Turn Off the News (And Build a Garden)

Turn off the news and build a garden,
Just my neighbourhood and me.
We might feel a bit less hardened,
We might feel a bit more free. 

If you don’t recognize those lyrics, they’re from a 2019 song by Lukas Nelson (yes, Willie Nelson’s son), titled “Turn Off the News (Build A Garden)”.  The song encourages listeners to put down the devices, disconnect from the negativity, focus on the good in the world, and take action to make their community a brighter place for the next generation.

Some people may want to dismiss this sentiment as run of the mill, hippy-dippy-bologna.  Some may feel that it’s unrealistic, unsafe, or even simply irresponsible to disconnect from current events.  While others (like me) might breathe a collective sigh of relief at the thought of not being constantly bombarded with the ugliest parts of humanity.

But I did some research, and it turns out there’s a real case to be made for turning off the news.  Thanks to the rise of technology, the way we consume the news has drastically changed in recent years.  Information on current events is always at our fingertips, whether we’re watching TV, watching videos, scrolling social media, reading online articles, or listening to podcasts.  The way the news is marketed to us has also changed.  The 24-hour news cycle and heavy competition between news sources has created a style of journalism that thrives on sensationalism (i.e., “clickbait”) and polarizing opinions.  This combination can make it feel as though crisis, disaster, and tragedy are inescapable.

According to a classic study by Johnston and Davey, negative news consumption can cause or worsen anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, as well as lead to “the enhanced catastrophizing of personal worries” (1997, p.89).  This means that not only can the news cause you to feel distress about the event being reported on, it can also cause you to feel increased distress about personal problems that are completely unrelated to current events, like your upcoming exam or an argument with a friend.

On a biological level, consuming negative news causes our body to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.  This is our body’s natural reaction to a crisis, to help us escape the dangerous situation and survive.  Unfortunately, our body can’t tell if the crisis is watching a video of a natural disaster happening in another country or if we’re being chased by a tiger, so our stress reaction is the same for both.  This reaction is also intended to be short-lived—you’re not supposed to be running away from the tiger for hours every single day.  So, if you’re exposing yourself to these stress hormones regularly, you may find yourself experiencing physical symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, gut problems, or disturbing dreams.

The term “doom scrolling” has been coined to describe binging on news or social media content about troubling things.  While everyone has done this at some point, it becomes a problem when you get absorbed in the content, you check it over and over, and it interferes with your daily life somehow.  If you’re feeling like your emotions about current events and/or media consumption are regularly stopping you from enjoying your life, it may be helpful to speak to your doctor.

Now, this is not to say that the better option is to bury our heads in the sand.  You can remain up to date on current events while still protecting your mental health by taking some proactive measures.  For example:

  • Limiting the amount of time you spend consuming news (or using screens in general)
  • Powering down devices at least 2 hours before bed
  • Not checking your phone first thing in the morning
  • Limiting or removing push notifications on your phone
  • Taking a break if you feel yourself becoming anxious, stressed, sad, or angry
  • Focusing on what’s happening in the now, and what is within your control
  • Getting offline and doing things in the real-world that make you feel happy—spending time with family and friends, exercising, or participating in your favourite hobby.

So maybe you don’t actually have to build a garden, but you might want to try turning off the news.

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