News Avoidance and Anxiety

As a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma I have been advising folks to turn off the TV for years. First it was “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit.” Some people found they were traumatized by watching the show; others found hope and relief when the perpetrator was caught and prosecuted. Sometimes watching helped and sometimes it hurt. But it seemed folks struggled to know how they would react to any particular episode on any given day.

When I was 16, my dad needed to have open-heart surgery. A friend took me to see a movie to get my mind off of it. She chose “All That Jazz,” neither of us knowing that there would be an open heart surgery scene in the movie. I sat in the theatre and shook. My friend felt so guilty. I actually felt worse for her than for me. I knew she was trying to help me and I knew she had no idea about the scene. I survived, as did my father. I watched the movie again decades later and didn’t shake at all. But when I was in my 20’s and 30’s I avoided the TV show “ER” for fear the same thing would happen. Later when I started watching “ER,” I enjoyed it and regretted not watching it sooner (the days before Hulu and Netflix). I knew avoiding it was the right thing at the time but I also felt like I had missed out. How and when can we know it’s the right time to watch or learn something? And that was just fiction rubbing up against my reality.

Fast forward to now when more and more people are avoiding the news: TV news, radio news, local and world news, discontinuing newspaper subscriptions. I get it. In fact, I advise my clients to participate in news avoidance, in moderation. But what is going on? Why is it we need to avoid the news to feel safe and calm? Something is clearly wrong.

At this moment I imagine some of you want to stop reading. You may want to avoid whatever comes next. That is your choice. The beauty of the written word is you can put it down, close your computer. And you can pick it back up when you’re ready. You can also re-read what you want, and skim other sections. I respectfully ask that you continue reading with the knowledge that you may stop at any time. And I promise I am not going to talk about politics. I am going to talk about our central nervous system (CNS).

A few weeks ago I heard a story on NPR (my main news source which I listen to in moderation). The story titled, “News Fatigue: Why are People Avoiding the News Consumption” aired as part of the show On Point on June 26th of this year. Here’s the link if you’d like to read it: News Fatigue article The story was all about how and why people are avoiding the news. You won’t be surprised to hear that many people find the news depressing and anxiety-provoking. Many people report feelings of helplessness and powerlessness when they hear the news. And others say they just don’t trust the news. I have had all of these reactions myself. I also feel enraged sometimes when I hear the news, and other times, I simply feel sad. Then there are times I feel as if, “I just can’t deal with it.” So, like many many others, there are days when I avoid the news, even the local news. And I do recommend this for anyone feeling particularly vulnerable or depleted on any given day. But I worry about this strategy as well.

While there are elements of the news that are difficult to hear, I believe that the delivery of the news is equally to blame for the effect it has on us. TV news with bright colors and images, repeated one-liners and graphics are taken in both visually and auditorily. The images are inside of us before we have a chance to decipher if we want them inside or not. The monologues of our favorite late-night hosts can have the same effect, even if the information is being delivered in the form of humor.

Listening to the news is a little easier to manage. We hear it only. Although there can be one-liners and sensational language, there are no images to bombard our senses. Reading the news is easiest to control. The information gets in more slowly. There are no sounds, and if there are images, we can look away, turn the page, or choose not to click on them. We have more choices. We can take information in at our pace, skimming or reading deeply depending on the topic. There are usually references or links available for checking sources and locating collateral or contradictory information. We can stop at any time. It’s easier to put down the paper than stand up and turn off the radio. We have choice.

Mental health is defined by mental and emotional flexibility. It is defined by multiple coping strategies and a comfort level with a range of emotional experiences, not the absence of emotion. Any time we utilize just one or two coping strategies to deal with all aspects of life, our potential is limited. We are not in full health. I am referring to both autonomic unconscious defense mechanisms like denial, withdrawal and repression as well as conscious strategies such as planning to avoid certain people or news programs. If our primary way of dealing with today’s reality is avoidance, we are not realizing our potential as human beings. And personally, I think we all need to be our best selves, individually and collectivity, right now!

Now for an oversimplified lesson in brain anatomy. Our brains, like the rest of us, evolved over millions of years to become what we now think of as the part of us that separates us from the rest of the animal world. Our brains. True enough. This evolution occurred in layers with newer or younger parts of the brain-the “human” parts- developing on top of older parts, rather than replacing them.

Think of the appendix. It’s long known to be of no use to modern humans but there it is, sometimes causing medical emergencies. Thankfully once removed it is not missed. Our brains are a bit more complex. Our reptilian brain-the oldest part of our brain-is understandably designed to keep us alive. It is concerned with keeping our heart beating, making sure we breathe and making sure we don’t get eaten by the nearest predator. There are 3 classic central nervous system responses to fear that originate in this part of the brain. Fight-Flight and Freeze. When we sense danger this part of us is activated and we do whatever is necessary to survive. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we run away and sometimes we freeze or shut down like the possum who plays dead. When our lives, or the lives of our loved ones, are in danger these are all appropriate and necessary defenses. We need these to survive. But that’s just it. They are designed for survival, not living.

When the fight-flight or freeze response is triggered in “regular” daily life we are not able to live up to our fullest selves. We are compromised. We are just “getting by” or surviving, and we are not capable of growing and making live enhancing decisions. I’m sure you know someone who is “so stressed out that they can’t think clearly.” Perhaps you’ve had this experience yourself. But once you take the time to rest and relax you’re able to make decisions again. This is not an accident. It is not something you will to happen. It is how our brains function. When we are just surviving, energy is directed to the reptilian parts of our brain to keep us alive, and energy is diverted away from our frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational thought, organization and problem-solving. It’s hard to be at our best as humans when part of our brain is not fully functioning.

When we avoid the news to avoid feelings of anxiety and despair, we are in fact responding like the possum who plays dead to avoid a predator or the child who hides in the closet while their parents argue. This may have been necessary to survive a violent household. This may be the best course of action if confronted by a relative who is ranting about politics. This maybe your best course of action after a long day when you are exhausted. But it is not fully living. We need to find a way to calm our central nervous systems (CNS) so we feel safe and competent enough to confront our reality. Because not paying attention, not knowing what is happening, can put us at risk too.

It’s a bit like defensive driving which involves being aware enough of potential hazards on the road while also being calm and assertive enough to drive with confidence. Anyone who has driven a long distance in heavy traffic or bad weather knows it is exhausting to be “on” like this for long periods of time with little rest. It’s tiring because it uses so much of our energy. There is a reason truck drivers have limited drive times and mandatory rest. These are good guidelines by which to live our lives. When we are depleted we need to rest and avoid news. But when we are well and calm we need to find a way to know what is happening.

I believe the media and our government and political leaders have a responsibility to present information to us in a manner that is responsible, respectful and calming. And, sadly this is not happening. Whether we like it or not, our leaders are like parent figures, showing us how to act and what to think. And like in some families where the children need to reject their role model and find their own way, in 2019 I believe it is our responsibility to do this for ourselves and for each other. To seek out the good, find the helpers and work on solutions, together.

Like the oxygen mask on an airplane, to do this we must first take care of our oxygen supply.

The central nervous system (CNS) is an autonomic system. It functions automatically without being told to do so. It is not always rational. Remember it is concerned primarily with basic survival. However, it is open to influence-influence from other parts of ourselves that are capable of managing multiple responsibilities. The basic recommendations for wellbeing all help calm our central nervous system-plenty of sleep, water, whole foods, and movement.

In addition, we can learn to breathe in a manner that tells our central nervous system we are safe. By doing this regularly we will improve our overall health, improve our mood, reduce our anxiety and increase our capacity for dealing with complex issues-be they personal or political.

So sit quietly and breathe. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Exhaling, but not inhaling, through your mouth is key. When we inhale through our mouths we are increasing our energy and the CNS senses “it’s time to fight or flee” Exhaling through our mouths sends the message to our CNS that we are safe, and it can relax now. This allows other parts of our brain to have the needed resources to function at full capacity. This technique is helpful with test anxiety, with settling down for sleep, for calming panic and overall mood improvement. It will also help you find the best way for you to stay informed and make decisions about how you want to live your life.

Please give it a try. Below there is a link to Dr. James Gordon, the Founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, talking a group through what he calls Soft Belly Breathing. I learned this technique from him a few years ago and use it daily.

Breathing technique