Time for a Break

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    It doesn’t matter which side you were on in the recent presidential election—there is unanimous agreement that it’s time for a break.

   A sigh of relief blew across the country when the ballots were finally all counted, and we could again look to the mailman to bring our bills, rather than all the tons of campaign literature that weighed the guy down this fall.

   Now, thanks to some fun-loving Miami twins, a general officer, and a triathlete-biographer, we have a soap opera to capture our interest for a long while, in the event the rest of life offers too little entertainment.

   A lot of the language of campaign sparring is negative and jarring. Last June, Graham Davey, Ph.D., wrote in “Psychology Today” that the tendency for news broadcasters to “emotionalize” their content by emphasizing all the potential negative outcomes of a story has measurable effects on one’s health. Viewing perpetually negative news reports, and listening to shouting, nagging voices on some radio talk shows affects your own mood, and the way you process your own specific problems.

   In a series of structured interviews, participants were shown a variety of news reports, and later asked to tell about their personal life issues, specifically their areas of concern and worry. After watching negative news bulletins for seven minutes, the participants were more likely to catastrophize their own problems–that is, their thoughts dwelled on their problem for longer after watching the news clip, and their worry was viewed as more serious than before the news clip.

   None of this comes as a surprise, but it does make me stop and wonder about how 24-hour news programs continue to be popular. Certainly the trend has been for more people to change to organic foods, to meditate or do yoga, and to include a regimen of physical exercise in their schedule—all to promote a longer and healthier life. Why do some (or most) of us continue to view or listen to negatively balanced news programming when we know its power to exacerbate our own negative emotions and increase sadness and anxiety?

   Psychologists agree that people may be addicted to the adrenaline rush of anxiety.  Instead of making our own problems seem smaller by comparison, the fight or flight response, which is part of our natural defense system, gets activated by watching or reading frightening and angering content. Instead of saying, “Oh, I don’t have it so bad, no rocket mortars here!” we unconsciously view our own worries with more gravity, and expect an increase in negative consequences. It’s that negative  expectation that harms our bodies.

     Neural pathways, once activated, tend to stay activated until you re-train your brain to send different chemicals to counteract the powerful stress response. Dr. Andrew Weil, local hero to many in Newport Beach by giving us True Foods restaurant, made a suggestion nearly 20 years ago when he issued the one-day “news fast” challenge. He said, “do not read, watch or listen to any news media for one entire day, and then evaluate how you feel.” Take the time you usually use reading the news and spend a few minutes in nature, alone and quiet. If there is more peace, and focus on positive elements in your life, you may want to extend the challenge a little longer.

   It’s hard to escape the constant barrage of bad news. While filling at the gas pump or on the treadmill at the gym, it has been deemed by some master of marketing that we will watch and hear the latest.

   I wish I had been doing the one-day news fast recently. I could’ve gone a long time without hearing about the Hostess Baked goods tragedy.  A road trip without Ho-Ho’s. Now that really is something to get anxious about.

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