Are you watching, reading, and listening to the news a lot these days?
It makes sense, doesn’t it? The Coronavirus is a serious disease. It spreads exponentially. We must avoid things that we’ve always done. There are shortages with essential items. We have an uncertain economic and social future. The whole world has changed in response to it.
We watch the news to know what’s going on. It’s supposed to make us feel safer, more in control of what’s happening. Unfortunately, spending a lot of time in the news during this time of crisis is a bad idea. Its costs outweigh its benefits.
News as Fear
Let’s start with the motivations of the people who create the news. The more fearful a story, the more attention that we give to it. The more attention a story gets, the more prominently it’s featured on the website, newspaper, or broadcast. The more prominently it is featured, the more successful the journalist who created it. Thus, journalists have strong incentive to frighten us. Media companies exist to sell advertisements and subscriptions. They value any story that brings them readers, viewers or listeners. In a very real sense, they sell fear.
The Coronavirus gives newsmakers a seemingly unending supply of fear, and they use it with devastating effectiveness. The news industry is pumping out fear at historically high levels.
The Effects of Fear
Why does this matter? Consider what happens in our bodies when we are afraid. Our brain perceives a threat, and our body gears up to deal with it. Our blood is flooded with stress hormones. The sympathetic nervous system is activated. We become hypervigilant. Our eyes dilate, to let in more light. Our breathing accelerates, to give us more oxygen. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase to transport more oxygen and glucose to our muscles. Our perception narrows, focusing on the threat. This fight-or-flight response happens automatically and involuntarily.
This physiological response is meant to keep us safe, but it comes at a cost. When our bodies are in a fight-or-flight state for too long, we experience anxiety, indigestion, sleeplessness, irritability, and health problems.
As an analogy, imagine living in a dormitory or apartment building. If the fire alarm goes off, you have to get out immediately and stay out until its safe. This is a great system—when there is a real fire. But false alarms have all the hassle and disruption of a real fire, but no benefit. Constant false alarms would be exhausting. This is what the news does to us. It keeps us in a perpetual state of fear response.
Good Fear Vs. Bad Fear
There is good fear and bad fear. Good fear is a response to a true threat. Bad fear is a response to something that either isn’t a threat, or it doesn’t directly affect us. Good fear is toward situations that we can act on. Bad fear is with situations over which we have no control.
The current health scare has both good and bad fears. The Coronavirus is a real danger. It kills people. We can do things to lessen our risk. Most news coverage of it, however, focuses on bad fears. The news covers what doesn’t directly affect us or over which we have no control. There are stories of political conflict, broken international relationships, dire economic forecasts, heart-breaking stories of loss, and general predictions of doom.
Do you see the irony? We think that the news will make us safe. In reality, it can be dangerous. It makes us miserable. It wears us out. The stress that it causes weakens our immune systems—which is not good during a pandemic.
What to Do?
The trick is to get the information that we need to inform good fear while minimizing bad fear. Here are some strategies:
- Limit how much. The news is available all day every day. That doesn’t mean that we need to watch it that much. We can decide ahead of time how much time we spend with the news and when. For example, we could do it for 30 minutes a day, from 5:00-5:30 pm. Otherwise, we avoid it.
- Ask a friend. One step further would be to give up the news completely and ask friends or family members if there’s anything that we need to know. They will probably be eager to talk about what’s happening. We learn what we need to know, and we are distanced from the worst of the news.
- Practice passive exposure. Finally, we can give up the news, not ask people about it, and trust that we’ll find out what we need to know. It’s surprisingly difficult to completely avoid the news. We have constant passive exposure to it. We see newspaper headlines. We hear news stories on the radio. People tell us about it. In all likelihood, this will give us all that we need to know.
A week ago, last Monday, I had a terrible day. I was anxious, distracted, and upset. I had difficulty concentrating, and I was irritable. Why? I had spent the first hour of the day reading news sites about the Coronavirus. Throughout the day, I checked the news every couple of hours to see if anything had changed. My body was on full alert all day, and I paid the price.
For several years now, I have actively regulated my news consumption. Too much news is a problem even when there isn’t a pandemic. I block news sites on my computer and phone. I limit how much news I consume and try to be careful with the content. So, jumping headfirst into pandemic news wiped me out. After several days of it, I realized that I had to change. My goal now is to minimize how much news I take in. I aim to avoid it completely. Still, like a moth drawn to a flame, I find myself sneaking peaks at maps and statistics about the Coronavirus. It’s remarkable how alluring bad news is.
Meanwhile, the trees are starting to bud. Our dog still loves to be chased around the house and petted. My work remains fascinating. My life is full of people who love me. God is present. Wonderful things are happening around me that I’ll miss if I spend much time in the news.