Why the News is Terrible for Our Health
How News Addiction is Breaking Us
The Role of Fear on Symptoms
Central to the “Nervous System in Chronic Illness” course I teach is a pragmatic and predictive framework for understanding chronic illness, trauma and chronic stress, which says that most symptoms occur, and are worsened, by getting stuck in fight or flight, or freeze/immobilization/death feigning stress responses of our Nervous System programs.
In essence, suffering occurs when our subconscious danger senses, of what is going on both inside and outside our bodies, stop reading cues of safeness, and become hyper-sensitive to signs of potential threats. This subconscious, but overwhelming sense of danger, eventually puts our system in to a shutdown or hibernatory-like state to wait it out until the danger has passed.
This framework predicts that, to ameliorate symptoms, we need to build as many cues of safety that we can into our environment, and also learn how to tune into these better, whilst also minimizing our exposure and sensitivity to sources of perceived danger.
Symptom reduction can therefore be accomplished by addressing inflammation, infections, and injuries, in order to downregulate alarms arising from within our body, and removing ourselves from stressful situations, and being very careful about the company we keep, to avoid danger signals in the environment.
In particular, fearfulness and loneliness are the most significant aggravators of symptoms.
It is for these reasons, and more, that I believe one of the most impactful actions that anyone who is chronically suffering can take to help themselves is to stop consuming the News Media. The News is literally designed to hack the fear programs of our Nervous System to keep our attention. Indeed, I recall an apocryphal story from a friend, who had visited a newsroom, once told me, that there was a prominent sign on the wall which said:
“if they aren’t afriad, we aren’t doing our job”.
What people who are suffering need most of all is to be surrounded by people who can act as well-balanced co-regulators, who can beam Vagus Nerve stimulation at us, and constantly send us strong cues of safety, be our anchors to calm, poise and grace, and help us feel that we are seen, heard, unthreatened and valued.
The News is the antithesis to this.
An Example of Societal Level Impacts
Thanks for reading Gary Sharpe's Articles! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work. This article continues below.
During the pandemic, I postulated that the constant fear mongering, prophesying of doom, focussing on worse case scenarios and down-playing of hope, and, especially, the constant presence of the counter of the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test, on the News Media, in a very real sense, enhanced the spread and impact of the virus, and caused more hospitalizations and deaths.
My reasoning was that, due to the chronic psychological stress this was putting people under, this would in turn be having quite serious negative impacts on immune function, leaving populations more susceptible, more likely to develop high viral loads, and thus increasing infectiousness. These impacts, in turn, created a vicious circle, whereby the enhanced effects of the virus on society allowed the News Media to tell more frightening stories, and ramp up the psychological torture further.
To back up this hypothesis, at the time, I performed a scientific literature search on the links between chronic stress, chronic fear and the suppression of the immune system. I didn’t have to look far to find these links were scientifically and robustly well established. Here are some choice quotes from the literature I found.
From an Editorial: Stress and Immunity in Front. Immuno, 2019:
“Long-term and chronic stress leads to persistently high cortisol and corticosteroid levels, which cause resistance to cortisol and impaired anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system. Such effects result in chronic infection, chronic inflammatory autoimmune diseases, or cancers as well as other physiological disorders.”
From “Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function” in Curr. Opin, Psychol. 2015:
“...individuals exposed to chronic stressors… can exhibit immune dysregulation that may be persistent and severe... research into the effects of stress on inflammation in clinical populations has demonstrated that stress exposure can increase the likelihood of developing disease, as well as exacerbating pre-existing conditions.*"
*Here it is noteworthy that pre-existing conditions and co-morbidities were also known to greatly impact bad outcomes of the virus, so this is another mechanism by which the fear mongering made the effect of the virus worse, by worsening the pre-existing co-morbidities.”
From “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry” in Psychol. Bull. 2004:
“The present report meta-analyzes more than 300 empirical articles describing a relationship between psychological stress and parameters of the immune system in human participants. Chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral measures. In some cases, physical vulnerability as a function of age or disease also increased vulnerability to immune change during stressors.”
My interpretation of this is that the combination of chronic fear, pre-existing vulnerabilities and the virus created a particularly toxic mix for some.
A particularly pernicious form of News Media consumption is what we might call “News addiction”. This is again an especially toxic combination for health, because of the negative impacts of addiction generally, and the fear inducing nature of this “drug” of choice. News addiction manifests as the constant or repeated checking of the news headlines several times a day.
We need to be particularly attentive if we find ourselves obsessively and compulsively checking the news. Each time we check, it takes us out of the present moment, disconnects us from our bodies, and takes us away from real life relationships, interrupting any health giving, restorative Vagus Nerve activity.
An article in Psychology Today called "Anxiety Contagion: Tips for Relief Science and solutions for the viral spread of anxiety" agreed with this analysis:
“Stop obsessively checking the news. Instead of doom-scrolling day and night, which is bad for your brain and body, limit your screen time. Establish a time ONCE A DAY to read the news, watch TV headlines, and check social media. Constant updates are stressful and you don’t need them. Want the news? Here it is: The virus is still spreading, people are dying around the world. Scary, yes? Great. You know the news, friends. Check it once a day, then go do other things.”
Impacts on Cultural Trauma
Perhaps the wisest and most profound words I’ve read on this whole subject is from Bonnie Badenoch’s introduction to her book “The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships”.
“In addition to the sheer volume of information, much of this inundation involves ongoing exposure to suffering. We are connected moment by moment to far-flung events as they unfold… our exposure to potentially traumatic events is ubiquitous and continuous. Images and sounds of war, natural disasters, and human-made devastation explicitly surround us and implicitly leave their imprint in our muscles, our belly and heart brains, our nervous systems, and the brains in our skulls.”
"Like so many changes, this current onslaught has crept up on us incrementally, until most of us are now exposed to potentially traumatic experiences many times each day. Some would say that witnessing trauma can be more harmful than enduring the experience itself because of the acute helplessness we feel."
“Because we absorb so much more implicit information than explicit, much of the time our bodies may be the only witness to this outpouring of suffering. In response, many of our systems, largely below conscious awareness, have adaptively found ways to not feel so much.”
“While we could call this desensitization, it is likely the product of us protectively shifting away from our right hemisphere neural circuitry that is attuned to the present moment and to relationships as well as sensitive to suffering, toward the left that can stay more distant and analytical (McGilchrist, 2009). This hemispheric movement does not happen by conscious choice but as an adaptive change guided by a sense of increasing danger (Porges, 2011).”
“For herein lies the danger. If our right hemispheres harbor significant trauma in the form of unhealed fear and pain or we feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming information, we may adaptively shift toward left dominance in an effort to protect ourselves from a crippling onslaught of unmanageable inner and outer experience.”
Mental Health Impacts
“Abulia, also known as apathy, psychic akinesia, and athymia, refers to a lack of will, drive, or initiative for action, speech and thought, and is felt to be related to dysfunctions with the brain's dopamine-dependent circuits.
Difficulty in initiating and sustaining purposeful movements.
Lack of spontaneous movement.
Reduced spontaneous speech.
Increased response-time to queries.
Reduced emotional responsiveness and spontaneity.
Reduced social interactions.
Reduced interest in usual pastimes."
“Aboulomania (from Greek a– 'without', and boulē 'will'), is a mental disorder in which the patient displays pathological indecisiveness. It is typically associated with anxiety, stress, depression, and mental anguish, and can severely affect one's ability to function socially... causing them to over-analyze every situation critically in a classic case of paralysis by analysis. Lack of information, valuation difficulty, and outcome uncertainty can become an obsession.”
A lot of people react to this message by saying, yes, but they need to be informed about what is going on the world. Personally, I don’t subscribe to this - I am a No News absolutist. My point of view, as someone who is already suffering, is that if there is something bad in the News which I would not know about otherwise, and would not directly affect my life, then I really do not need to know about it.
Fortunately, these days there are a plethora of non-News Media sources to get good information from, that are not fear based, are not scary, are nuanced, are non-combative and constructive. I am thinking of various podcasts, as well as independent journalists especially here on Substack. Indeed, I have even proposed that the right, careful choice of podcasts can actually be therapeutic for those of us who are already suffering.