Hurricanes, North Korea, and Equifax – Oh My!

Why events outside your control are ruining your quality of life.

What do hurricanes, wildfires, credit security breaches, and other ‘outside’ events have in common?  They all evoke a stress response in human beings – if we let them. The catch is whether we let them catch us!

The whole process starts as an information game. We, as human beings, and in relation to our lower, older brain centers, live and survive off of information. Our more “primitive” ancestors, while perhaps lacking our sophisticated means of communication and certainly our technology, had a built-in drive to use life-threatening information in a real-time way.

By life-threatening, I mean anything that could be perceived as an immediate (or longer term) danger and something that could take away life. Wild animals, storms, rivers, falls – the list of potential threats in the “old days” is pretty immense, especially compared to modern life, which generally has very few “real-time” life threats, unless perhaps you work in high-risk professions, such as the military, law enforcement, fire-rescue, oil rigs, etc.

What has emerged in modernity is a deluge of information which often features threats and negativity. The simple reason for this is that negativity commands human attention. If something is about to attack us or threaten our existence, our attention is strongly pulled in that direction, even if the potential of an attack seems remote or is not even in our immediate presence.

To wit, look at the tremendous amount of coverage of the recent storms – Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma dominated the news for several weeks. I knew people in Colorado and elsewhere in the west, whose more immediate concerns likely COULD have been wildfires, who were swept up into hurricane madness, even with no direct connection to people in Houston, in Florida or in the Caribbean. While the threat was excruciatingly real in the places where the hurricanes hit or impacted people, the “collateral damage” was to the nervous systems of people dispersed across the country.

What has emerged in modernity is a deluge of information which often features threats and negativity.

The 24-hour news cycle and perpetual weather focus is a means of creating advertising dollars, bringing huge attention to particular subjects and areas, and generally “hooking” human focus on events that they have little influence over. The effects of this are tremendous and possibly TRAUMATIZING. The definition of trauma (psychological) is helplessness in the face of a life threat.

What the weather events, wildfires, and Equifax all have in common is that they are large-scale threats which don’t fall within our locus of control – aka, we're helpless to respond. While there are certain things we CAN do to take action in response, whether it’s donating to the Red Cross or other organizations or attempting to freeze or monitor our credit, the bottom line is that relentless focus on these types of events is stressful, out of our influence wheelhouse, and can create negative mental and emotional states. What’s more is that a steady diet of catastrophic news consumption can put people in a constant state of fear and at least low-grade anxiety.

While the economic and control (think “sheeple”) influences may be attractive and even lucrative to news organizations, advertisers, politicians, banks, corporations, and others – including businesses – the collective impact on consciousness and culture is generally strongly negative. Some people may feel a wave of compassion or empathy in response to such news, though many feel angry, frustrated, sad, and, yes, helpless. My question is and one you might ask yourself:  who does it serve to have the broader public feeling this acute stress?

And, even more importantly, what can YOU do in relation to the constant avalanche of negative news?  Start with a news fast. See if you can abstain entirely, or just take it in smaller and smaller doses. Yes, of course, you want to be informed if there’s a storm headed your way. Or a fire. Or if your identity is being “borrowed”.

That said, limit your consumption of news as best you can. When you’re traveling or at a relative’s home, don’t sit in the airport watching CNN or Fox or the Weather Channel. Instead, choose things that lift you up, inspire you, educate you, sharpen your skills, etc.

The bottom line is that you have control of your intake of information.

When you do watch or listen to the news, see if you can notice your internal reactions and responses. Do your best to turn on your awareness and move into observer mode. That way, you can train your nervous system and emotional brain to be unreactive while you bring your pre-frontal cortex online. That, in some ways, is even more powerful than a news fast or removing yourself from the source, as you’re training your brain and nervous system in the face of the ‘threat’. Easier said than done but possible. I’ve done it myself many times.

Learn to control your attention. Where your attention goes, there you go. Your attention will help create unwanted emotional responses unless you learn to self-regulate your emotional brain. If you manage your body effectively, through your peripheral nervous system and deliberately turning on your parasympathetic nervous system through breathing and physical relaxation, appreciation and learning more about heart-rate variability, and other bio-hack skills,  - you have a true weapon within the matrix of negative information that is today’s world and newsfeed.

The bottom line, again, is that you have control of your intake of information. You have control over what you focus on. There is a tremendous incentive for the media to pour a non-stop river of negativity and “Danger! Danger! Danger!” into the public bucket – because it works and sells!  It captures our attention. But a steady diet of it is unhealthy for us. So the best defense you have against the onslaught of such messaging is managing your use of attention (YOUR precious commodity) and becoming knowledgeable about tools for self-regulation of your brain, body, and nervous system.