Time to Take a Break from the News?

“Fear is real but so is love.” –Alice Walker

Recently, some old foot pain crept up. I knew this was another bout of TMS that had gotten out of control. So I did the things that worked for me in the past. I went back to the activities that helped calm my nervous system (journaling, meditation, and yoga) but the pain this time seemed more difficult to overcome. For a while I could not quite figure out what was causing it to linger…until I noticed that I was reading the news a lot lately. I found that putting down my phone at night and taking a break from the news was just what I needed. Immediately I started feeling better, I was sleeping through the night again, and the self-help measures I used began taking effect.

For quite a few years, I mostly stayed away from the news. I might glance at the headlines now and then to assure myself I was not missing out on anything major. And those in my social circle were a source of information too. But I never used social media and did not even own a smart phone until 2018.

Last year, I fell off the wagon when the college admissions scandal broke (justifying to myself that since I once worked in education policy I should get the details). Then I had to keep up with the Democratic party’s preparations for the 2020 presidential election, and finally here we are with Covid-19 and scary news around the clock.

The problem with the news is that for every negative story you read, there are heroic and inspirational acts that happen everyday and are never reported by the media. From conservative to mainstream to liberal to alternative, media outlets publish the most sensational stories they can find, from their particular angle, to get your attention. These stories are nearly always about fearful situations or immoral acts.

“They don’t publish the good news.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

This is not to say that individual news stories are untrue or factually inaccurate. I’m not saying anything is “fake news.” Rather, it is important for us to remember that stories in the media provide an incomplete picture of the whole. We need to be aware of what our minds are fed on a daily basis. We can only get some of the facts but never all of the facts. In fact, we are likely to get only the most extreme facts. We get a picture of the deadliest and scariest things to ever happen, and from the perspective of the person or organization giving you the news.

For news outlets to rack up clicks, stories must be unusual, rare, and exceptional. News stories are not representative of the average day or the whole of reality. Much of the time, you are actually getting the most skewed impression of the world you could possibly get. If your only way of engaging with society was to read the news, you would think the world is nothing but greed, disasters, crime, corruption, and machiavellian maneuverings.

“Be afraid!” is the basic motto because that gets your attention. Humans are evolutionarily adapted to respond to fear, because fear protects our bodies in the wild. Fear once in a while is okay; fear on a constant basis is not.

Just as a consistently bad diet is unhealthy for the body, constant negative and fearful thoughts brought on by a barrage of bad news stories day in and day out are toxins for the soul. Stress hormones that stay in the body cause all sorts of imbalances, most notably anxiety and depression, but also high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low energy, rapid heart rate, insomnia, … the list goes on. Dr. David Fryburg, an endocrinologist, writes that just as we are what we eat, we are what we see.

“The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore.” –Rumi

You may think keeping up with the news makes you a well-informed, engaged member of society–but in reality you can never get a completely accurate reflection of the world.

In telling us only the most sensational and negative news, the media omit all of the positive information and the vast majority of activities that happen on a daily basis. Isn’t it true that “lies by omission are still lies?” If we rely on all that we see in the media, that perspective will become heavily skewed toward the negative and the fearful, and that is essentially a way of becoming misinformed.

I ask you, if you had to choose between the two, would you rather be misinformed or uninformed? Which is worse? Incredibly, most of us would rather be misinformed.

The mainstream media are good at always finding some way to characterize any story, even a seemingly benign or hopeful one, so that it ends up identifying a potential problem. Because if there’s no problem, there’s no story, right? Reading such writing everyday gives us practice at being cynical, fearful and angry, and then it becomes the only way to see the world.

Don’t just take it from me, hear what others are also saying about the media’s effect on your health. And I am not just referring to the negative news of today (in the year 2020, which many might say is an anomaly, with Donald Trump as president and Coronavirus). This article from The Guardian was published in 2013 and Psychology Today published a similar article in 2012. Texas A&M University described “The Toll of Bad News on Your Health” in 2015.

You may be wondering the following: If I completely unplug, how am I going to get my news and all the important information I need to know? How can I be well informed and engaged with the outside world and understand the problems of those less fortunate than me? I can’t just live in a bubble, can I?

Maybe moderation can be your friend. I am not advocating a complete news blackout for the rest of your life. You need to know about the happenings in the world. Just checking the news once in a while is not as bad as every morning (or every hour like we do on our phones these days).

And how about reading stories from the “other side” once in a while to balance things out? Stories about people being loving and kind to one another are just as truthful and important as stories about the opposite. These stories are, unfortunately, harder to find. But the good news (!) is that a growing number of websites are specializing in positive news and you can try one of them as an alternative. The Good News Network has stories that are fun and interesting for all ages. Daily Good has a strong emphasis on spirituality and posts stories from around the world. There are other sites such as Story Corp and Positive News. You might have heard that John Krasinski started a youtube channel called “Some Good News.”

Not long ago I enjoyed watching a series called “The Kindness Diaries”(on Netflix) in which the creator of the show, Leon Logothetis, rides around the world with no money, relying only on the kindness of others to give him food and shelter. He randomly meets folks who are willing to open their doors to him and learns much about the kindness of people everywhere.

Even if it’s impossible for you to stay away from the news, you can always be mindful of what you’re reading, and be aware that people feed you information for a reason. Know that you are always only getting a partial picture of the whole. And when it’s possible, you can just…turn it off. You won’t be missing much, and you might feel a whole lot better too.

The Good News

They don’t publish the good news. The good news is published by us. We have a special edition every moment, and we need you to read it. The good news is that you are alive, and the linden tree is still there, standing firm in the harsh Winter. The good news is that you have wonderful eyes to touch the blue sky. The good news is that your child is there before you, and your arms are available: hugging is possible. They only print what is wrong. Look at each of our special editions. We always offer the things that are not wrong. We want you to benefit from them and help protect them. The dandelion is there by the sidewalk, smiling its wondrous smile, singing the song of eternity. Listen! You have ears that can hear it. Bow your head. Listen to it. Leave behind the world of sorrow and preoccupation and get free. The latest good news is that you can do it.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

© 2020 Christina Wei