How Safe Is Your Television? Why The Nightly News Might Cause Anxiety

Monday, January 20, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Humans are predisposed to mimic each other. Merely surrounding yourself with happy people can increase your own happiness in kind1. From the avoidance of food poisoning through reflexive vomiting to crying with a friend, our facial expressions reliably reflect the state of those around us. But this tendency to mimic can also lead to unnecessary anxiety by altering our view of the world we live in. 

AKA: When the nightly news attacks! 

Or maybe not. I guess it's usually more like:  "Way to go, channel ten! I was happy ten minutes ago!"

Distorted Danger Perception    

Through the news media we are exposed to a shitload of threats, which I am pretty sure is the quantity between mother-load and having threats flying out of your ass. Normal people doing normal stuff does little to sell magazines or boost television ratings. 

"Tonight at, I made dinner and accidentally swallowed a beetle because my son told me it was a raisin!"

True story, but not really news worthy unless you're watching Good Morning America.

We have all kinds of fancy mechanisms to sense danger (all of which were apparently shut off when I was chewing on a bug). Your amygdala--or threat detector--does not need you to smell the tiger, which for the record, is markedly unwise anyway. Your brain needs only to believe that there may be one around the next corner. 

Historically, alerts from other group members would have gotten this job done. Mere reports of a threat from a friend watching the terrain allowed us to trigger our sympathetic nervous system--and fight or flight--for self-preservation.

This is one reason that newscasters are so influential: they serve as our modern day look-out systems. We are primed to listen.

"Tim Brokaw says there's a fucking tiger out there, yo!"

But what if the tiger is in the next town, or (gasp) in India? Do we still need to freak out about it?
Of course not, but that doesn't stop us from doing so. Research shows that people can be induced into high anxiety states from watching disturbing news clips2 3, and may even show signs of post traumatic stress disorder4. Children seem to be especially vulnerable to these effects, though more research is being done on adult functioning and media exposure.

The more dangerous we perceive the environment to be, the more adaptive it is to remain on high alert. But the world is not nearly as dangerous as we are led to believe by worried newscasters. It just doesn't pay to tell people, "You're probably pretty safe."

Some days, I shun television altogether just so I can avoid the emotional roller coaster induced by Fox and Friends. I feel nervous just clicking past them.  

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Evolution of Desire
Evolutionary psychology and the history of human mating

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns