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Randi Kreiss

Breaking news: News stress is making us sick

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I can’t prove it, but you know it and I know it: People are experiencing somatic symptoms related to the news bombs crashing around us day in and day out. Babies in cages, dog whistles to racists, dancing with wolves like Putin and Kim Jong-un — each on its own and cumulatively, these dangerous and heartless policies are taking a toll on many people.

In fact, various research groups have conducted studies of blood pressure and back pain and migraine and gastric symptoms associated with how much news an individual takes in. Respondents report a spike in stress associated with feeling caught in the crossfire of our political fighting.

Ask your friends and family and think about yourself. How much TV news are you watching? Do you check your phone for news updates? When you go online to pay a bill or write to a friend, does a “breaking news” alert sidetrack you? How many hours a day are you thinking about politics and the state of the nation? When you go on Facebook, are you getting into the political fray or just posting photos of your poodle? I’ve had more than one meal out with friends hijacked by political discord.

Full disclosure: I was nervous but pretty disciplined at the beginning of the Trump administration. I believed there were honorable people in office who would rein in the would-be king and keep critical initiatives like health care and the environment and women’s rights and racial equality and sensible immigration policies on the front burners. I thought the checks and balances would keep us safe. But my faith in the better angels of human nature has dissipated over time. The president has shielded himself with a cadre of half-informed, often incompetent, always fiercely loyal lackeys. Some have been criminals; others walk a fine line between allegiance to their leader and serving the greater good.

The Oval Office, the proud center of the American presidency, has become ground zero for the avaricious, the ambitious, the power-hungry and the weak.

We elected a president who has pulled at the fabric of our democracy until the cloth itself is coming undone.

For me, the pain isn’t any one single event — no bombshell of the last three years — but rather the accumulation of insults, the poison darts of duplicity and denigration of others, and President Trump’s courting of dictators, his apparent respect for authoritarian leaders.

We write about the numbing effect of so much shocking news, of overload, of shorting out. I think there is a very real effect of living through this time, and it may not have so much to do with whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. Both sides think they’re right; both sides despair that their opponents will ever “get it.”

Where Trump’s culpability lies is not so much in what he believes, but how he reacts to those who believe differently. What we all desperately need is a unifying leader who can find the grains of common ground and begin rebuilding national unity. I don’t know if the next election will allow such a person to emerge. That uncertainty is what stokes our anxiety.

I do know that Trump is not capable of bringing Americans together. He has proven himself to be insensitive to those who need him most. He elicits the worst in people, and sics them against one another. This division is experienced by many of us as a kind of trauma.

Yes, people are sick at heart and experiencing somatic symptoms as well. Many people say they don’t sleep well; they wake up with anxiety even before they turn on the TV. And they somehow can’t not turn on the TV or the computer to learn what happened overnight.

Two weeks ago we were fixed on the news for hours one night because the president decided to assassinate a bad guy, damn the consequences or any approval from Congress. We worried that within hours we might be at war, and we thought of our grandkids and our neighbors’ kids. That single crisis might have been the only crisis in a past administration. In Trump’s world, it was the terrifying breaking news of the moment.

It just has to stop. Whether by impeachment or general election, we need to gather ourselves up and put together the broken pieces of our democracy. The damage, here and abroad, will take time to repair. It will take a couple of years of boring, no-news days for our collective blood pressure to return to normal.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.