Do you remember the Twilight Zone? I recall being intrigued with the ‘revived’ series that was run on TV back in the 1980’s (what is it with teenagers and scary movies?!). Recently I saw a post on Facebook saying ‘The Twilight Zone used to be the scariest thing on TV, now it is the nightly news’. How true this statement is of late. Crikey.
The seeds for this article have been in the wind for a while and were sown during the grim attacks in France last year and this year. With the recent earthquakes in New Zealand, the state of both US and UK politics and other worldly events it can be a little harrowing catching the news, and somewhat tempting to bury ones head in the sand (!). However, most of us don’t want to be entirely ignorant of what is going on from one day or week to the next – so how do you keep in touch with the World, safely?
How can you stay up to date without raising your stress levels, worry and anxiety?
These are important questions because while we want to be informed and feel concern and care for people like those caught in the earthquakes, or the victims and their families in Nice, France, we also need to take care of ourselves and our family.
And if you’re already struggling with high stress levels or having trouble sleeping, this is even more relevant.
Yes, care about what happens to other people, but take care of yourself too.
Here I offer my perspective on how to do this in the context of media coverage and current events, with information about your amazing brain thrown in for good measure so you have some context for the advice I’m offering. This is a long-ish post, so hang in there with me and see what you find out that might just make a difference to the quality of your and your family’s day to day life, which I consider to be very precious.
Here goes …
How your brain processes [information, events, media coverage]
Let’s look firstly at how your brain works because that really informs us as to why it’s worth taking care of what we’re exposed to. The overall way our brain functions is a good place to start – I reckon it’s probably the most important thing to know about how your brain works, and it happens to be one of the most fascinating. You probably already know that you have both conscious and unconscious (or subconscious) brain function. What is less known is that one operates in a much higher proportion to the other. That is, one has a much bigger influence than the other. So what way around is it? Is your conscious function bigger than your unconscious, or is it the other way around?
Conscious vs Unconscious
It is the unconscious that accounts for the majority of the functions in your brain and body – physically, emotionally and mentally. It’s the unconscious that processes the majority of the information coming into your system through your senses – what you see, hear, feel, taste, smell and sense. At this subconscious level we process at 400 billion bits/second – that is a lot of data! That means that most of the processing in the body is running under the radar.
At a conscious level we process 2,000 bits/second (which equates to 5-9 chunks of information at once; that’s like a short shopping list) so we have capacity to be conscious and aware of a certain amount of information around us, but only a fraction of it. What are you are actually ‘receiving’ and what you are aware of receiving are two different things. Even as you read this article, there are sounds around you, light coming from somewhere, the feel or your chair – most of which you weren’t particularly aware of (consciously) until I mentioned them here – but your unconscious was tracking the WHOLE LOT the whole time. Phew.
This is an extremely useful set up: it means you can read this article or brush your teeth or butter toast while your body whirrs away in the background running this wondrous system of 600 trillion cells. Personally, I’m delighted that while I’m buttering toast I don’t have to concentrate on storing red blood cells in my pancreas or ensuring the thymus gland in my chest is coordinating the immune system. Amazing stuff.
But, what does this have to do with how we process media coverage? It’s closely related to what we can filter for. While the majority of the input you are receiving from around you is arriving ‘unconsciously’, you have the capacity to filter out what you don’t want to hear or don’t agree with, and to filter for what you do want to know about or feel aligned with. You do this with your conscious ‘gate-keeper’ or what psychologists call the ‘critical factor’ and what I call your Bullshit Detector. When you are present and aware of what is coming at you – that is, you’re watching television or reading online news and solely focused on that – your conscious gate-keeper can make active choices about what you focus on, what you agree with or disagree with and so on.
However, when the radio or TV is going in the background while you’re immersed in perhaps cooking a meal or having a conversation, those more peripheral sounds and images coming in are to a reasonable extent simply arriving into your brain, unregulated. When I talk to clients about this they often re-think having talk-back radio going on in the background! But commercials on TV and radio or not much better and certainly having the news or the latest crime drama and its violence simply arriving into your brain unfettered doesn’t feel particularly nourishing to say the least. Do you really want all the commercials arriving into your brain like they’re gospel? Most of the news is negative, violent and sounds like a serious event warning. We might want to hear it once in the day to be informed. But do you really want your nervous system involuntarily listening to that every hour?
V A K
A second thing to understand about our brain and how it processes information is that it has its own language. For most of us our written and spoken language seems like the main way we think and process information; through letters and numbers. The brain is cleverer than that and processes not only words and numbers (called ‘auditory-digital’ information) but also images, sounds and sensations – that is visual, auditory and kinaesthetic data (VAK). When we experience anything, from eating a gooey ice cream to the rush of a train whizzing past us, we experience it through all of these senses or neural languages and then store the experience across all of them too. We’ll have the images of the moment, the sounds, the feelings and sensations and of course any smells and tastes all stored together (not in the same physical place in your brain, but linked like a network).
This is quite relevant in the context of media coverage because unfortunately the way news items are often presented – and the large televisions families are watching them on – is the same structure as trauma in the brain. To keep this crudely simple for now, when someone is suffering trauma on some level which at its extreme is called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD), they will commonly re-experience the traumatic event over and over in their minds – often known as ‘flashbacks’. The structure of these flashbacks tends to mean they are big images, up close, loud and basically scary or distressing – exactly what most news items on TV look and sound like. The visual information gets stored in the brain together with the feeling of the situation so they become a paired response – see the image and get the bad/sad/scary feeling. Following the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, many adults and children in Auckland reportedly suffered symptoms of trauma through watching footage of the damage on TV repeatedly. They didn’t even need to have been there when it happened, because they were essentially experiencing it over and over again. This brings us to the third aspect of our brain function.
Run your own fresh investigation for yourself this evening. Turn the TV or radio on during the evening news and sit or stand some distance away from it as if you are simply observing what goes on during the airing of news in your region. Instead of listening to the words, notice the tone of voice of the reporter/presenter, the volume, the make-up and clothes, and body gestures, the colours used on the screen and the other sounds.
Then move your attention to the words they are using, to the things they’re choosing to tell you and the things they haven’t mentioned. Notice what note they finish on – is it the optimistic note, or the worse-case scenario note, or the ‘what a disaster’ note? There’s no need to critique what they’re doing, it is about raising your awareness of what is being presented and how it’s being packaged. With more awareness you can be more in charge of how you decide to listen and watch. Simply see what you become aware of as you play this ‘observer’ role.
[PS. If this feels tricky to do, stand further away and treat it almost as if you’ve popped in for a visit from a neighbouring planet and you’re checking out what happens in this neck of the woods.]
Real or imagined? It’s all the same to the brain.
How is it that while we rationally know as we sit in a movie theatre watching a woman walk into a dark house (without switching a light on!?) that she is only an actor and she isn’t in danger, we still jump in our seat when the guy jumps out at her? Our body is on alert, we’re sweating a bit or fidgety in our chair, or downright freaking out, and yet it’s just made up! How is it that you can simply imagine biting into a big juicy wedge of lemon, and find your mouth salivating – even though there’s no lemon?!
It’s because your brain does not distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. When you picture that wedge of lemon and imagine that zesty burst over your tongue, your body doesn’t know you didn’t just bite into a real one. This is why mental rehearsal works. It’s why we can get bang for our buck at the movies by getting scared out of our wits. It’s why we can shiver at the mere thought of standing on the bow of a ship in the middle of an Alaskan lake. It’s why we can see images of war or violence and feel extreme distress even though it’s not happening to us. It’s the way our body is wired. It’s also an aspect of our empathy – to know what others must be going through – but to put ourselves through it repeatedly is not helping anyone. This makes what we’re imagining or paying attention to very important.
The stress response
Anyone who knows my work will know I talk often about the stress response, mainly because in understanding our stress response, we can more easily transform it. When it comes to our brain responding to ‘real or imagined’ situations, our nervous system will respond accordingly. That means the amygdala (the panic station in the brain) sends signals to the body that there is danger and promptly activates our fight-flight system, sending adrenaline and cortisol into the body ready to fight or fly. Note, it will respond like this whether the thought or image is real or imagined. It’s all the same to the brain.
There are many mental and physical health reasons that having this response system triggered frequently and unnecessarily is simply not good – from high blood pressure to most modern dis-eases, to nervous exhaustion. It is extremely unhealthy. Instead, it’s good for our health, overall wellbeing and our ability to support others when we can remain in a calm, relaxed and clear-thinking state – and this is a very reasonable way to want to be especially when we are sitting in the safety of our own living room.
Yes, let’s be informed. Yes, let’s have concern for others. And let’s be extremely grateful, daily, for the safe place we live, the basics of life all around us from clean drinking water to a warm bed. Let’s wish this kind of safety and comfort for every being on the planet. Let’s put our money where our mouth is and donate where we can. Let’s sign the petitions that help the less fortunate. Let’s do what we can. And let’s take care of ourselves at the same time.
Practical ways to follow news coverage safely
Here are some practical tips and considerations for following the new and staying connected in a way that is safe for you and your family, and please feel free to post below if you have other tips to share.
Let’s start with how to check the daily news. I reckon this can be quite simple, and a friend of mine explains it well: he no longer uses the TV or radio for news, but instead checks the news online. This way he can scan headlines, skim over images and not watch videos (which are often loud, dramatic and fear-inducing). In this way, you can be informed, simply clicking on any headlines that you’d like to read more about, and be in charge of what you are being exposed to and taking in.
I have numerous clients who follow the news due to their profession, so of course you may need to do this, but be savvy about HOW you do it. It’s likely that checking the latest could be done twice a day, not numerous times a day. Time yourself – give yourself say ten minutes to look at what you need to look at and that’s it. Be intentional from the get go – think about what you specifically want to look at or investigate and then open the paper/go online. These small strategies help avoid distraction that takes unnecessary energy and time.
The one thing I beg you to do right now is cancel or delete any apps or subscription services about news on your tablet, PC or phone that have news notifications popping up. One of my business clients who was stressing about the economy and coronavirus etc realised after one brief conversation about how hideous he was finding the media coverage that he was bombarded all day by notifications from the NZ Herald app. In one touch of a button he’d deleted it and his shoulders dropped about ten inches. If you have this set up on any of your devices, please go change it now…!
Thank you, dear heart.
Now, to other news: if you’re not much of an internet user and prefer TV or radio, consider these things:
TV news – watch it once a day. Choose morning or evening or midday and assume you’re not missing much by seeing it once. Keep the volume down, don’t sit too close, and if there are more intense events being reported then turn your body sideways so that you are not unconsciously, accidentally getting too captured/associated into the scenes and situation. Do not watch late night news. Why would you want to expose yourself to those messages just before you go to sleep? Your nervous system needs to be able to relax, wind down and know it’s time for rest, not response.
Radio news – listen to it once a day if you must. You’ll notice most of it is a repeat anyway. You’re intelligent, right, you don’t need it repeated over and over again. Bear in mind that the news is coming at you without your control – you don’t know what they’re going to say next and whether it’s something you even want to hear. Consider checking the news online once a day instead. Don’t leave the radio on all day. If you like music to listen to, use your own music playlists via iTunes or similar, try Spotify (free streamed music) or your own home music collection – get out the vinyls if you have them!
Newspapers – firstly, how many papers do you need to read in a day to ‘get the news’? Probably one. How do you read it? I’d suggest approaching it as above with online news – scan the headlines, choose which stories you read further. Don’t be afraid to skim the whole paper to find you’ve only read about three articles in full.
Social media – If you’re cruising social media, don’t be too cruisey – be mindful of what you’re seeing over and over again. For example, bear in mind that the corporation that is Facebook determines what you see in your news feed – not what you and your FB friends actually post. Posts, what appear when, where on the page, how often, etc is all controlled by Facebook itself. Facebook is only one example. For more info on this check out this link on how Facebook’s news feed algorithm works and this link re how Facebook’s news feed controls what you see and how you feel (it’s a little scary), or ask Uncle Google – he’ll tell you anything if you ask nicely.
And this doesn’t have to mean scrapping your use of other social media, just using it mindfully.
Alternative news – As well as finding your own preferred method of staying up to date with news, why not check out other news sites or publications such as www.thehuffingtonpost.com or ask friends what they watch or read.
Then there are some great sites that actually share ‘good news’. My fave is Upworthy – www.upworthy.com which says ‘Upworthy is on a mission to change what the world pays attention to. We believe that stories about important issues can and should be great stories — stories for everyone, stories that connect us and sometimes even change the world.’
Here are a few, and again they’re easy to search for. There’s the Good News Network http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/, www.positive.news and unfortunately Optimist World which Newsweek describes as ‘the best little anti-dote-to-media-nastiness you’re not reading but should be’ has just taken a pause to work on other projects but watch that space.
Protect your evening wind-down – Often when I’m working with clients around stress, switching off from work and overall energy levels we talk about their ‘wind down’ routine in the evening. It still amazes me how many people watch the news late, even from their iPad in bed, or when they wake up because their phone is their alarm. Eeeek!! I can’t tell you how many things are un-useful about this but from what I’ve talked about so far, the content is an obvious one (and by the way, your phone alarm works fine even in Airplane Mode).
Think about the fact that your body sleeps best in parasympathetic mode – the part of your autonomic nervous system that performs what is known as ‘Rest and Digest’. The other option is to be in sympathetic mode which is the active side of the nervous system and activated also when you’re stressed. Consider how you might spend the last hour or two of your evening; a shower or bath, yoga, relaxing music, a light book, a quiet stroll around your garden or neighbourhood, guided relaxation or meditation – quiet, restful, nourishing things that might allow your whole system to start to unwind, rest and relax.
Taking care of children around news media
The gate keeper
Earlier I mentioned the conscious mind’s ‘gate keeper’. Until the age of about 7 years, children don’t have this ‘gate-keeper’ facility developed. Babies and toddlers are like sponges, with everything around them coming into the brain unconsciously and unfiltered. For this reason alone, choosing carefully what children are exposed to is pretty important. I recall visiting friends a few years ago in their fairly compact villa at the time and their daughter’s bedroom was across the hall from the lounge and TV room. They tended to watch the late night news and while I was there the man of the house was watching a violent crime drama (is there anything else on after 8.30pm?!) and I noticed the sounds, voices and foul language all roving through the house – the last thing you want a darling young unconscious mind asleep in the next room to be receiving.
This is another very good reason for not having the radio or TV going on in the background unless you are in charge of what’s on the screen or radio (at home in the evenings, in the car on a long drive, etc). Some options are pretty controllable such as a Dora the Explorer DVD for instance where there is no news or advertising likely to pop up. And it’s not about trying to screen all of these things from our children in some weird ‘live in a bubble’ kind of way, but about being aware, and certainly minimising all the unnecessary input that we are quite overloaded with presently.
Children watching the news
I’m aware of several schools advising parents about taking care of their kids watching the news following the US election result and the fear and uncertainty it was inducing – and no doubt the recent earthquakes have added to that. (Some keen insights from write Adam Mordecai around parenting through the US election on Upworthy here).
Be sure to watch with your children if they want to see it, and answer any questions they may have. Be mindful also that they sit a distance from the television and that the sound is just loud enough to hear clearly. It is also worth considering how frequently they watch the news (less is more!) and that they’re not watching anything dramatic before bed. At least an hour of ‘calm and quiet time’ in the evening is important for us all.
Living a nourishing life
Ultimately, this is about taking charge of what we’re exposed to, how we see and hear what’s going on, and ultimately about having sovereignty over the way we live our lives. And while we’ve been talking here about how to steer clear of less-useful stuff, to have true sovereignty over our lives, our focus is best spent primarily on what we want to create for ourselves. What would you love to be reading or watching to nourish yourself in the evening? Check out Wayne Dyer, Mike Dooley, Headspace, other blogs at www.startwithyou.co, TED Talks, Tara Brach, some fun comedy on Netflix if you feel like something light. Notice how you feel after you’ve watched or read something. Is it feeding your adrenaline rush and leaving you wired, daunted or anxious, or is it winding you down for the evening, leaving you feeling inspired and filled up?
And what would you like your children to be taking from their day? I love hearing about families having ‘sharing moments’ around the dinner table like ‘What are you grateful for today?’, ‘What are you proud of (about yourself) today?’ or ‘What was your lowlight and what was the highlight of your day?’ When we do this stuff we’re not at the mercy of whatever is happening outside of us, but instead charting our own course.
Carve out a life you love, feel proud of, and love waking up to.