Is the constant stream of news on television and online making you physically ill?
Whether it’s the aftermath of the pandemic or election anxiety, what you consume in the media also impacts your mental health. Just as you need to take care of your physical health through a nutritious diet, you also need to take care of your mental health by minding how your digital diet is affecting your stress.
Research on the effects of media in the past decades have shown a distinct impact on how one views and responds to the world. Communication researchers have studied “cultivation theory” among television viewers and now, those heavily active on social media.
Cultivation theory asserts that those who watch television for many hours will adopt a view of the world that mirrors what they watch on television. For those who watch the news constantly, it may be a heightening view of a “scary world,” with rampant crime and violence, social turbulence or lately, a very bleak and hopeless future because of the Coronavirus.
Also, there’s a term in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Meaning, those stories that have direct impact in terms of numbers of those affected or impact within a society will be seen as the top story.
Obviously, global news events are the top stories but in a constant media stream on TV and online, the “emotionalizing” of stories, almost trying to find the new angle or latest victim, can affect psychological health.
How the brain activates to stress
For your brain, stress is stress, no matter if you watch the news or are being chased by a lion.
A section of your brain called the amygdala is designed to scan for danger or threats in the environment. According to Dr. Jeff Tarrant, director of the NeuroMeditation Institute and Chief Science Officer of Healium, when something is seen as a potential danger, that part of the brain activates the body’s stress response and will remain “on” until the threat is resolved.
“In the case of COVID-19, there is no end in sight, no resolution, causing those brain regions to become hyperactive. When we continually take in more ‘evidence’ of the threat through news and social media it reinforces the threat response,” said Dr. Tarrant. “On the other hand, if you can send the nervous system signals that it is safe, it can begin to relax the hyper-vigilance, nervousness, and worry that comes with an over aroused amygdala.”
Does that mean you have to stop watching the news? No. But you need to eat your positive fiber.
You need to eat good food and get plenty of exercise and rest to be physically healthy. In the same way, You can think of your media consumption as “food” for your mind.
I like to think of inspirational broadcasts and podcasts, good music and being out in nature as ways to wash out the negative fiber in your digital diet.
If you can’t make it outside and only have a few minutes, immersive media experiences like Healium also balance out the negative fiber from the constant media.
But it’s a balance.
If you eat too much dessert, you will get sick. It’s the same with the news media, we just can’t help listening to the latest scandal but one bite and we’re tempted to binge watch for the next ambulance chasing story.
When you’re watching the news or trying to get the latest updates online, just remember two things: Your feelings have power. You have the ability to downshift your nervous system and relieve your stress.
And, we are in this together.
Sarah Hill is the CEO of Healium, the world’s first biometrically-powered VR/AR immersive media channel controlled by the user's brainwaves and heart rate via consumer wearables.