By Dr. Ken Manges, Ph.D. | Forensic Psychologist
Abusive political rhetoric, D.C. shooting and wounding of a congressman, a truck attack and deaths in Barcelona, Charlottesville and NYC, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma & Maria, sexual assaults by Weinstein and multiple others, admissions by survivors @#metoo, an ambush in Niger, shootings in New York City, Sutherland Springs, Tehama County California, and at the Egyptian Mosque, all while suffering through a cacophony of inflammatory tweets.
As I write this, I lament over this series of tragedies, one after another, and no doubt more to come.
What are we to make of it all?
Some fundamentalists suggest this is the foreshadowing of the end of days. I disagree. But I struggle with what to do with all the media attention being poured into the updates and my being subjected to the immersion in grief, death, as well as, nature’s and man’s abuse of man.
I want to express three ideas in this brief article:
- The attraction we have towards seeing and hearing the news, like moths to a flame.
- The ill-health with which we expose our bodies because of our curiosity.
- An alternative means to deal with the unwelcomed yet daily exposure to these events and their consequences on our eyes, ears and collective psyche.
I know, I know, I could just ignore the news, or I could take the newscaster’s advice and not watch or listen when he/she says, “What you are about to hear or see may contain unpleasant…”. But, I resist turning off the news. Not unlike The New Yorker’s cartoon of the Brigadier General stopped by a YIELD traffic sign shouting “NEVER”, I don’t change the station, I stay tuned.
It’s like a dare. I say to myself I can handle this, and then, against my own better judgment, I proceed to subject myself to death and dying, only later to regret seeing a full-color depiction of some horrific sad side of life.
For me, it’s reminiscent of seeing body bags loaded onto helicopters when I was in Pleiku, Viet Nam or while driving along the highway and rubbernecking to see the accident on the opposite side of the highway with emergency workers loading the injured onto stretchers. (As it turns out there is a 7% increase in accident rates for persons who gawk while driving in the opposite lane. So, watching morbid scenes is increasing the likelihood of a self-imposed injury).
As a forensic psychologist, who has his fair share of hearing morbid stories, I have learned to compartmentalize the horrors so as not to intrude (or at least try to limit), the effect on the plaintiff sharing their woes and inadvertently infusing myself into the mix.
But when it’s not a claimant or client telling their story but me watching or hearing the news on the radio or television in the privacy of my car or home, I am not inclined to put up my guard and instead, get a full-frontal attack of raw humanity.
So, what does the influence of all this visual and auditory onslaught have on us mentally, and physically for the short run and long range?
The one-word answer is plenty.
Young People and Mobile DevicesWhat is the impact of the smartphone on our children? A study conducted by Dr. Jean Twenge published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found that increased time spent with popular electronic devices — whether a computer, cell phone or tablet — seems to have been highly correlated with an increase in symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts over the last several years among teens, especially among girls.
Dr. Twenge and her colleagues who did the study took a hard look at national surveys that asked more than 500,000 young people, ages 13 to 18, questions that uncover symptoms of depression. The surveys asked students to respond to statements such as “Life often feels meaningless,” or “I feel I can’t do anything right,” or “I feel my life is not very useful”. Dr. Twenge found that the number of teens who answered “yes” to three or more of these questions increased significantly, from 16% in 2010 to 22% in 2015. (1)
The number of hours watching correlated with the amount of distress. “One hour, maybe two hours , doesn’t increase risk all that much,” Dr. Twenge said. “But once you get to three hours — and especially four and then, really, five hours and beyond — that’s where there’s much more significant risk of suicide attempts, thinking about suicide and major depression.”
Ok. That’s about the kids, how about us?
Reducing phone viewing may be an easy option for us, but avoiding the news has the appearance of being less harmful. Not so. When you realize how the viewing is not just the amount of time listening or viewing but the residual influence when discussing with colleagues, intimate others or just thinking about what you’ve just witnessed is considered.
Even accidental focusing on the negative news or hearing that a tweet has just been released takes time away from your focusing on the positive. We promote eating healthier foods, doing exercise and socializing with others in a positive way but what about the negatives intruding on our lives. What influence does that have?
It turns out the little and big screens, as well as, the audio input influences can be a source of long-term negative health consequences. A Journal of Experimental Psychology research article found that persons who listened but bottled up their discontent enjoyed less happiness in their lives. The finding was that 10% of the 2,324 participants reported more life satisfaction and less depression when reading about injustice and allowing themselves to feel anger. When giving themselves permission to feel unpleasant anger, their desired emotion, these participants reported more life satisfaction and less depression than those who didn’t permit themselves to feel the angry feelings that they felt. 90% of the persons in the same study felt less happiness… how sad it that? (2)
The tenor of the news these days makes me want to echo the Howard Beale character portrayed by Peter Finch in the film Network shouting his exasperated “I’m mad as hell and I’m just not going to take it anymore.”
My intention in sharing these tidbits with you is to be agnostic, not partisan, not preachy, not patronizing. Our reaction to these sorrow filled stories are real stressors and result in a real (albeit) subliminal erosion of the fabric of our wellness.
These political and geophysical cataclysmic and climatic events need to be countered with a healthy dose of mind nurturing routines to offset the cultural upheaval of jam box busting explosions.
10 suggestions for getting through a Season of Sorrows
Not a quick fix and not for everyone, below are some suggestions for your consideration in countering the onslaught that I have found in my meditative practice. Try one or more at your own risk. You may find an organic alternative to the season of sorrows. I’d be interested in knowing about your success.
- Practice 10 minutes of mindfulness training each day. As a resource, consider Palousemindfulness.com to give you some tips.
- Set a routine for looking at emails and lay off them when it’s not time. Set aside a reasonable amount of time and a specific time of day to look at them, then let it go until you have it on your schedule to do again. Intermittent, focused attention is healthier than continued intrusive viewing.
- Turn off notifications. It drives me bonkers when I hear my phone and then hear my computer chime. Turn them both off while you are doing other things.
- Don’t multitask. Although I have been told by others they can text, listen to a conversation and eat at the same time, none of the tasks are being accomplished with the same intent as when done singularly. You won’t hear what’s being said and you won’t enjoy the morsel in your mouth if you are concerned about capturing the right abbreviation in your text message.
- Put time off on your calendar during the day, even if for 10 minutes (perhaps you while you meditate).
- Put your phone on airplane mode during meal times.
- Reward yourself with a pleasant, preferably non-alcoholic and non-food event for being in this world with those you find enjoyable.
- Rejoice when you find peaceful moments between tweets, shootings, and other negative events.
- Smile. A lot.
- Hug those you love next time you see them.
(1) Jean M. Twenge, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, Gabrielle N. Martin (November 30, 2017). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science.
(2) Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Oishi, S., & Kim, M. Y. (2017, August 14). The Secret to Happiness: Feeling Good or Feeling Right?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.