Monday, February 28, 2011

News Impacts Your Physical and Mental Health

Why pay attention to news? 
When I was young(er), I hated learning about history or paying attention to politics. Since these things were outside of my immediate control, I considered them irrelevant to my personal life. Over the last four years in college, I've become acquainted with a couple of truly amazing history and political science professors. Learning from them enlightened me to how relevant these topics actually are to my every day life, and I found a passion that I didn't know was there.

History is the reason we are all here. When I stopped taking our culture, rules, society, etc for granted and started to wonder why they are the way they are, I realized that understanding history is the only way to understand why the world is how it is. 

Political science has a similar relationship and is almost inseparable from history. The true implications of politics never really hit me until after I became interested in nutrition. A politician's decision about what crops to subsidize with our tax dollars influences a series of complex integrated systems that eventually impacts the physiological processes going on in our cells. This is just one example of how all these fields are tied together; the implications are staggering.
Learning about politics, economics, and history then using what you've learned to analyze news within a context is almost an addicting occupation. Hours can fly by reading political analysis and trying to understand what's going on in the world. And it's easily justifiable because I truly believe that having an educated populace is the key to a functional nation. 

On the other hand... 
While I enjoy staying up-to-date on world news, there are drawbacks. For example:
  • The constant influx of negative news from around the world is a chronic stressor
  • My mind spins out of control thinking about options, implications, solutions
  • All the negative news can lead to feeling angry or depressed
  • Having no personal control over things can make situations seem hopeless
I think about the trade off between following world events and the stress they cause. Mark Sisson released an article today called 'How the News Impacts Your Health (and What You Can Do About It)'
which inspired me to write this. In the article, Mark makes some great points and cites some interesting research.
"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."
So apparently research shows that watching traumatic events causes serious problems. Mark goes on to make the point that we are exposed to a far wider net of news than ever before in our evolutionary history:
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.
Later he address the exact question I've been thinking about:
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?
Earlier in the post he mentions that relaxation exercises helped reverse the effects of watching traumatic events. What other strategies are there?
[C]onstant 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. 
I think this is a really smart strategy. Keep news in context, don't pay attention to each "trivial update", and spend more time reflecting on a few major issues that we can impact.

Cortisol is a hormone that the body releases in response to stress. Although having some is important, too much causes fat gain, muscle breakdown, a reduction in insulin sensitivity, and unfavorable changes in hormone status. Cortisol is released primarily in response to stress. My current understanding is that the body does not differentiate very well between different types of stress, so physical, mental, and emotional stress can all add up together to increase cortisol levels. We don't want this to happen.

Here are the strategies I use to manage this:

  1. Limit the amount of news I read each week. As Mark says, ignore the "trivial updates".
  2. Keep news in context and don't view it as a disassociated stream of negative events. 
  3. Focus on the important local issues. These are the ones we are much better at dealing with.
  4. Spend time relaxing, laughing, meditating, or whatever helps foster a positive mood.
  5. I always keep in mind that the current moment is the only one I can control because the past has already happened and the future isn't here yet. 

No comments:

Post a Comment