Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Feb

How the News Impacts Your Health (and What You Can Do About It)

Like everyone, I’ve had ample opportunity in my life to sit in waiting rooms. In the last several, however, I’ve noticed a trend that admittedly gets under my skin: the ubiquity of television news – and the negative events it routinely emphasizes. It’s been part of the airport scene forever now, it seems, but lately I’ve come across it in more restaurants and even in clinic waiting rooms. (Nothing beats watching multiple cycles of the latest grisly murder story as you eat your lunch or are waiting in agony for a doctor, eh?) In some respects, I appreciate having more than the morning paper or the 5 o’clock newscast if there’s a story I’d like to follow. With cable news and the Internet, we can assuredly keep on all the latest – what our go-to media sources choose to report of it anyway– 24/7. More than ever, we can get every detail, every commentary, every image associated with a given story. We can spend an entire day fixated on an event. We can watch a footage segment a hundred times if we please. Do we pay for this need to know, however? Does news exposure – specifically its heavy, menacing, and disturbing stories – have an impact on our personal well-being? What does it mean to have looming tales of death and destruction so frequently playing in our periphery? What happens to the human psyche (and body) when they’re fed a steady diet of unsettling news bulletins?

We have friends who recently had their first child. Over dinner a few weeks ago, the new mother joked that she’s timed the local news perfectly to catch the nightly “feel-good” feature story and weather while avoiding the initial doom and gloom reports. “Maybe it’s just hormones,” she explained, “but the news just throws me off my emotional equilibrium in a different way now. It doesn’t feel healthy to immerse myself in the worst of the world and human nature every night. I just want to be present without all the bad stuff for a while.” I can identify with her frustration. It seems like the news is too often a parade of muck and mayhem. The stories with the most shock value win, however demoralizing they are. (And then there are the obnoxious production effects: flashing red “alerts,” multiple streaming tickers, menacing musical bytes.) These days it’s hard to walk away from a newscast or even a newspaper without feeling like you need a shower – or at least an energy adjustment.

There’s substance to be found of course – information relevant to personal and civic life. Even then, the endless news cycling of troubling events and violent images (e.g. war, famine, environmental destruction, bloody uprisings, etc.) leave an imprint that often disheartens more than it informs. As I sat in an airport boarding terminal recently, I saw a mother try to keep her young sons distracted from CNN’s images of the Egyptian revolution and the initial military response. Was it important news? Yes, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to see it every waking minute. (And how about the question of exposing young children to these reports?) I don’t know about you, but I don’t need more things to worry about when I’m traveling.

The power of negative news isn’t about political philosophies or cultural wars. We’re human, it’s true, and suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition. Information can help us understand our world and inspire us to work toward constructive change. Our constant access to all that ails, however, comes with genuine mental and physical health costs. Although we might think we don’t participate in media representation of disturbing news, research tells us otherwise. A study of 89 people who were shown footage of four traumatic events showed that nearly 20% reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the viewings. (Frequency of exposure was a factor in participants’ emotional reactions.) As the head of the study explained, “’Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those who are directly experiencing them can impact on a certain percentage of individuals causing longer lasting effects.” A meta-analysis of 23 research studies (PDF) focused on terrorism related media revealed a similar correlation with PTSD.

It may not be enough to simply walk away from the television either. A study of undergraduate students showed that simple distraction wasn’t enough to erase the lingering anxiety and mood disturbance induced by a 15-minute random newscast. Need any good news, anyone? Although the group that was exposed to an unrelated lecture (distraction strategy) following the news excerpt didn’t return to baseline mood measures, the group that participated in a 15-minute progressive relaxation exercise afterward did. (What does it say when we need relaxation activities to recover our equilibrium after a mere 15 minutes of a news broadcast? Maybe that’s not such good news.)

The United States Department of Veteran Affairs reports that American adults spent an average of eight hours watching news reports in the days following the Sept. 11th attacks. The average for young children was three hours. The more footage adults and children watched, the higher stress levels they reported. The Oklahoma City bombing coverage elicited similar responses in viewers.

It’s a new world we live in, where we’re privy to every new wrinkle of death and destruction that rains down in some corner of the world. How do we process all of it? Can we? How can we prioritize our well-being while still remaining informed?

In an interesting article from a few years back, one therapist criticizes the modern practice of psychotherapy as disconnected from our experience of the world’s pain, the “dark emotions” that naturally arise from our human empathy in response to the tragedy and destruction we witness in the world around us. It’s an intriguing point. Until recent times, our context for experiencing the world and empathizing with those around us was very limited – a tribe, a town. Our modern media and the “connected world” hand us each, in some regards, the fate of Atlas. In Grok’s day, he could effectively act on the threats to his community, heal beyond its contained tragedies. In our day, the stakes are much higher and the implied community much broader. The peril and calamity of an entire global society can stretch the emotional dimensions of our humanity past their coping limits.

Among her suggestions is the need to accept and make peace with the “inevitable pain of being alive and being humanly connected to others.” Nonetheless, she explains, we must also bring a protective consciousness to our interaction with the world, “cultivating a deep awareness of emotions as in-the-body energies, and of the thoughts that both trigger and subdue them.”

In the end, the question remains: is there a way to be informed in a meaningful, deeper sense while not immersing ourselves in the constant barrage of bad news? While we all have the power to turn off or throw out the TV or otherwise unplug, there’s got to be a healthier middle ground between sticking your head in the sand and putting yourself in the middle of every human tragedy. What information truly obliges our attention for the sake of self-improvement and social action and what information simply constitutes unnecessary – even cruel – emotional clutter?

C. John Sommerville, author of How the News Makes Us Dumb: the Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, notes that our constant exposure to endless threads of instantaneous, disassociated “news” without the natural filters of time and context has the power to leave us overwhelmed and still lacking in larger perspective. We’d do better, he suggests, spending less time staying on top of each trivial update and devoting more time to discussing, reflecting, and thoughtfully acting on the major issues and events that we feel require our attention.

Finally, there’s the larger issue of realigning perspective. There’s power – and truth – living in the here and now. The relative peace of this moment for one person is as genuine and meaningful as the tragedy befalling another. The world, we must remember, is more than the sum of its crises.

Share what you believe about the intersection of an informed and healthy life. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This might be wierd, but I like to listen to, and read all kinds of things that can make me feel better (thats how I found this site), and Dr. Wayne Dyer once addressed a question in a book that he got from his readers about being happy that went something like “how can I feel happy in a world where so many bad things are happening?” and his responce was something like “you have to realize that you have been born into a world where all people are not going to have the same experiences. You have to deal with that and be as happy as YOU can be”. It put things in perspective for me. There’s always a war going on somewhere, and people are always suffering, but I’m just a regular guy who can’t fix all of these problems. All I can deal with is my own life. I felt better after thinking about it that way.
    sorry for the novel.

    Wayne wrote on February 24th, 2011
    • Hi Wayne. Thank you for sharing. It was definitely worth it.
      I also read all kinds of things that can make me feel better.

      Kitty wrote on February 24th, 2011
  2. I watched a cable news station and the man on the screen was trying to scare me into buying gold at inflated prices.

    John Wells wrote on February 24th, 2011
  3. I have a growing number of friends/acquaintances who don’t have TV’s at all. Of course, this doesn’t stop you from checking the Internet, but maybe they’re onto something.

    Rachel wrote on February 24th, 2011
  4. I haven’t owned a TV for five years. I get plenty of “news” from either the Internet, local paper or the five minute news update on the radio at the top of the hour.

    Do I miss the TV? No.

    My kids have never had one so they don’t miss it. They may watch TV at a friends place, but that’s a treat.

    I’m certainly happy that I don’t get bombarded with 58minutes of doom, gloom, destruction (relevant to my part of the world right now (New Zealand)) and despair followed by 2 minutes of “feel good” to try and make up for the previous 58.

    Plus, I find we spend way more time outside or rolling around on the floor playing (isn’t there a rule about that?) than some families I’ve seen perched on seats in front of a box all in the one room but not communicating.

    Brent wrote on February 24th, 2011
  5. We have a TV but it has no cable. In the past 10 months I have maybe watched six DVDs on it, four of which were foreign and part of my ‘language/cultural maintenance’–that is the extent of my usage. Housemates maybe an additional 10 DVDs.

    The ‘NEWS’ is really just the equivalent of junk mail or spam. I don’t waste any time on it. I don’t have the time to spare, let alone the desire!

    obligatecarnivore wrote on February 24th, 2011
  6. I think one of the next major movements on the internet is going to be making what you see in your news feeds and so on geo-relevant. That is, algorithms will prioritize local, urgent stories according to your location and interests. I would certainly welcome it. (Hmmm… I know a little about software… maybe I should get on that, eh?)

    Uncephalized wrote on February 24th, 2011
  7. 1. News is just entertainment. Bad entertainment at that.

    2. TV (and other mainstream media) are just junkfood for the mind and soul. Cut them out the way you cut out grains and sugar.

    3. Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    Bushrat wrote on February 24th, 2011
  8. Talk about bad news: even the news is bad for us.
    I hardly pay attention to news. I’ll read the odd story online if I find it interesting but I don’t watch news on TV and I don’t read the newspaper unless there’s nothing else to do. I used to think that I should keep up to date with world events and then after a while I realized I shouldn’t bother because I don’t fully trust the news, a lot of it is useless or boring, and I don’t care that much about what happens in the world.. sure I can empathize, but why waste time to find a reason to do so. The same things happen and get reported about constantly: mortar shells are fired, some terrorists are captured, some soldiers are killed, someone gets raped, someone gets murdered, a criminal gets caught, cops commit some sort of crime like shooting someone who was allegedly a threat but get away with it and are hailed as heroes as the special investigation unit takes over to perform an obvious coverup (or in rare cases they actually get prosecuted for something), inflation is increasing as is the cost of everything, especially houses, gas and electricity.. an election is happening – who’s going to win? (speculation goes on and on saying the same things over and over then someone wins and for the next week or two the new speculation is on why they won), useless celebrity information and rumours are told to us such as what dresses the stars wore to the awards.. that’s probably enough for now.

    Tim wrote on February 24th, 2011
  9. I think it’s relevant to look into what kind of messages the television set is able to deliver, and how we unconsciously react being surrounded by television sets everywhere.

    My vote goes for throwing the TV out the window and go back to the radio. I have a book recommendation that goes deeply into what the television (and it’s messages) does to us.

    It’s a book written in the seventies called “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” by Jerry Mander.

    Malkavian wrote on February 25th, 2011
  10. Off topic but, why is this post not appearing on the rss feed?
    Keep on grokin’ and salutes from Protugal!

    Mingmen wrote on February 25th, 2011
  11. I have a great quotation somewhere (can’t remember the source) about how an abundance of information creates a deficit of attention. I cut out the TV years ago (French TV is dreadful anyway) and now I read Le Monde, The New York Times and the Economist once a month. Seems to be enough. I don’t feel like a total idiot when someone starts a conversation about current events but I’m just enough behind the times that I can ask the person I’m talking to to bring me up to speed. :-)

    Victoria FERAUGE wrote on February 25th, 2011
  12. I do not watch the news, for the exact reason described above. I choose which medium brings me information, and then Ichoose again which news to read within that medium.

    To me,I do not have the emotional bandwidth to deal with horror on a global scale. I don’t even want to try.

    KILL YOUR TELEVISION…The medium is the message

    Spence wrote on February 25th, 2011
  13. I’m a dedicated new junkie and I’ve been aware of the need to kick the habit for some time.

    Unfortunately, giving up the news has been about as hard as giving up the sugars I’m addicted to.

    Chris Lampe wrote on February 25th, 2011
  14. I just don’t pay attention to the news anymore. I always take a book or a magazine and my MP3 player if I am headed towards a waiting room, of any kind. I am a political conservative and can’t take even Fox News anymore; when it comes to the gory details, whether it’s a plane crash or the latest outrage from the White House, they repeat it over and over and over.

    Over the last decade I’ve weaned myself from the TV. I’ll go through the guide to see if there is a movie or something I’d like to watch — I like the science channels — but if not I just turn the damned thing off.

    Phocion Timon wrote on February 25th, 2011
  15. Ditched cable 5 years ago as a cost-saving measure while in University…now that I’m employed, I still don’t have cable.
    I don’t miss the awful news coverage and the constant barrage of commercials trying to convince me that Froot Loops are healthy :)

    Now I get my news online…like many have stated, I browse the headlines, stay informed but I don’t get bogged down with all the blasting of violent and negative content.

    Cha Cha wrote on February 25th, 2011
  16. I would definitely agree with this post. The only TV news I habitually subject myself to is Good Morning America; typically it is lighter more happy news. Every morning I like to wake up with a cup of coffee and watch a bit before I head off to class; it is my little morning ritual. On the other hand, if there is something important; such as everything going on in Egypt and Libya right now, I will subject myself to an hour or so.

    Other than that I get my news online, so I can choose what I am going to expose myself too.

    Austin wrote on February 25th, 2011
  17. Echoing many voices here… I haven’t had a TV in years. Haven’t missed it. My husband and I avoid restaurants that have them. And yet I manage to find out what is happening in the world. I occasionally have people accuse me of being “innocent” or ignorant, but I just point out that if something important happens, I manage to find out about it soon enough, and if it’s not important, why waste time & brain cells?

    Also, echoing a comment above–My Dad used to tell us “You worry about YOU. Make sure you’re doing what YOU’RE supposed to do.” I have generally found that to be good policy.

    taihuibabe wrote on February 25th, 2011
  18. Thanks for this post – very timely, I really enjoy the message and it rings true for me and my family as well.

    Ashley wrote on February 25th, 2011
  19. I’ve faired well without tv for the last 6 years and find that not being privy to every little news story makes life a little easier. As others have mentioned along this post, if something important has happened, I end up finding out about through friends, colleagues or family or glancing over someone’s shoulder while they read the paper on the subway.

    It’s an unnecessary stress that my family and I can do without.

    Primal K@ wrote on February 25th, 2011
  20. When I started a graduate Business & Engineering program back in the Fall of 2008 – the head Business professor said that we should be reading the WSJ daily. I did – for about a week. The economy was in shambles then, and I proceeded to never read the WSJ, or CNN, reuters, or any other news source for months. If something was that important in the world, people would tell me about it. I never turned back!

    Ryan Denner wrote on February 25th, 2011
  21. Ha ha .. I once learned that a hurricane was coming less than 24 hours before it hit, luckily, I was in college with few commitments and a flexible schedule. I hate the news, haven’t had tv channels in 7 years…

    Nicole wrote on February 26th, 2011
  22. Even in my local news there is rarely a positive story. You might catch a blurb about the local humane society, but that is definitely the exception.

    There isn’t much good on TV in general. I try to watch as little as possible. When I do I try to make it educational. Definitely no Jersey Shore!

    Trey Crowe wrote on February 26th, 2011
  23. Well, this information really challenges me at the moment. I live in Christchurch, NZ where we have had a massive and devastating earthquake. When we were without power the idea of not knowing anything happening in our city, or with our friends and family made me so paranoid that I feel I’m clinging too much to media updates. I have been stressed and upset for days…but then again, I don’t know anyone here who hasn’t. How do you find a balance when you are IN the ‘sensationalized’ news that you’re watching?

    Jase wrote on February 27th, 2011
  24. Ahh…the merchants of chaos. And giving
    the fact that the press is bought and
    paid for by the world elite is another
    reason to turn off their brain washing.
    The people I see talking about politics and world events are the one who are usually unhappy and grumpy.

    keithallenlaw wrote on February 27th, 2011
  25. I’ve thought a lot about this, and here is my conclusion: certain news sources are more “healthy” than others. I recommend NPR and the PBS newshour.

    I follow the news in my own neighborhood also. Unfortunately this is often bad: on Thursday a young man abducted a woman at gunpoint. This IS my business although I didn’t know the people involved, as it happened near where I walk every day. It upset me greatly, but I feel as if I need to know this.

    shannon wrote on February 28th, 2011
  26. I avoid the TV news like the plague. I get my news from the newspaper and news websites, where I read articles but not comments, and I do not watch videos on news websites. I can thus get my news at the pace I want it — no flashy, hypnotic, strobe-effect sound-bites — or not at all as my emotional state might dictate. I also focus more on news sites that report on issues I care about rather than the mish-mash of current world events. I believe there is only limited value in knowing what’s going on all around the globe.

    My clock radio has been a source of aggravation because the time I get up coincides unfortunately with the news, and the first moments of consciousness are not particularly ideal for ingesting the latest horrors, but this MDA post inspired me to try a different, music-oriented channel for tomorrow…I just don’t yet know what time they have their news.

    Ian wrote on February 28th, 2011
  27. I was cheered by the sight on the news recently of people in Wisconsin chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” I’m glad I didn’t miss that. I am also happy that the Arab world is liberating itself.

    I am very worried about global climate change, and i can see it on the ground as well as on the blogs I read about it. IT upsets me, but I need to know so I can be ready.

    shannon wrote on February 28th, 2011
  28. We got rid of cable and don’t watch TV anymore. One of the best decisions we ever made. The news is scripted and the stories are hand-picked. That’s why we read the news at our own pace, from multiple sources, and then decide what is truth and what is fiction. Reading the news in bits and pieces and critically thinking about it makes for a much calmer, and more informed life.

    Suzan wrote on February 28th, 2011
  29. I have long wished for a TV or web-based source of “good news”–timely stories with a positive angle.

    I gave up on national TV news long ago. If there’s a 9/11 kind of event unfolding I might tune in to inform myself, but I find it too tedious watch regularly.

    The only reason I watch local news is for the weather, and only when it’s severe. I don’t really care to hear about all of the local crimes.

    But I’m nowhere near ready to give up my TV. There’s too much good information and entertainment there.

    I quit Facebook half a year ago and don’t miss it a bit. But I do still use Twitter. It’s a great way to stay up-to-date without getting overwhelming, graphic details.

    Sparge wrote on February 28th, 2011
    • Me too! I have long wished for a “positive news” channel.

      If you MUST let me know if a tragedy occurred, then let me know how the community pulled together, the heroism someone shows in a crises or ways I can help. Focus on people helping each other and empower me to do the same, instead of leaving me feeling helpless and that the world is doomed.

      Nomad wrote on March 21st, 2013
  30. I run a dating/mating/marrying advice forum/list, and I advise my “list-ladies” to stop watching the news. The ‘stories’ affect their/your/our actual physical, biochemical, brain chemistry — and that’s a bad thing. The news is intended to sell crap — which is why the “news” in, say, Atlanta shows (multiple times) a video of a factory fire in Maine {eye roll} (so you’ll watch their commercials).
    The stress, fear, shock, sorrow, anger, whatever emotion they try to drag out of us creates a physical response. It’s oh-so-much easier to live your life in a balanced way if you’re NOT shocking your system with events that do not actually impinge on your life.

    And you will ‘keep up’ merely by living in this society, where you’ll catch enough of what’s going on in the world just from living in it — cab radio, coffee house TV, coworkers’ discussions, whatever. Grok’s brain never had to deal with hormonal/neuronal responses in his brain from seeing stuff that did not affect him. Neither should ours!

    Elenor wrote on February 28th, 2011
  31. I hate that perception that if you don’t read every newspaper and watch major newscasts that you are not savvy. I have been fearful in the past due to the media, and I had to cut a lot of the newsy stuff out. I am not, nor should I be, responsible to react to every tragedy in the world. I help when and where I can. I don’t have a cell phone anymore and that is remarkably freeing! Peace and quiet are precious commodoties.

    Kristina wrote on February 28th, 2011
  32. TV dramas are just as bad as the news. So much suffering and unhappiness.

    Tim Ferriss (4 Hour Work Week) advises a media fast. So far that’s been the hardest part of my Lifestyle Design and going Primal efforts.

    Paul Evangelista wrote on March 1st, 2011
    • I liked Tim’s suggestion of just reading the front page of newspapers as he passes store/cafe entrances. That’s enough!

      KerryC wrote on March 24th, 2013
  33. I am doing a media fast right now. It’s kind of hard at first, to keep from turning on the radio for example and listen to NPR. I am alone out in the country, and I used to turn it on just to hear a human voice.

    But this week I am ignoring all the tragedy in the world and listening more to my neighbors. It’s easier to listen when you aren’t preoccupied with some huge tragedy on the other side of the world.

    INterestingly, my neighbors insist on telling me about these tragedies. One is obsessed with the earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami. I get just enough information from him, and no more.

    I also unsubscribed to all my news rss feeds, and I am not looking at the NY Times. I am reading blogs about health and knitting and gardening, and that’s all. For ten days. Then we’ll see.

    shannon wrote on March 12th, 2011
  34. I no longer watch t.v. either, and haven’t for 6 years. I do enjoy some 70’s and 80’s shows on dvd. I have noticed that when I AM around t.v., especially news, that my adreneline, etc goes up. I really do think it changes the neuro-chemistry of the brain just like a drug. I knoe people who are so hooked on it that they can’t leave thier homes.

    When I watch t.v. now, I become sick at all the obvious barrage of emotional manipulation that goes on. I can’t believe so many don’t see it. And the news is the BIGGEST offender! If it is even true…

    Nomad wrote on March 21st, 2013
  35. One source I’ve recently started reading is online and its called theSkimm. Great way to get headlines, in a newsletter format.

    I’m working on losing the tv, but out of all of the lifestyle changes we’ve made by heading down the primal path, nixing the idiot box is the only one I’m being blocked on. Granted, we typically watch documentaries, Corrie St (not a primal one in the lot!) and British league soccer. Or it’s used as a giant computer screenplay for the occasional Zumba party or Mario brothers Wii showdown.

    I know, not primal. It’s part of our 20%. No one said the 20 had to be food based! ;).

    Catherine H wrote on March 21st, 2013

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