I have anxiety.
I think I always knew this – on some level – in the background, but this year saw it reached a certain level that compelled me to seek professional help. (And holy bejesus, am I glad I did.)
Opposed to panic attacks or episodes, my anxiety manifests in an overwhelming sense of dread. I work myself into a state where I catastrophise everything; the strange man on the tram becomes so much more than an eccentric dude – when I’m having a bad day he’s suddenly an immediate threat who I should be fearful of.
On my worst days, I can’t walk in a straight line down the street. I spend it turning in circles, checking behind my shoulder constantly, just in case someone dangerous is lurking. Then there are the vivid, sweat-inducing night terrors, which not only ruin my night’s sleep – but tend to ruin the day ahead, too.
Blergh, so much doom and gloom. This story gets sunnier, I promise.
My anxiety almost exclusively stems from a traumatic event when I was 19. And while my bad days are now mere blots on my year – far outweighed by my sunny, anxiety-free days – they’re still there. Peppered across my calendar. Particularly in fear-ridden weeks like the one we’ve just had.
Actually, my worst weeks with anxiety this year have been those punctuated by horrifying news stories: In April, May and June it was terrorism. This week it was the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Hearing about these awful things ignites a feeling inside me that I’m in immediate danger. I’m far from being the only one who feels that way, too. Scientists have found that when we read or listen to a particularly troubling news story, it spurs a massive release of cortisol, ultimately leaving our body in a state of chronic stress.
Before I started seeing a psychologist, I had no idea reading negative news could do that.
I did know that I had a bit of a true crime podcast/TV/movie/book obsession. I also had an insatiable appetite for current affairs.
The Keepers was my favourite Netflix show. Casefile was my go-to podcast. Gone Girl and Girl on a Train were the novels I constantly recommended to friends. And the news stories I clicked on? They were exclusively (paradoxically) about the very things that induce my anxiety most: death, rape, crime.
So, why was I bombarding my life with such crappy content? I DON’T EVEN KNOW. Part of me thinks it’s because I’m drawn to negativity as a means of self preservation; the more I know about the scary murderer and how he carried out his crime, the more I understand his sick plan, the more I can protect myself and the people I love in the future.
I know. Bullshit.
When I told my psychologist what media I was consuming on a daily basis she just about threw me out of her office. Thankfully she resisted that urge and told me about my “media diet” instead.
She gave me a piece of wisdom that has seriously helped me mentally: ‘Consume things that nourish your mind, not the empty things that will make you feel fearful.’
In the same way we focus on what food we put into our bodies, we need to start being more selective with what information we feed our minds.
The case for a healthier media diet isn’t actually all that new. Author and businessman Rolf Dobelli argued that our consumption of news is, in many ways, deeply unhealthy for our minds in his 2011 bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearly.
“We can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind,” Dobelli wrote. “Today… we are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.”
For example, when my anxiety was at its worst, I was living on media popcorn chicken. Now I’ve made the move to steamed chicken breast. (I was going to say ‘kale’… but I still watch dumb stuff like The Footy Show and felt ‘kale’ was quite misleading given, you know, Sam Newman et al.)
I gave up my once-beloved true crime, and have filled that space with mindfulness meditation (you can read about that here), exercise, comedy, romance, psychology, celebrity, beauty, fashion. The Netflix shows I choose to watch are lighter, as are the movies and podcasts.
I now rarely, if ever, click on an article about a heinous crime. With hindsight, I realise reading those stories did nothing good for my mind. Those clicks and reads did absolutely nothing to help the victims. They didn’t bring those women back. They didn’t right any wrongs. They didn’t rehabilitate the perpetrator, or prevent future perpetrators from offending. They did nothing good for anybody, actually. They just made me feel anxious and shitty about the world.
Listen: The many, many ways to de-stress. (Post continues…)
That isn’t to say my change to a healthier media diet has been a perfect, flawless shift. Like any diet, I have my cheat days, or moments when I fall into an unhealthy slump and find myself with popcorn chicken grease all over my brain.
I’m not perfect by any stretch, but I am more aware.
Engaging with every negative story that flooded my Facebook news feed fed a warped rationality. I began to see danger on every street corner, when the likelihood of encountering it never budged at all; only my anxiety soared.
I can know that sexual violence is an epidemic without reading every single grotesque article about it. That’s not selfish. Or dispassionate. It’s just being gentle on myself.
We live in a world dominated by negative news stories, and in the age of digital media, it sometimes feels like we’re all wading through a swamp of useless slime and grime. Engaging with the majority of what’s out there doesn’t make us better, happier, or more fulfilled. It makes us anxious and cynical.
“We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press,” Dobelli argued in his book. “Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.”
Instead of the sugary news stories that act as a giant lightning bolt to my anxiety, I opt for the longer-form stories – the ones that give me big pictures, instead of clicky soundbites.
A healthier media diet will not solve your anxiety. But it will help, in the same way exercise and psychological counselling and breathing exercises do.
Weeks like the one we’ve just had do have an impact – I had my first night terror on Tuesday for the first time in three months. But I can leave the house. I can see a strange man on the tram without flinching. I can walk through crowded spaces without feeling breathless. I can scan a news website without reading any of the empty horror.
And for me, that’s quite a delightful step forward.
Do you have anxiety, and do you feel it is partly linked to your media diet?