Is this common daily habit damaging your resilience and making you vulnerable to ill health?
Thanks to our trainer, Dr Dawn Hamilton, for this thought-provoking article
How are you feeling about the world these days? Perhaps a bit glum at the level of violence across the planet? Or are you concerned about the safety of your nearest and dearest from the numerous threats in your local community? And let’s not forget the ‘Very Significant Risk of ISIS-inspired Terror Attack in UK’ or the ‘Ebola Terror at Gatwick’ [to quote recent Daily Mail and Daily Mirror headlines]. Taken together we can feel that the world is a pretty scary place.
If this is your worldview then may I suggest that perhaps you’ve been watching a bit too much news? What I would like to discuss here is how the news media are resorting to manipulating our fears and anxieties in order to get our attention. And the result is that the news we watch nowadays provides a very distorted picture of the world we live in today.
When I was growing up there were only a few news programmes to watch. We tuned in to get facts and analysis and that was what we got. Nowadays there are literally thousands of available news sources, who are all vying desperately to get our attention. The news media is a profit-making business and profits depend on ratings and ratings depend upon getting people’s attention. Therefore getting our attention, the ‘attention economy’, is the fundamental driver of much of the news media. Facts and objective analysis are now secondary to the goal of getting and keeping ratings.
News channels use a variety of emotional hooks to grab our attention. The most powerful emotional hook of all is fear. In fact, I’ve written a ‘fear-based’ headline for this article to give you a real-time example of how this strategy works. I’m more likely to grab your attention by framing it in fear than, say, writing a positive headline such as ‘do less of this so you can experience more calm’.
The news media have an extensive toolkit of strategies to hook our inner anxieties and fears. These involve specific fear-generating linguistic patterns and cliff-hangers [‘Increasing risk of heavy snow. The big question is where? Stay tuned after the break!’]. Whilst these strategies are good for them (it increases ratings) they are not good for us. Our resilience can drop and our stress and anxiety levels can rise, making us more vulnerable to stress-related illnesses.
Fear is such a powerful attention-grabber because we are hard-wired to pick up potential threats from the environment. This hard-wiring is necessary as it supports our survival at both an individual and species level. But constant exposure to what are presented as life-threatening risks can start to have debilitating consequences for us on several levels.
Excessive exposure to threats can cause the fear centre of the brain to become ‘trigger happy’. Whenever we experience a threat there is a host of physiological reactions which are designed to enable us to adequately deal with the threat. However, regularly seeing threats can rewire the brain so that the fear-based centre of the brain is continually set to ‘on’. It is like living our lives with a constant ‘red alert’. This results in us continually experiencing low-level fear-based physiological reactions which are known to impact psychological, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
We may feel constantly ‘on-edge’, unable to concentrate for long periods, or suffer with poor sleep. Importantly, when the fear-based centres are stimulated it is very difficult to think objectively and clearly about the situation. We react from the negative emotions instead of taking a step back and objectively assessing the situation and the real likelihood of threat.
Fragmented news stories which concentrate on generating negative emotions but provide few substantial tangible facts can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. We can succumb to what Professor George Gerbner, who researches communications, calls the ‘Mean World Syndrome’. His research has found that the more TV people watch, the more likely they are to be afraid to go out on the street in their own community. This has societal-wide implications; as Dr Mark Warr from the University of Texas points out ‘fear in the media is undermining civility and trust in our communities and that’s a terrible consequence for a democratic society’.
Is the world really as violent and unsafe as we are led to believe? According to Harvard’s Steven Pinker, ‘today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in human existence’ (his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ provides compelling evidence to support this case). Is Ebola or a terrorist attack really likely to happen to us individually? Whilst such events are indeed awful for those who are involved, the actual probability of us being affected is incredibly low.
The news media’s motto is, ‘if it bleeds it leads’. Presenting news in this way benefits the news channels yet can easily detract from our personal resilience. Here are a few suggestions for breaking this fear-cycle and regaining a sense of control over our lives:
- Be aware of the strategies used by the news media to grab your attention. If you are interested in exploring this topic further then you may like to have a look at the work of Professor David L. Altheide who has written extensively on this topic.
- Notice when the news is in a loop – the same fear-based story is being repeated for several days but there are no new facts or tangible developments. Grab the remote and place your attention elsewhere.
- Become aware of how a fear-based news segment makes you feel. Do you feel more resilient, happy, and in control of your life? Or do you feel anxious and disempowered? By recognising the negative reactions such programmes elicit, we feel less need to engage with them.
- Choose news media that focus on providing tangible facts and objective analysis. I’ve found the business news media to be a good source. We are aware that consuming junk food undermines our wellbeing. The same applies to what we consume mentally.
- Become better informed. Don’t stick with news sources which simply match your current beliefs. Explore alternatives. Learn about the issues and risks which we as a culture are genuinely facing, yet which rarely receive coverage on the mainstream channels.