Our brains are hard-wired to be more alert to news of threat than good news, which in evolutionary terms kept us alive.
The media use this to grab our attention, feeding us with an indigestible diet of dire information. Unfortunately our brains have not developed to quickly process and be discerning about which information to pay attention to and which to dismiss.
In the distant past, traders on the Silk Road gathered at trading posts to rest their camels and along with their goods, would relay news to the next station. And so news would take months of gossip to reach the ears of people on the other side of the world, if at all.
Now the barrage of information assaults not only ears, but eyes. Flashing images and backlit screens late at night can disturb sleep, and exhaustion is a strong precursor of anxiety.
We are not robots. As humans we need time to integrate new information and use it wisely. If we don’t think things through, the primitive part of the brain jump-starts our nervous system to fight or run away from danger. This is a defence against an immediate threat to life, and the body calms down once the crisis is past. But on prolonged red alert the brain gets overloaded just like any other electrical circuitry. “Breaking news” indeed!
Hormones of action such as adrenaline course through the body with nowhere to go. We can become accustomed to the hit of adrenaline or other hormonal “rush” and even seek to re-create it, because the extreme comedown or recovery time feels flat and dull in comparison. We come to equate being wired with feeling alive. In this way, craving for drama causes misconceptions and helps create an overdramatic world-view. As a result we may feel stressed and anxious but won’t necessarily know why.
Social media is particularly pernicious in this respect, disturbing us with bits and pieces of sensational fast food for the mind, distracting us from everyday tasks and breaking our attention span.
What to do if you want to restore equanimity and tranquillity to mind and body in the face of “news”, fake or otherwise?
Friends and family may thrive on horror stories, but if you are feeling anxious you might experiment with limiting the information streaming into your person.
Regain control of your own mind and decide what is too much information for you as an individual.
Tip 1 Change your screen habits.
Decide to switch off your phone a couple of hours before sleep. Research has shown that backlit screens inhibit good restful sleep which your mind needs to restore equilibrium.
Tip 2 Limit the time you lavish on the news
Amar Kalia of the Guardian, suggests one way to reduce the impact of the non-stop news cycle is to use screen-time trackers on iOS and Android, to limit the time you spend on news on your phone. The American Psychological Association survey in 2017 reported that for half the people surveyed, news of politics was a major source of stress to them. Watching too much news, in short sharp bursts can feel like a bombardment and lead to feeling helpless and hopeless.
Tip 3 Turn off push notifications from news apps
A 2016 study found push notifications “exert a negative influence on cognitive function through distraction and disruption of daily tasks.”
Tip 4. Seek out the good news
The late Hans Rosling in his book “Factfulness” featured on Radio 4 Book of the Week, seeks to redress the balance of bad news, putting it in perspective of the positive bigger picture, such as the proportion of people living in extreme poverty halved in the past 20 years. By getting the news in perspective it helps to remain optimistic.
Tip 5 Take time to focus on your immediate environment
The mind tends to stray to scenarios of elsewhere, past and future. Bring your mind back home by focusing on the present moment. What is actually going on right now? I’ve discovered that people who find meditation difficult can remind themselves to be here and now by repeating the mantra:
Just Here; Just Now; Just This.
Use your free will and exercise choice. Just as you can choose healthy food to feed your body, take back control of what you feed your mind. Ask yourself “Is this a useful thought?” “Is it serving my well-being”?