During my 30s, as an on-the-go reporter in Los Angeles, I thought nothing of mentally digesting three newspapers over breakfast while half-listening to National Public Radio's Morning Edition and reviewing my to-do list for the day. I'd watch TV newscasts while I was dressing, then switch between all-news stations as I drove to work. By the end of the morning, I'd plowed through thousands of words. All this input was enough to make my head swim and my eyes bleary -- and it often did.
Mine was an extreme case of factoid oppression, which back then was confined mainly to people whose jobs demanded lots of media consumption. But these days the burden of too much news falls on almost everyone. It's difficult to walk through any public space without being exposed to some form of information input. Headlines and graphic images blare at us in checkout lines, at the airport, at health clubs, and on the electronic marquees of buildings. All day long at our computers, the world of mayhem and disasters is just a click away.
And all too often the Internet ups the ante even further. We turn to it thinking we're getting access to more information that will help us understand the world better, but instead we can wind up swamped with still more indigestible material.
"The pull and power of technology cannot be underestimated," says David Shenk, author of Data Smog (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). "Even if you don't want it, the news is always there, right in your face."
And much of what's presented is unrelentingly negative. Some of that, of course, reflects reality: The country is at war, last year's political season was among the nastiest in memory, and our world has generally grown darker since September 11, 2001.
But often the news distorts reality in a way that seems designed to put us on edge. For instance, TV coverage of local murders has gone up during periods when actual homicides were dropping. One study found that 71 percent of network news time depicted people who had little or no control over what happened to them.
"Ongoing exposure to threat-inducing, depressing material takes its toll," says Dan Shapiro, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
According to Shapiro and others who have studied the phenomenon, disturbing news reports can rev up the production of stress-related hormones. Not only are these likely to put us in a bad mood, they can contribute to a host of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, digestive disorders, depression, and compromised immunity. Indeed, my own blood pressure rose to a borderline high level while I was a news reporter, and I seemed to constantly come down with colds and flus.
There is, however, a simple solution: news fasting. Just as physical fasts allow the body to lighten its load, taking regular breaks from the news can be a crucial way of safeguarding our peace of mind and our health.
Integrative physician Andrew Weil has long recommended such breaks; they're an integral part of the program he outlines in Eight Weeks to Optimum Health (Knopf, 1997). "I think it's useful to broaden the concept of nutrition to include what we put into our consciousness," he writes. "Many people do not exercise much control over that, and as a result take in a lot of mental junk food."
But how to get started? If tuning out completely feels irresponsible, start by paying attention to how different forms of news affect you. If you find yourself predictably feeling helpless, gloomy, or overwhelmed after watching TV news, for example, you may want to get your news in print form, which puts you more in control of which stories to pay attention to and at what pace.
Weil recommends beginning with a complete break, to give yourself a chance to experience how life feels without the constant background din of headlined events and calamities. Once you've done this, you can begin to add media back in little by little -- reading the paper only in the morning, say, when the cacophony of world events may be less likely to interfere with your sleep.
Another option is to set a limit on how much time you devote to news each day, perhaps allowing yourself half an hour as a start. By experimenting with different levels of exposure, you'll find a balance that feels comfortable.
That's what I finally managed to do. I cut back first by tuning out radio and TV newscasts and allowing two newspaper subscriptions to lapse. It seemed strange at first to draw away from the endless data stream that once dragged me along, but I'm glad I did.
These days, when I feel myself getting too cynical about our political system, I steer away from loudmouth commentators and pompous talk show guests who just get me riled up. I avoid brain candy like celebrity gossip and the glitzy hype surrounding fads.
And the results are tangible. I feel more tranquil and content, and my sleep is deeper and arrives more easily. The big blocks of time I once devoted to the news are now available for natural stress-reducers like laughing with friends and listening to music.
I still read my local daily most mornings, and I regularly channel-surf between newscasts. The difference is that I control the amount I allow inside my head, and I'm better able to gauge when I've had enough. I may not be as well informed as I once was, but I'm enjoying my life more.
I wouldn't go back. Sometimes no news really is good news.
HOW TO GO ON A MEDIA DIET
Avoid empty calories. Settle on a few responsible news sources you trust to be accurate, comprehensive, and user-friendly. Avoid "empty calorie" media, like bottom-feeding tabloid shows, which exaggerate the negative.
Use a filter. It takes only a few minutes to set up protocols on Internet services like Google (www.google.com), Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), and KeepMedia (www.keepmedia.com) that can sift through thousands of stories to deliver only those most valuable to you.
Be subversive. If you've ever wished you could silence those ubiquitous TV sets that have invaded public spaces, now you can: San Francisco inventor Mitch Altman has come up with a wildly popular $15 gizmo, TV-B-Gone, that will shut off any television it's pointed at. To do your bit to reclaim the commons, order one at www.tvbgone.com
Turn anxiety into action. As an antidote to feeling helpless about all the big things going wrong out there, zero in on one way that you can make a difference, whether by rescuing stray dogs, tutoring an immigrant in English, or planting trees. Then get out there and do it. Web sites like www.idealist.org and www.volunteermatch.com can help you get started.
Don't worry about missing out. It's simply not possible to do a Rip Van Winkle in today's interconnected world. If something big happens, you'll know about it.
Richard Mahler is the author of Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude (Red Wheel, 2003). Reprinted from Alternative Medicine (Feb. 2005). Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (10 issues) from 1650 Tiburon Blvd., Tiburon, CA 94920; www.alternativemedicine.com