Join psychiatrist Dr. Shirah Vollmer for her fourth episode on mental health during COVID-19. In this episode she will discuss strategies for media consumption during this anxious time. She will explain how media during a crisis can perpetuate anxiety and requires intentional consumption to maintain mental health. 

Please note that any data, indications, and guidelines presented in this activity are current as of the recording on 04/05/2020 and they are subject to change as new information is published.

Learning Objectives

  • Review how the brain responds to frightening media 
  • Identify strategies to practice intentional media consumption
  • Discuss how to choose reliable news sources and distinguish between mass hysteria and appropriate anxiety  



Shirah Vollmer:

Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. A mentally healthy media diet. This is Shera Vollmer, MD. I'm a psychiatrist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Thank you for joining me for this fourth episode in my series of podcasts on mental health during the coronavirus. This series is about keeping yourself and your patients mentally healthy in this unstable and scary world. These podcasts will be published weekly by pri-med.com. Today's topic is about media consumption in an anxious world. Today's news stimulates the amygdala, the fear part of the brain. When the amygdala is stimulated the individual feels very uncomfortable, because they are filled with fear, and so there's a tendency to want to develop mastery to diminish the feeling of fear.

For many, mastery is obtained through knowledge, and so there's a sense that the more knowledge they can get about the virus the less fearful they will become. And in so doing, they become media obsessed to their own detriment. Knowing this, the individual needs to dose the news according to how much their amygdala can handle at any one time, without feeling the compulsion to hear more and more news. In other words, like any other compulsion, each individual has to find the source and the amount of news which suits their brain, which suits their ability to handle distressing and shocking news, without throwing them into a compulsive media consumer. Understanding the urge for mastery, can create a news obsession, along with a news compulsion, will help you to understand to resist that urge for your long-term mental health benefits. The action items are simple.

Number one, limit the amount of time you spend reading or watching things which cause you distress. 20 minutes is a good amount to catch up on news, while not getting overloaded. Number two, decide on a specific time to check in with the news. The morning is better than the evening. I would suggest you wake up, you shower, you exercise, and then give yourself the 20 minutes of news and move on with your day. Number three, limit social media engagement around the coronavirus, as the information there is often not scientifically verified. Social media in general can be positive or negative. Consider which sites are adding to your mental well-being and which are not. Delete the sites that are increasing your stress. You can follow the CDC on Twitter, for example, and this is a reliable source which is also brief. And number four. Stay informed with trusted sources of information, such as the government and scientific websites. My favorite scientific website is Science Magazine.

And yet, having said that the action items are simple, at the same time, this is a complicated subject. Why is this a complicated subject? Fear is good to get people engaged with social distancing. Some amount of media consumption is vital to understanding why we need to accept a new normal and avoid physical gatherings. However, too much fear leads to paralysis and constriction. Such, then, anxiety is now inhibiting people from finding new activities and deepening relationships by using technology. The optimal amount of anxiety is that which focuses attention on the problem without resulting in a panic attack, somatization or lethargy. Media consumption is also complicated because at its worst, mass hysteria ensues, resulting most clearly with the recent run on toilet paper. The old rules apply to explain this phenomenon. People are afraid, and feel out of control. The amygdala is firing rapidly. People try to quiet the amygdala by finding some sort of control and if not control over the virus, then something they can control. Even if it's unrelated or marginally related to the virus. Some people get anxious that they could run out of toilet paper, so they begin to hoard toilet paper to manage their anxiety, which manifests around toilet paper, but it is actually around the virus.

Others go to the store and see there's no toilet paper. And since we are heard animals, we immediately think that we to have to stock up on toilet paper, even if we did not think that before we went to the market. Suddenly, there's not enough toilet paper and anxiety rises, again, focused on toilet paper, but more deeply, and perhaps unconsciously, about the virus. This phenomenon is now called mass hysteria, because the hysteria originated from the anxiety of others and not from the source that needed to be feared. Separating mass hysteria from the appropriate anxiety over worldwide threat to life and to the economy is enormously difficult. What we do know is that a certain number of people will get sick, and very sadly a percentage of those folks will pass away. Far more people will have long and deep economic hardship. Far more people still will have anxiety that permeates their life for many years to come.

As the story of the pandemic is just unfolding, and there are so many uncertainties, there are also some certainties. It is certain that anxiety disorders will outnumber the amount of coronavirus cases throughout the world. As such, anxiety prevention is an important topic. Limiting media consumption to a few trusted sources of media, along with limiting the time of media consumption to 20 minutes in the morning hours, will go a long way to preventing an anxiety disorder

Thank you very much for joining me to discuss mental health in the time of COVID-19. I look forward to your feedback and for you to join me in my next podcast on pri-med.com. I am Shera Vollmer, MD. Until next time, stay well and stay happy.