Feeling Anxious?
Then ‘Watch’ the News!

by Clinical Psychologist Cherie Dalton

The human nervous system hasn’t changed very much over the last million years. Its purpose is to keep us safe and help us survive; that means looking out for threat and risks that might lead to our demise or cause us harm. Naturally, like other animals, this ‘alert’ nervous system is crucial to our survival and keeps us scanning for potential danger.

Humans have developed the cognitive ability to use words, language and analysis to make sense of and communicate risk to one another efficiently. Humans can convey these messages about threat or danger with convincing and rich emotional content to highlight their relevance and importance. This superior intellectual ability has allowed humans to prosper and survive by organising communities, achieving social tasks, collaborating and problem-solving.  

While living in tribal groups and small communities, our ancestors relied upon this ability to communicate warnings and risks to members of the tribe or community. A danger at the waterhole, poisonous berries, a lurking predator or an invading tribe were all risks that posed an immediate and relevant threat to each member of that tribe. Our nervous system is primed to be alert to such urgent warnings, especially when high emotion is present to convey urgency. Those who failed to attend would face danger and threat to their survival.

Community leaders throughout history disseminated relevant and important information for survival – the Town Crier and Pastors at churches became trusted ‘news’ bearers delivering information about community illness and death such as the Plague. Humans have learnt to pay attention when an announcement is made and our nervous systems are primed to do so!

BCP Tribe

The New Era

A lot has changed in the world since the invention of television, telephones and computers. The world is not constrained by geographical borders and tribal word-of-mouth communication. The millennial world features expansive social media influences with 24-hour news broadcasts, news updates to every device, news from every corner of the world, breakfast news, morning news, midday news, afternoon news, early evening news, late night news, and even news updates between the news!

If you’re feeling overwhelmed just by reading that, it’s obvious what the actual content of all this news is doing to our nervous systems. Physical arousal and stress are triggered by our nervous system’s response to announcements and news that goes straight back to our primal need to survive and not necessarily because there is an actual and present threat to our safety.

Understanding the science of this can help us manage our responses to the world’s events and to make decisions about protecting our nervous system.

We are inundated with announcements and information that are neither relevant nor an immediate threat to us individually. In doing its job well, the nervous system innocently attends to irrelevant messages, believing all news must be relevant and require urgent attention. In fact, reacting to information regarding a five-car pile-up on an icy motorway on the other side of the world has no immediate survival benefit to us.

While broader lessons can be learnt from the general information, this information can be used and conveyed in more considered and less dramatic ways to improve our society and keep us safe. The way in which this information is conveyed in the news is much more likely to trigger unnecessary and involuntary stress responses.

Tips to Look After Yourself in This
World of Frantic Social Media and News

  • 1. Limit your exposure to all news media  – TV, radio, newspapers, social media.

  • 2. Limit the number of news organisations you follow on social media and notifications you receive.

  • 3. Observe and calm your response when you hear the ‘news music’ or ‘breaking news’ sound effects.

  • 4. Keep check of how many stories are being fed to you throughout your day on electronic devices while you are trying to focus on work, socialising or other meaningful tasks.

  • 5. Try to listen to less hyped and dramatic versions of the news such as the ABC.

  • 6. Follow more local news that is likely to be more relevant to your daily life.

  • 7. Be more aware of the emotional content of programs you watch and their impact on your mood, nervous system and thinking. Does it feel more like relevant information conveyed calmly and factually or does it feel more hyped, dramatic and irrelevant to your immediate world?