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How to Read the News Without Provoking an Anxiety Attack

The news is pretty scary these days. Because, to be honest, reality is pretty scary. Covid-19 is easily transmittable and can be fatal. AND we don't know to what extent this is going to affect our jobs, the economy, schools, and carbonated beverages.

(I'm not kidding on that last one.)

But it is far too easy for the news to be scarier to us than is warranted. I'm speaking from experience, as this weekend, I read a story and turned to The Spouse and asked, "Wait, is this how the End Times begin?"

But a careful re-reading showed me that stories, even stories from reputable sources, are often written in a way that unnecessarily heightens the drama.

So, Rules for Reading the News Without Provoking an Anxiety Attack: 

1) Rely on reputable sources. When you see a story, check to see if it from a major news source, e.g. NY Times, Washington Post, etc., as opposed to something you've never heard of.

2) Check the date. We're learning new things about this virus every week. Make sure the article you're reading isn't from February.

2) Examine the words used.
I was an English major and had a professor who would become irate if anyone said something along the lines of "Well, what this poem means to me is ..." He would gnash his teeth and explain that he did not care what the poem meant to the student, what he cared about was what was the writer trying to convey. Good poets choose their words deliberately; their word choices give clues about the meaning.

Look closer at the words used in a news article. First, realize that headlines are not written by the journalist, and they sometimes give the wrong idea. So, skip the headline for trying to understand a story. And realize that the name of the game is getting you to read the article, even with legitimate news, so the words chosen may spike your anxiety (and make you more prone to read on), but look at them carefully to figure out the facts.

So, here's an example of what NOT to do, based on what I initially did. First, I jumped at the headline. Then, I didn't think about what the words meant.

I read the headline as meaning that recovered Covid-19 patients have no immunity. That's not what it says. But once that idea was in my head, I read the story with that idea in mind. Oh no! We're just going to get it and get it and get it until we're all dead!

That's not what the story says. It says:
"In a scientific brief dated Friday, the United Nations agency said the idea that one-time infection can lead to immunity remains unproven and is thus unreliable as a foundation for the next phase of the world's response to the pandemic."

What the story is saying is that immunity is a big fat unknown. It hasn't been proven, therefore we shouldn't make plans based on the idea that people who have had covid-19 are now immune.

But it also hasn't been disproven. Read further down:
"As of Friday, the WHO said, 'No study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans.'"

At this point, we just don't know. There's data coming in that is cause for concern, but it hasn't gone through the kind of scientific study that is necessary for establishing known facts.

4) Examine Yourself for Anxiety.
So this is one step that probably most articles about ferreting out accurate news don't talk about, but in my opinion, an important one. You are the consumer of the news, and you are the one making sense of it. So when you read a story, pause, and check-in with yourself. Are you breathing faster? Is your jaw clenched, your shoulders rigid, your stomach churning? We each have a physiological "tell" about whether we're feeling anxious.

If you realize you are feeling anxiety, take a deep breath, and remind yourself, "my brain may not be working as well as when I'm not anxious." When our amygdala (feelings) gets stirred up, it inhibits our prefrontal cortex (thinking). Realizing that our anxiety is keeping us from the clearest thinking reminds us to stop, take some deep breaths, and settle down the anxiety so our prefrontal cortex can get back in the driver's seat.


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