Yesterday I made a bold move. I turned the microphone off after recording this week’s podcast, and realised that I needed to actually take action on something I said.
So I turned off ALL push notifications on my phone. Including text messages and WhatsApp. And the BBC news alerts. I will no longer find out breaking news at the same time as everyone else in the room. And I think I’m OK with that. I will also only see text messages at times when I choose to go and check/process them. The twitch is still strong at the moment, but these moments have been getting fewer and further between over the course of today.
This is all in an effort to be more intentional about the way I let information influence my mood, thoughts, and ability to concentrate.
The Impact of News
I’ve felt really aware of this recently, especially in relation to news. And in this week’s podcast I look specifically at ways we might take more control over how we consume the news. And the subsequent affect it has on our mental health. Both in the short and long term.
How can we re-engage with the news so that it affects us in healthy ways? How can we use it to add value to our lives, rather than being a source of distress and overwhelm? We don’t need to run away from it, or bury our heads in the sand. But we do need to be aware of how both affected AND desensitised we can get to the over-sensationalised, hyped up, emotive junk food news that is designed to keep us clicking, sharing, and dividing.
When we don’t have productive outlets or processes to deal with the feelings created by the bombardment of trauma that comes from being subjected to a never-ending stream of news (and reactions to it).
What happens when the news hits the room?
Do you have news alert push notifications on your phone? How do you respond when an update comes through?
If my brain is not engaged I will head straight for Twitter to see how people are reacting. I look for the battle lines being drawn around the event, and the polarising discussions that are bound to develop. It’s a perverse kind of entertainment that brings me no joy, just that weird addictive sense of ‘I know this is bad for me, but I can’t stop doing it…in fact I think that might be WHY I’m doing it’.
Then there are the ill-informed conversations as everyone in the room receives the news update at the same time. Suddenly everyone’s an expert as we all second guess the circumstances, perpetrators, and implications of whatever is going on. All based on nothing more than a headline.
It follows that newsworthy information is usually bad. Or divisive. Or fear mongering. It is exceptional. Not normal. Or it wants a reaction. And the simplest way to get people to engage is to provoke, scare, or anger.
We might think that news is just information we passively consume. Whether on radio, TV or through social media. But it’s not. It seeps into our experience of life. It contributes massively to our overall health. We need a balanced diet in the food we eat, and it’s no different with the information we consume. What goes is is what comes out.
You cannot only binge on ‘newsworthy’ news, expecting to feel balanced, happy, and healthy afterwards. You will build a skewed picture of the world, and carry that with you into all areas of your life.
When it comes to emotional responsiveness, the brain doesn’t really discriminate between things happening directly to you, and things it sees happening to someone else. As a result, we put ourselves into stress mode whenever we watch the news and hear about traumatic events going on around the world. Stress mode is when our bodies release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. And these are the fuel for the fight, flight, and freeze responses.
Even the most sensitive people can become desensitised to things when they become normalised. This often happens as a way of coping with overexposure to upsetting scenes and information. Desensitisation can be a coping mechanism, not a sign that you don’t care. Rather it is assistance from the brain, disabling your ability to care in order to keep your mind safe from harm, when it’s overexposed to damaging events.
We become less concerned and more apathetic about the things we see and hear about. This leads to a lack of connection to the urgency around whatever crisis we are watching. We become fatigued to the point of inaction. Not because we don’t care, but because our minds kick in with some defence mechanisms to help us switch off to the trauma, and so we can’t care.
We are tempted to turn to forms of ‘numbing’ instead. Reality TV and other forms of easy entertainment are good examples of this. We invest ourselves in the outcomes of things that really don’t matter, because our minds allow us to care about trivial stuff (Bake Off, Love Island, America’s Got Talent).
Other defence mechanisms that might kick in:
- Denial (that hasn’t happened)
- Repression (that didn’t happen)
- Regression (remember when things were better in the old days)
- Displacement (I hate that driver that just cut me up)
- Splitting (we need to eliminate the baddies)
Where Do We Get Our News?
Information no longer sleeps. 24/7 news coverage, and social media means there is relentless competition between news outlets to get more eyeballs on their version of events.
Newsworthy has come to mean, news that will engage listeners, readers, and viewers. And the way this happens is by highlighting stories that will evoke anger and fear, and promote division through polarising positions around the story.
With this in mind, we become the sources of our own news. Through echo chambers (we get more of what we already have), and through engagement with stories that provoke our reactions. Whether that’s likes, shares, or comments, the stories that gain the most engagement have the widest reach.
And so the news comes from us. The things to which we emotionally react. These are not the most important stories. And they are not presented in ways that will unite us and strengthen us as we work out how to move forward in the best way together.
What can we do about it?
How can we still engage with the news without it impacting us in negative ways?
“One way of coping with this continual exposure is not getting overloaded with the news and pacing yourself with your consumption. Everyone has a different limit, and you have to find out what your limit is.” – Susanne Babbel
Cal Newport’s book, Digital Minimalism has some really helpful suggestions for how to declutter our information life. This helps us recognise what actually matters and where we find value from the online world. And we can use this stuff to help us take control of the information we allow to influence us as well.
Place yourself in charge of your thoughts, before you allow the news to hijack them. That way you have healthy defences ready to help you filter and respond in the best way possible.
Babbel explains that “The nervous system hijacks the logical brain,”…”Once you are triggered by a traumatic event or hearing about trauma, people will often say, ‘Just get over it.’ You can’t, because you don’t have logic.”
All you can do is soothe your nervous system using the language it understands: sensation. Sing, write, move, have some positive physical contact with someone. Breathe deeply and calm your nervous system.
Find things that work for you, and bathe your information gathering in these healthy habits.
Self-care is the root of clear mindedness. Which is exactly what is required at times of trauma and stress. To remain calm and aware. Not to extinguish awareness of trauma. That doesn’t extinguish the trauma. But to focus on the positive sides of news. ‘Look for the helpers’, be proactive, and immerse yourself in good news stories to balance the diet.
Over to You
Do you have any techniques, habits, or processes you use to help you cope with the bombardment of traumatic information and news? Please leave your response in the comments below.