For the Week of November 13, 2016: Sorry, Lester Holt, I’m on a News Diet

The anchorwoman is unsmiling, even somber,
for her biggest stories are about death,
and even when she has a feature
on a twelve-year-old college student
or a gorilla who understands sign language,
there is something tentative about her relief:
she knows that the Great Antagonist
will strike again, and soon… 

(From “The Late News,” by David Kirby, In: I Think I Am Going to Call My Wife Paraguay: Selected Early Poems, 2004

We returned from our daughter’s doctoral convocation ceremonies at the University of Toronto the morning after the national election.  The mood was somber,  in the airport, on the plane and on the taxi ride home.  Even as I bought some Canadian maple syrup at an airport kiosk, the saleswoman’s reacted when I told her I lived in the United States.  “How am I going to explain what just happened in the United States to my daughter?”  She asked, her eyes filling with tears.

I had little solace to offer, unsettled as I was by the divisiveness and rancor so prevalent in the presidential campaign, reaching levels I never imagined possible.  For weeks, I’d been drawn in, tense and unsettled by the campaign, but that tension was exacerbated by my steady diet of tuning into the national news.  A month ago, I gave up watching or listening to the news, too busy with caring for my grandchildren and frankly, weary of the constant barrage of toxicity.  It wasn’t until I went on a news diet that I realized my attitude and emotions had become increasingly upset and negative.

Like it or not, the news isn’t very good for us,  and that’s something we’ve known long before the most recent political campaign.  According to the British Psychological Society, constant access to the relentless media reports of war, violence, and tragedy, has negative effects on our physical and mental health.  Add to that a vitriolic and constant verbal assault between candidates and political parties, and you’re bound to feel upset.  In 2009, the Society reported the results of a study where, after people were shown footage of four traumatic events, nearly 20% of them reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Frequency of exposure–the number of times they viewed the media events–was also factor in the viewer’s reactions.  Even more concerning is that none of the participants had experienced trauma in their personal lives!  “Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness,” the researchers said.  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.”

As Graham Davey, PhD, commented in a 2012 Psychology Today article, “The Psychological Effects of TV News,” “We’ve known for a very long time that the emotional content of films and television programs can affect your psychological health… directly affecting your mood, and your mood can then affect many aspects of your thinking and behaviour. “Stress can be transmitted through TV screen,” The Daily Telegraph’s website reported early in 2014, coupled with an image of a person watching a segment of the television series, Breaking Bad. The  television series may have been fictitious, but the people participating in the study were not fictional characters!

Whenever we’re faced with stress, our cortisol levels rise,” health coach Brandon Mentore commented quoted in a 2014  Huffington Post article. Simply watching a scary or emotionally draining movie raises cortisol.  We know that cortisol serves the function of our “fight or flight” readiness in response to stressful events, but when the body doesn’t have the chance to return to normal, we begin to suffer from chronic stress, and that has negative impact on our health.  In the constant barrage of negativity during the campaign and in the divisiveness that is now so prevalent, stress was becoming a constant companion in my daily life.  When I took a complete break from the news broadcasts, whether televised or on the radio, I was surprised how much better I began to feel.

Chronic stress and worry go hand in hand, and they render us less effective in all aspects of our daily life.  Worry is that state of feeling concerned or uneasy about some situation in our lives.  When it gets the better of us, our bodies and minds go into high gear.  We leap beyond what is to what might happen, and as our worry expands, so does our anxiety; so does our fear.  I turned again to the words of my favorite poet, William Stafford, as I pondered the events of this past week and my the undercurrent of fear I was feeling:

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there. 

(From:  “For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid, “in:  Ask Me; 100 Essential Poems, 2014 by the Estate of William Stafford)

I’ve felt that “high, passing voice” of fear for weeks, but  I hadn’t really stopped to figure out and articulate what, exactly, I was so fearful of.  The fear and stress I felt were having negative impact on my emotional and physical life.   I realized that to linger in that non-specific state of fear rendered me ineffective, whether in my writing, teaching, or how I began each day.  I cannot  change the outcome of the national election nor can I pretend it doesn’t affect me, but I can take steps to live without the weight of that constant barrage of “bad news” infecting my life.  I’ve kept the television news off, unwilling to listen to the post-election commentary or the reports of the first hundred days of the president-elect.  To do otherwise invites in the stress and agitation.   I can—and have—chosen how I want to live, what importance I give to events in my life, and how I respond to others.

I admit that I have not fully recovered from nor digested the impact of the national election,  and I doubt the impact will be apparent for some time yet.  But  I have taken steps to restore the routines that are so important to my dwell-being.  Like you, I may have to force myself to get out of bed or resist the temptation to turn on the nightly news  from time to time, particularly knowing how deleterious continuous bad news  to the human spirit.   But I have happily reinstated my routine of rising before dawn to write and walk in the stillness of early morning.  It helps to clear my mind of distraction, lessen the weight of things I cannot change and instead, refocus my intention on gratitude for each new day:  gratitude for the many blessings in my life–my daughters, grandchildren, a loving husband, a small dog who adores me, friends, and more–the list continues to expand.

As I walk, I again repeat  the words of Ticht Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese Zen Master and poet, first introduced to me  by The Spirited Walker guru, Carolyn Scott-Kortge.  Hahn’s words help me remember that each day offers us a fresh chance to live and act with gratitude, compassion and kindness.  Repeating them  helps me to dispel the knot of fear or agitation I have felt during the many, many weeks of the negative news reports.  I close this post with his words; perhaps you will find them useful too.

Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Writing Suggestions:

  • “Spend it all,” Annie Dillard advised new writers.  Why not take her advice?  Simply pour out your thoughts, feelings and reactions to these latest national or world events without editing.  Then put what you’ve written aside for a day or two before returning to read it.  Use a yellow highlighter to mark those phrases or sentences that stand out.  Choose one of them as your beginning sentence and write—a poem, an essay, even a fictitious narrative that captures what you think and feel about recent events or news—good or bad.
  • What helps you restore your positive energy or to heal from wounding events, whether the national political campaign, life’s disappointments, hurt, or other bad news.  How do you deal with fear or sorrow in ways that help you regain a sense of perspective, understanding, even, perhaps,  gratitude.
  • Has there been a time that you’ve had to pull the plug on the television, or another stressful habit?  Describe the situation, what you did to change your behavior and the results.

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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