Taking a News Holiday: Your Mental Health May Depend On It

John McManamy Health Guide
  • You may have noticed that the current news is not exactly giving you reasons to feel good. Quite the opposite, in fact. Basically, the news is to depression what pollen is to asthma and living next to a swamp is to malaria. If you are over-exposed, you are going to suffer.


    So right now might be a good time to take a news holiday. 


    First, let’s take a look at how our brains process information ...


    Going back to Freud, we now know that the dark matter of our unconscious governs our “thinking” and behavior. Our “conscious” minds are little more than random inputs competing for attention. Good luck trying to make this work with our standard-issue brains. Basically, we’re talking about a layer each of mammalian and primate spongy matter retrofitted over a reptilian stem.

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    The cognitive science comes in loud and clear: Our brains do not offer us an accurate bitmap reproduction of the world around us. We are fighting for survival based on a highly distorted and largely incomplete picture of reality. 


    Our emotional reactions do nearly all the heavy lifting in dealing with changes to our distorted realities. When our “thinking” does come on line, it is powered by our emotions. The brain is a wonder to behold, but sometimes you have to wonder how we made it this far.


    Now let’s look at how depression complicates matters ...


    One way of looking at depression is that our brains are oversensitive to our environment. We process information in a way that overloads our circuits. We over-react to the overload. We overthink the over-reaction.


    Or maybe the brain is experiencing a partial shutdown. Over-reacting may be competing with underthinking, and so on.


    On top of this, there is a body of research that suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, those of us inclined to depression view events far too realistically than what is good for us. “Depressive realism” is the term. Optimists excel at deluding themselves.


    Add to this the proposition that people prone to depression may feel more empathy than the general population. This capacity for identifying with others, even total strangers, may be the crowning achievement of the human condition, but it comes at a cost: Our tendency to emotionally attach ourselves to perceptions and emotions and thoughts we have little control over may be too much for us to handle.


    Now let’s take a look at the news ...


    No, wait. DON’T look at the news. 


    We are bombarded with highly disturbing pictures. We are constantly hearing emotive terms taken out of context: Genocide, terrorist, sympathizer. We are hearing neutral terms being given an emotional twist.


    We are being hectored and badgered by talking heads who have no appreciation of nuance, much less where to find the locales in question on a map. We are being presented with pat narratives that seem to have no purpose other than to goad us into an emotional reaction.


    Even reporters with the best of intentions lose their way. There is no objective truth. There are no easy answers. This is the curse of the human condition. It is also its greatest blessing.


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    Let’s look at history ...


    Our Founding Fathers were children of the enlightenment. They believed in the power of reason over emotion, of facts over ignorance and superstition. The key to good government, they believed, lay in trusting an informed public to come to the right decision.


    Little did they know.


    Wrapping it up ...


    Most of us, I submit, take our duties as citizens fairly seriously. We make good faith efforts to inform ourselves. But we do need to recognize our limits. Basically, our imperfect (“normal”) brains are distorting a parade of pre-distorted distortions disguised as news. 


    In the process, our emotions run wild, our “thinking” gets hijacked. We get distressed. We become sitting ducks for depression. Think of depression as a complex interplay between our genes and our environment. We can’t change our genes, but sometimes we can change our environment.


    It’s okay to take a break from the news.

Published On: July 31, 2014