As social beings, we humans have always been addicted to news.
Even in the olden days when there weren’t any news services, people would gather in town squares, inns and other public places, hoping to meet foot messengers, itinerant laborers, passing travelers – anyone who could tell them what’s going on in the outside world.
By consuming and sharing news, they stayed informed and connected as a society, and that impulse for information gathering hasn’t changed to this day. If anything, the ease with which we get our daily dose of news through newspapers, television, radio and digital devices has only whetted our appetite for more.
But there’s an enormous downside to all of this.
Constant exposure to news – as it is being sensationalized and served by the mainstream and social media today – is destroying our happiness and keeping us stuck in a vicious cycle of dysfunction, stress, worry, negative ideations and disempowering beliefs.
Our obsession with keeping up with the news is proving to be detrimental to our collective mental health, says Graham Davey, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, pointing as an example to the “increasingly visual and shocking” smartphone videos and audio clips that constantly go viral on social media. “These bystander-captured media can be so intense that they can cause symptoms of acute stress – like problems sleeping, mood swings, aggressive behavior, or even PTSD,” he told Time magazine.
And while more than 50% of Americans say they realize they are suffering from the residual impact of news headlines in their lives (according to a recent American Psychological Association survey), the other half is blissfully unaware of the invisible triggers they are constantly exposing themselves to via current news programming about hate crimes, robberies, police atrocities, war, death, accidents and so on.
WHY ARE WE SO FASCINATED BY NEWS ANYWAY?
Well, mainly because our brains got wired to constantly be on the lookout for unseen dangers during the early days of our evolutionary history.
Living in caves with wild animals for neighbors, humans wouldn’t have survived for very long unless they were constantly monitoring their surroundings for imminent dangers and taking defensive actions to protect themselves.
And even though we no longer live in caves and therefore very unlikely to be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger in the midst of a shopping mall, our brains are still looking for negative information that may be crucial for our survival.
News is the most dynamic way to keep tabs on our surroundings, and our fascination with it is a subconscious exhibition of fight-or-flight response readiness that we’re not even aware of.
MEDIA HELPS US STAY ADDICTED TO NEGATIVE NEWS
Media has changed drastically over the last 20-30 years. Instead of taking pride in balanced reportage, news programming now feeds our `negative bias’ for drama.
Sudden disasters, for example, where people are suffering misfortunes in real time is fascinating to watch because we can quickly become part of their tragic stories. Murders described in bloody detail on the radio make a 45-minute commute to work feel like 15 because we’re so preoccupied with the gruesomeness of it. A flash flood or a forest fire in another part of the country make us secretly glad that we’re not the ones losing our businesses and homes. Predictions of economic doom and gloom feed our worries about how insecure our jobs really are.
It goes on and on, this skewed manner of news presentation that is more focused on emotionalizing events instead of impartially reporting them. Emphasizing on worst-case scenarios, no matter how unlikely they are to ever come to pass. Choosing stories that can be sensationalized as `breaking news’ and ignoring the slow-developing ones.
HOW EXACTLY IS OUR NEWS ADDICTION HURTING US?
# 1: We’re Starting Our Day On A Negative Note
Our minds are getting clouded by what we’re seeing and hearing on media from the minute we wake up.
# 2: We’re Borrowing Problems That Aren’t Our Own
Even if a disaster is happening halfway around the world, we’re internalizing the negative stimuli, and feeling a strong emotional response to the unfortunate situation as if we’re a part of it. And we’re justifying our unnecessary emotional participation by calling it a `social responsibility’.
# 3: We’re Carrying The Bad News With Us For The Rest Of The Day
The impact of a `moving’ news story stays with us whether we realize it or not, affecting our mood, increasing our stress levels and impacting how we interact with colleagues, friends and family until we go to bed.
# 4: We’re Catastrophizing Our Own Problems
Catastrophizing is when we think about a worry so persistently that we make it a much bigger deal than it really is. Listening to the news makes us look inwards to find personal negative circumstances that echo the doom-and-gloom outlook on media, and then we blow them all out of proportion by turning them into potential catastrophes.
# 5: We’re Separating Ourselves By Discriminating On Others
Politics has a polarizing effect on people, and listening to divisive ideologies being expounded on news bulletins and talk shows digs us deeper into our beliefs that create notions of `us’ and `them’.
It is extremely difficult, I know, to try weaning ourselves off our increasing addiction to news. The human brain is attracted to unpleasant information because it is programmed to detect threats, not ignore them.
Plus, it’s a matter of habit. Our parents watched morning news on the TV or listened to news on the radio, and we too are part of that daily ritual because we want to be informed and intelligent human beings.
Under these circumstances, it is hard to consciously seek out the positives around us. But like all big changes, the transformation and correction begins with an awareness first.
The next time you see something disturbing on the news, focus on how you are feeling afterwards. Watch the progression of your thoughts and draw your own conclusions about subtle changes in your stress level, anxiety level and general outlook on account of it.
If you start to notice a connection, that is all the encouragement you need to start scaling down on news consumption and detaching emotionally from the drama that only steals your positivity and keeps your thoughts and feelings locked up in a dark, powerless place…