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Media Menace?

I feel that the war in Iraq affects my health yet we hear nothing in the media about how we are to care for ourselves and each other during this stressful time.

Answer (Published 9/5/2008)

The effect on health of stressful world or national events is a rarely acknowledged issue. However, a number of studies have shown that images and reports of violence, death, and disaster can provoke changes in mood and aggravate anxiety, sadness, and depression, which in turn can have deleterious effects on physical health. Even frequent worrying can reduce immunity, making you more vulnerable to infection.

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One way you can begin to counteract the stress you experience in response to the daily onslaught of bad news from at home and abroad (and its aftermath on physical and emotional health) is to limit your exposure to it. Try a "news fast" - simply opt out of watching the news on television, reading newspapers, or following the news on the Internet for a few days or even a week. Taking periodic breaks from the news can promote mental calm and help renew your spirits. As a result, anxiety and overstimulation may be minimized, and your body will function better.

Televised news is often the worst offender. University of Arizona psychologist Dan Shapiro, Ph.D., has a suggestion that can help if televised images upset you: look elsewhere for your information. Seek deeper, more thoughtful analysis of the news in other media outlets.

You also could consider another option: speaking out on issues that concern you. In general, people who make their voices heard on subjects they feel strongly about tend to feel better than those who remain silent. Write your senator or representative in Congress, send a letter to a local newspaper or, if so inclined, join a local or national organization that is pressing for a policy or action you support. If you don't know how to reach your representatives in Congress, click here. All you have to do is put in your zip code to get a list of all your elected officials at the federal and state levels as well as information on how to contact them.

In addition, I encourage you to counteract stress with physical activity and relaxation practices that can reduce levels of stress hormones, release muscle tension and increase levels of mood-enhancing endorphins, all of which can benefit health. Relaxation techniques including breath work, meditation and yoga can all help reduce chronic tension. I consider them an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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