Stop Traumatizing Yourself by Watching the News
Your energy will rebound if you avoid the news.
Posted October 29, 2014
Most people fill their heads with images of death and destruction every day by following "the news." Profound anxiety results, and you may not even know it's caused by your news habit. You may think you must follow "the news" to be a good person. Consider the possibility that news-following is a habit like any other. It starts because you expect to feel good, and once it feels bad you don't know how to stop. Understanding these impulses frees you to choose whether to live in the bubble created by journalists.
I have consciously ignored "the news" for decades, but I was accidentally bombarded by it last weekend. I attended a conference with a news monitor in the elevator. The conference was on the 18th floor, the elevator was slow, and I took many breaks during the three-day event, so I ended up with a huge dose of murder and mayhem. Another dose came my way at the airport on my trip home. I was standing next to a news monitor when my flight was delayed, and I didn't move because I expected to resume boarding momentarily. Five minutes later, my head was full of global apocalypse and I felt awful. It was a reminder of how I felt before I kicked the habit, and how most people feel a lot.
You may be shocked by the thought of ignoring “the news.” (I use quotes because it’s only one slice of information rather than “the” news. Good news is left out unless it's good for some editor's agenda.) You may think you are making a contribution by immersing yourself in the pain of others. You may think bad guys will rule the universe if you stop monitoring them on “the news.” I believed these things until I understood the brain chemicals that motivated me.
Your brain releases dopamine when it sees a way to meet your needs or avoid harm. The great feeling of dopamine is released when you find information that helps meet your needs. Dopamine connects neurons that wire you to expect more good feelings when you repeat the behavior. We learn to feel good by scanning for information relevant to our survival needs. Of course we have to make decisions about which information to focus on because our bandwidth is limited. The more information-processing capacity you expend on news, the less you have left to process other survival-relevant information.
So why spend a big chunk of your attention budget on "the news"? First, because this information is so easily available, and reporters keep assuring you that it is what you need. It's tempting to trust them to do your seeking and sorting instead of doing it yourself. Second, you built a dopamine pathway from past news-following, so you expect to feel good when you find out how some story turns out. It may not meet your real needs, but the pathway is real. Finally, you expect to meet social needs by following "the news." Whether it meets your social needs or not, the expectation is wired in, so you keep looking to "the news" to meet social needs.
The mammal brain is always seeking safety in a world of potential threats. Oxytocin creates the safe feeling you have in the company of those you trust. Animals stimulate oxytocin by sticking with a herd, and the news stimulates it by creating a virtual herd. It's tempting to rely on a virtual herd to meet your oxytocin needs because other people often frustrate you in person.
In the animal world, herds promote survival because because there are more eyes and ears to notice predators and sound the alarm. Animals find safety in numbers by listening for the alarm calls of their herd mates. News is a steady stream of alarm calls. They may not help you navigate the threats in your individual life because they are designed to appeal to a wide audience. But they stimulate the nice oxytocin feeling that you are protected by the herd. This feeling comes at a high price. The herd you run with expects you to share their vigilance. You may lose this sense of belonging if you ignore the news. And your herd may actually shun you if you stop focusing on the perceived common threat. Your oxytocin will fall, triggering a sense of urgent survival threat that a sheep has when separated from the flock. It's tempting to go back to the fold and direct your attention in the same way as the rest of the herd. Reporters make this easy by constantly suggesting that you trust your safety to them.
News is a reliable serotonin stimulater because it always puts you in the one-up position. Journalists are always finding fault with the powerful, which elevates you in contrast. The mammal brain releases serotonin when you raise your social dominance. Seeing yourself as more ethical and more intelligent stimulates that nice feeling, and raising yourself above the high and mighty gives you an extra boost. "The news" will constantly do that for you.
Journalists suggest that hostility toward leaders is a sign of your higher intelligence. Apes have the same hostility, however. Apes live with alphas who dominate their food and mating opportunity. Anger at the man is a primal impulse, not an intellectual triumph. Higher intelligence is what helps you realize that simple answers don't solve complex problems. It feels good to fantasize about having the power to do the right thing when you watch "the news." But higher intelligence helps you realize that you could not make problems vanish if you were running things. You may get a short-run feeling of significance when you follow the news. But that feeling is akin to adolescent oppositionalism, even as you tell yourself it's sophisticated policy analysis. A steady diet of news does not help you feel significant in the long run. You are more likely to feel trampled and powerless if you rely on “the news” for your sense of importance, because you cannot truly put yourself up by putting others down.
News appeals to your mind's quest for survival-relevant information, but it doesn't necessarily meet that need. It squanders your attention on generalized threats signals that you can’t really act on. You are better off gathering your own information to navigate your own obstacles. You may think it’s more honorable to focus on the pain of others than on your own needs, but the opposite is true. Paralyzing yourself with anxiety does not help you contribute. You can do more when you focus on tangible obstacles in front of you instead of on abstract threats everywhere.
You can stimulate more dopamine by choosing your own information than by absorbing the alarm calls of news packagers. You can stimulate more oxytocin by strengthening trust bonds with real people in your life. You can stimulate more serotonin by building confidence in your own ability to navigate obstacles. The news competes for your attention by making you feel good in the short run, but when you understand your happy chemicals, you can design other ways of feeling good. Then you are free to decide when "the news" is a good use of your attention.