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Stress and the 24 Hour News Program

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Carl is a 73 year-old man with diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis.  He has upper body obesity and lower extremity neuropathy due to diabetes.  Up until a year ago, Carl was fairly active.  An ankle sprain was the catalyst to a lifestyle change, one that resulted in a sharp decrease in physical activity.  He planted himself in front of the television.

Every time I visited Carl in his home, he was sitting on his couch… and his eyes were glued to a 24 hour news station.

Carl was always visibly agitated: wide-eyed, face flushed, upright and rigid posture.  He was easily engaged in angry dialog about politics, terrorism, and crime, shouting and shaking his fists at the television.  He pounced on any opportunity to vent his frustration with the state of the world.

Carl’s wife begged him to turn off the TV, as she believed the hysterical tone of the newscasters only aggravated his emotional response to every topic.  But Carl refused.  He was so concerned about the welfare of the world, its plummet into dysfunction and certain destruction, that he lived in a constant state of high alert and angst.

As humans… we have a natural limit to the amount of chronic worry and stress that we are wired to handle.  But the availability of distressing news across the world is limitless.

Our ancestors had to deal with survival stress all the time.  They worried about predators, competitors, and food sources.  Stress levels probably ebbed and flowed in times of disease and bad weather, but the sources of stress remained localized to their immediate geographic area… to threats that were actual threats.

In animals, the stress response is characterized by acute behavioral and physical adaptations.  There are two major components of the stress response: the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which encompasses the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adreanal (HPA) axis- which is a cascade of hormone and enzyme reactions.  In animals, dysfunctional HPA axis responses are associated with obesity, metabolic diseases., and elevated inflammatory responses.

Add in some poor nutritional habits and sleep shortages, and Carl is on an accelerated path to disability.

I really started to worry about Carl.  It was clear that he had probably exceeded his ability to process threatening information.  He worried about issues across the globe, threats that were highly unlikely to have a direct impact on his well-being.  He was furious, and paranoid, and lived in a habitual state of discontent.  He refused to turn off the news.

Humans simply aren’t designed with an endless capacity for processing stress, and the constant barrage of threatening information is simply not good for our health.

Here are some recommendations for reducing unnecessary exposure to perceived threats:

  1. Turn off the TV, go outside, and study your immediate environment.  Discuss a local issue (weather, new development, neighbor in need) and help generate positive, low stress conversation around it.
  2. If an actual “news addiction” exists, try muting the TV and just read the captions.
  3. Change the news source to a morning magazine show (The Today Show, Good Morning America).  These shows tend to have more variety and a better balance between negative and upbeat news stories.
  4. If reading the newspaper, only read the local news.  For national and world news, only read the headlines.
  5. Watch only the local news.  Facilitate discussions on local issues and highlight positive slants to news stories… “Well at least that man is in custody now.  Thank goodness that police detective followed up.”
  6. Encourage mindfulness:  have the person try to recognize the signs of stress and strategies that lower the stress response.

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