked for us millennia ago when a saber-toothed cat might have been lurking behind every bush, the human brain is wired to focus on bad events. This phenomenon is called negativity bias. We pay more attention to the horrific things happening in our world, so it’s easy for us to draw the conclusion that everything going on around us is consistently awful. To make matters worse, when we develop these preconceived notions, a thing called confirmation bias kicks in, which makes us automatically pay more heed to information that seems to substantiate what we already believe.

The news media has always been well aware that bad news gets more attention. That’s why lead stories usually involve tragedy or scandal, while heartwarming human-interest stories serve as filler. When all the bad stuff gets you down, try tuning in to some good news for a change to remind yourself that things aren’t as bleak as they seem. You might start by checking out GoodNewsNetwork.

Take it easy on yourself

Although work may give us a sense of purpose, there’s nothing inherently noble about working ourselves to the point of exhaustion. When news of the world is already getting you down, taking on more work in hopes of distracting yourself is likely to do more harm than good. Being overloaded simply creates more anxiety and makes us less capable of managing our emotional response when world events take a stressful turn.

Instead of loading up on projects, be realistic about what you can manage. Remember that it’s okay to admit that you just don’t have the bandwidth to tackle another task.

Get involved

Much of what happens in the news is beyond our control, and that’s often what’s so stressful about it. Consider what’s distressing you most about current events, and then think about how you might contribute to making a difference. Are there things in your community you could participate in that could help effect change? Volunteering, getting involved in local government, or donating to causes can help you feel as though you’re part of the solution.

We don’t have to let current events weigh us down. The strength to cope with them comes from knowing how and why they affect us and then taking steps to keep our lives in balance.

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