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tune out to tune in
reducing external information clutter
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

In the book, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, Dr. Andrew Weil promotes a news fast one day each week. The theory is when people absorb too much news, especially the kind that induces feelings of helplessness, anxiety, or rage, this impacts their health in negative ways. These emotions stay rooted in the body unless progressively moved out.

If we are constantly taking time to read the top headlines, are we also creating a balance of positive influences to offset the news impact? Because the natural news cycle is gore, injustice, corruption, repeat. If it bleeds, it leads. Good news is no news, bad news is good news, no news is bad news. Without equal scales of information, we ingest a current of despair that can, quite literally, affect our health.

Weil's book debuted in 1997, with a reprint 10 years later. And yet this concept doesn't seem out-of-date at all.

C. John Sommerville claims in his book, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society, that nightly news or online headlines can't begin to provide the public with a complete analysis of affairs. While a brief discussion of the top stories may work well at dinner parties, Sommerville's philosophy, penned in 1999, is these soundbite conversations restrict us from talking more intimately with other people, particularly about personal issues, and keep us at arms' length from one another. This possibility compounds if there's constant debate on inflammatory subjects, such as religion or politics. While there might be spirited, active discussion, it eventually results in inaction on the topic itself.

While it's necessary to stay informed about current events, and for some people, more information on a topic actually reduces anxiety, the rest of the stream might be more of what Weil calls "mental junk food". Both Weil and Sommerville stress the importance of reducing the news feed and trading that time for more positive pursuits, including exercise, meditation, activities with friends and family, and hobbies. Whatever creates a more optimistic outlook reinforces the potential for better health.

And there's also that element of balance. While some people may not want to watch a video of kittens playing, there's value to learning about the human joy in the world, the progress of science, the good deeds of others, the successful results of a charitable effort. There are websites that specialize in promoting "good" or "happy" news that a jaded person might consider sappy, but they serve as a constant reminder that if we want to really look for positive information, we'll find it. We don't have to be subservient to a corporate media structure spoon-feeding us. Even indulging in good storytelling, especially fiction, provides a hammock of comfort we can use to escape the real world once in a while. Long walks, a few pages written in a journal, giving someone a hug--these are also tangible efforts that help reduce the enormity of the world's problems.

Taking a news fast doesn't mean we're irresponsible or that we don't care. Rather, it provides us an opportunity to absorb information in a qualitative way, and seek out more facts with a composed perspective, instead of a reactionary one. Better to become more educated about a particular topic than to know very little about a great number of things.

It's interesting that both Weil and Sommerville wrote books more than a decade ago that foreshadowed the implications of the shotgun information blast we now deal with daily. And yet, in these high-tech times, it doesn't take much to upset our apple carts of perceived connectivity. Twitter won't load right, and when it finally does, we tweet about it. Facebook changes its timeline feed, and there's a huge backlash. The public has become so dependent on these and other forms of social media for news and friendship that the thought of breaking the habit, even cosmetically, sends it into a panic.

Now more than ever, we need to stop for a few moments to take our eyes off a screen and focus on a single leaf. We have to get up from our desks and share a goofy story with a coworker instead of emailing a link. We need to meet face-to-face with someone we care about and have a real conversation that includes anecdotes, ideas, tidbits. We have to be willing to go a day--or two--from updating our statuses, devising our next clever 140 characters, and skimming our aggregate news feeds, trusting the world will continue to spin and that we can hop back on it at any time. Just not right now.

More importantly, we have to be willing to accept silence. Meditation and prayer isn't for everyone, but thousands of studies prove their value to help calm the spirit, especially one troubled by the day's events. So in combination with a news fast, we need to favor, almost relish, a few minutes of absolute stillness each day and release negative thoughts and emotions.

We may not always be able to alter the course of current events, but we are in full control of how they affect us, and that should make us all feel better.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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matt kelley
9.29.11 @ 9:45a

I report news for a living, but once I leave the newsroom, I try to leave it all in the office. I don't usually watch the news at night on TV or listen to it on the radio...and Saturday is usually a news-free day for me. I also try to end my newscasts with something light. Too much death, destruction and politics CAN warp your head. And it's a ritual, after every airshift, I read the funnies.

brian anderson
9.29.11 @ 12:17p

It is amazing how the human brain can focus on details that have no bearing on daily life. Occasionally I'll listen to Radio New Zealand International's "Dateline Pacific," and I suddenly become very concerned with life in places like Tonga and Samoa.

katherine (aka clevertitania)
9.29.11 @ 5:20p

I try to keep up pretty consistently with what's going on in national and international news/politics - though I use some comedy compensation, such as Daily Show for my political news (delving online when I need more info) and Have I Got News For You and Mock the Week for my UK/Euro news.

But I also have had to learn when to back off and let what's happening outside my door go. This is particularly necessary when my daily obligations are already knocking me on my ass. I used to feel guilty when I let the rest of the world go, but then I realized that I have to respect my mental limitations, because if I don't it's a great path to burn-out. For instance, until I can quit my seasonal/retail 3rd job, I'm even letting my comedy news shows build up to watch later.

tracey kelley
9.30.11 @ 2:18p

Interesting news industry comments from people on Facebook:

"Bad news DOES have an adverse effect. My habit of getting up and turning on the Today show year after year started taking a toll on my about 2 years ago. I hate campaign news, terrorist news, mom killing babies news, all of it. I found I... was gloomy when I got to work and it would effect my mood all day. So, I got up one morning two years ago, turned on Mike and Mike in the Morning and I have never looked back. I go to work smiling and happy, and watch my twitter feed for headlines I think I should be seeing. Much better."

"I'm all or nothing. I eat and breathe news most of the time but go on strike every once in a while when I'm not working. Sometimes want to strangle my BF though when I come home after a 12-hour day and he turns on news. I tell him that would be like me saying "Let's chill out on the sofa and analyze some chemical spreadsheets."

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