“Your body adapts to what you eat. Your mind adapts to what you consume. Your soul adapts to what you love. What you feed yourself today is who you become tomorrow.” — James Clear
I’ve recently started watching the evening news again, after a few years of avoiding the habit.
My wife and I got drawn back into the world of TV news during the early spread of the coronavirus in China. My wife is Chinese, and we wanted to see how the media world in the west would report about the situation.
While it was easy enough to maintain perspective in the beginning, anxiety crept up on us slowly but surely. We started feeling constant low-level dread, paranoia even…
After a few days of being exposed to images of people wearing face masks in China, I decided to order a few hundreds of surgical masks and even two respirators. I was starting to prep for an eventual pandemic, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would affect my loved ones.
Watching the evening news right after the weather forecast became a new habit in our family. This had an undeniable impact on our thoughts.
At this point, there’s not much to know about the coronavirus — we’re taking the necessary precautions, washing our hands, and so on. But we still keep thinking about it all the time, and the news is to blame for these unproductive thought loops.
Very simply put:the main function of the news is not to keep us informed, but to keep us glued to the tv every evening.
They have to make sure we stay for the commercials and come back wanting more. Here’s a great post that explains the way that the evening news is constructed to keep us watching (and the way this leads to heightened depression in the audience).
The way I see it, the news is designed to be addictive through fear. Fear is addictive because it causes us to live in a state of constant overproduction of adrenaline — which, like any chemical, can be habit-forming.
I mentioned in past articles that I am a horror fan. The science of fear lies at the root of this genre, and I know it can be fun when you let fear into your life on your own terms (and then shut it out again). But with the news, it is very hard to ever turn your feelings off or to distance yourself from thinking about it.
Pessimism by Design
I also want to mention the way the news skews our perspective. By nature, the news focuses on the negatives rather than the positives. Psychologist Steven Pinker gives a memorable example in this article about how the media distorts our view of the world:
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out” — or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.
So even responsible news reporting is going to give you a selective view of the world. In my experience, responsible reporting is getting rarer every year.
As my family and I kept watching the news about the spread of the virus, we were bombarded with images of protests and strikes — this is the French news, so the strikes never end. We heard about wars current and future, about storm after storm hitting the country, not to mention the endless reports about economic insecurity and everyday violence (very important topics before the next elections).
Watching the news can make you believe there’s a big chance you will soon die from either a pandemic, a natural disaster or a break-in turned bad. At best, you’ll be fine but the economy will collapse around you and leave you jobless.
These scenarios aren’t all that realistic, but they feel like a real and immediate threat. Worst of all, there’s nothing you can do about all these impending catastrophes. You’re left feeling completely helpless.
What the Impact’s Like
So, I have a natural tendency to get anxious.
My monkey brain goes into overdrive when exposed to bad news. This translates into physical symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, fatigue, skin rashes, and more.
I’ve been dealing with these symptoms for the past two months or so. I feel depressed, anxious, impatient, and tired these days. I tried doing what I usually do when that happens — I doubled down on meditation, outdoor walks, daily physical exercise and being mindful of my diet… except that this time, none of this had any positive impact I could see.
Then it hit me. I’m likelier to get health issues from watching the news than from anything they’re actually reporting about, and that exactly is what has been happening to me.
Just realizing the possible culprit made me feel better. Like two out of three people, I’ve been getting news fatigue, and — more importantly — it has been impacting my mental and physical health in a bad way. (Note: the numbers come from the US, but in my experience, the situation is similar all around the world.)
Take Care of Yourself
If you’ve been feeling slightly under the weather in recent weeks, it might not be the winter depression. News media fear tactics might be getting to you, and that’s the problem you need to focus on solving.
Personally, I have resolved to turn off the news again. But the addiction is strong, and I can only hope that I’ll be able to maintain a no-news diet once again.