ChickenLittleToday’s Anxiety Threat: “High”

Only 35 years ago, anxiety did not exist as a diagnosis. Today, it’s the most common form of mental illness.

Why?

Ours is hardly the first troubled era humans have endured in history. By way of example, our ancestors bore many salty times such as The Crusades; Black Death; World War I; The Great Depression; World War II; The Cold War; The Cuban Missile Crisis; slavery / racism; The Vietnam War; The War on Terrorism; and all those missing dinosaurs – from which no one has heard a word since the Cretaceous Period.

The souls of preceding eras were likely much more angst-ridden than our own. Except they lacked easy access to whiskey and pills to numb, and they faced personal adversity head-on. It feels like the world is at an all-time low; as if society is climbing toward the “dreadfully appalling” threshold.

But is the world getting worse?

Are we really worse off than the suffering millions during the Black Plague, for example? From 1347 to 1351 – a time when the global population was an estimated 450 million – at least 75 million are believed to have perished throughout the pandemic. Some estimates put it as high as 200 million dead within only four years. It’s hard to imagine that we have it even close to that bad. The peoples of earlier eras might have been wracked by anxiety, but they dug-in. So it seems afoul to rob our angst-ridden predecessors by crowning our own epoch the “Age of Anxiety.”

Bad news can quickly spur anxiety and depression. Look no further than the CNN ticker tape at the bottom of your TV screen to shotgun some gloom into your psyche and create palpable anxiety. And there is an increasing tendency for news broadcasters to “emotionalize” their news and to do so by emphasizing any potential negative outcomes of a story no matter how low the risks of those negative outcomes might be. Exaggerating or otherwise distorting the news to give it more emotional flare is part of TV journalists’ fight to remain relevant and competitive. With so many journalists covering the same topics, someone is going to up the impact ante by whatever means necessary. This involves scaremongering at every opportunity in order to sensationalize the impact of a news story, and it feeds right into man’s natural evolutionary trait to affix more to the bad than the good. It’s how we quickly identified threats in our primitive days. But this can result in symptoms similar to PTSD. Overindulging in bad news isn’t a survival technique today – it only creates more anxiety.

I put the “I” in Anxiety.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio and leading researcher on the connection between media consumption and stress, conducted research that suggests, “In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies.”

Like vaping, self-tattooing, and licking escalator rails, exposure to negative news is literally bad for your health. Media outlets don’t get paid to deliver good news because it doesn’t sell. We live in a culture of alarmism where the glut of bad news yields fear, aggression, and anxiety. And it’s a one-two punch because it does this while blocking your happiness, peace of mind, and creative thinking.

Here’s the good news about all that bad news …

It’s not that the world has actually gotten worse; but a prolific media is relentlessly reporting it in HD pessimism. The only winners in this unhealthy arrangement are the advertisers who regularly interrupt the 24-hour live stream of wheelchair thieves and otter-punchers to scare us into buying more life insurance and antianxiety pills. Bad news is toxic and jacks up your perception of what you should be paying attention to. Things you need to think about, like studying, work, or getting enough sleep are overlooked – while the stuff that shouldn’t be troubling you, like maniacal overseas dictators and homegrown terrorists, override your mind. Issues like radicalism get hyped while the effects of chronic anxiety on your body are ignored entirely. That’s healthy perspective turned on its head. Bad news affects us physiologically. Bad news triggers the brain’s limbic system, spurring a release of cortisol, a stress hormone that deregulates the immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. It’ll turn you into a tiny madman running amok in a prolonged temper tantrum. This is likely how you feel after a sizeable dose of bad news – small, angry, and anxious.

The nightly news is nightly negativity.

But unless you catch an upcoming seven-month long flight to Mars, it’s tough to dodge the daily torrent of anxiety-stimulating news via TV and social media. I’m not suggesting that you bury your head in a hole and remain uninformed; rather, I encourage limiting your exposure to the nightly negative deluge, and/or considering other sources of information, like Upworthy and The Discovery Channel. Temper your negative news exposure with regular doses of humor, good news, and Animal Planet. Consider the findings of a 2007 study by the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine:

“The psychological effects of televised news were studied in 2 groups (n = 179) of undergraduate students who watched a 15-minute random newscast followed by either a 15-minute progressive relaxation exercise or a 15-minute lecture (control condition). Subjective measures of state anxiety, total mood disturbance (TMD), positive affect, and negative affect were obtained before and after the news, as well as following relaxation exercise or the lecture. The results show that state anxiety and TMD increased, whereas positive affect decreased in both groups after watching the news, and 15 minutes later, they returned to baseline (pre-news) only in the relaxation group, whereas they remained unchanged in the control group. These findings demonstrate that watching the news on television triggers persisting negative psychological feelings that could not be buffered by attention-diverting distraction, but only by a directed psychological intervention such as progressive relaxation.”

The mainstream media does not paint an accurate picture of reality. The world is vast and rife with tons of positive things continually taking place. But it feels the opposite because our brains cling to the bad.

And social media is in cahoots with the news. Consider the 2015 study in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, in which 753 middle school and high school students were surveyed. Researchers found that those who spent more than two hours a day on social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter were more likely to report distress, poor mental health, and even suicidal thoughts.

The upside to feeling better in a world seemingly gone mad is that there’s a simple antidote: Limit your consumption. You can’t control the turmoil around you. But you can dramatically limit your exposure, counter the negative with positive, and recognize that douchy, gelled, and lacquered TV journalists exist only to have you suckle at the bad news teat. The more visceral and gnarly the news reported, the more eyes are watching.

You don’t need to be inundated to be informed. And we don’t own the Era of Neuroticism just because we’re more diagnosed and self-aware. We’re the era that can turn carbon pollution into diamonds. So there’s considerable hope. As for me, I’m going to take some Paxil and dig-in.

Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.  – Soren Kierkegaard