Had Enough Junk Food For Your Brain?

“TV News is McDonalds for your brain” said a friend of mine, Art O’Connor, in a recent Facebook post after the school shooting in CT that took the lives of 20 beautiful young children. These days we are constantly bombarded with negative news, politics of fear, drama from friends & family, vitriolic comments from people in our social media connections and many other distractions that can build up over time like a plaque in our brains instead of our veins. Over time all of this can start putting us on edge, making us feel cynical or bitchy, but there are some great ways to do some mental house cleaning and keep us in a better frame of mind. And just like a diet of junk food, all this negativity and drama can be addicting without us even realizing it. Here are some of my tips on how to make a conscious decision to limit the intake of mental garbage fed to us, and some ideas on how to take in a healthier fare for your brain.

The beginning of the year is always the perfect time for me to reboot both my body and mind for the year to come by doing both a mental and physical detox/cleanse. The first year I did this, I realized how useful it would be to not only give my body a break from the toxins we that we absorb from our daily life in our diet & environmental exposures, but to also give my brain a break from the constant stream of media and political nonsense and negativity that we are fed. Perhaps the hardest part of eliminating mental junk is first identifying where it is and how it gets into our lives.

The first time I started to really take notice of media sensationalism was during the whole ‘Elian Gonzales’ affair back in 2000. The thing I noticed is how the media was so able to evoke so much emotion in people. I remember in that particular situation, the second the news found something new and juicy to focus on, the previous story just disappeared overnight. Since then I have started to notice this all of the time, we get all hyped up on something and then it is forgotten he second something else is there to distract us.

You often hear people say that ‘everyone wants to look when there is an accident’ and the media knows this and thrives on it. The job of the ‘news’ is designed to conjure up emotion and sell a juicy story to get high ratings and dollars from advertisers. We feed into this and get distracted from more important things, we get polarized against our fellow Americans, we get on edge about things we can often do little or nothing about. Perhaps the best way we can help some of these causes is to let the media take less of a hold on our lives in the way that they do.

While there are so many varieties of mental junk food, mine came in the form of financial and political commentary (CNBC and MSNBC). Over the last few years as I have done my yearly mental and physical detoxing, I would take a few weeks to just shut off all of the ‘noise’ coming into my life from these so called news outlets. On CNBC every day the sky is either falling or there is a rally, we are on a financial cliff or another ‘meltdown’. As a long time investor I know the market naturally ebbs and flows, so perhaps my first realization that I needed to unplug my mind came at times where the market was down and I had no other choice but to just sit back and let it take its course. Over the more recent years, when I would take a big hit on my portfolio, the easiest thing to do was just not pay attention, and in a few months or years everything would be back to normal (or better). Why did I used to put myself through such stress all the time?

The political channels are even worse, because they are so polarizing. Everyone has a point of view, which is quite different from a fact, and these new political channels such as Fox and MSNBC know how to hit at the heart of your emotions. Whether you are liberal or conservatives, there are political channels designed specifically to cater to your point of view and tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to know. We take far too little responsibility in the news we digest and we allow our emotions to let us vindicate our own politicians for doing the same things we vilify in the other side. Her is an example of this: A few months ago during the run-up to the Presidential elections, from time to time I would notice all the rhetoric about gas prices and how the President was responsible for this. From a financial perspective, as someone who has studied gas and oil prices for years, I know that the POTUS has very little to do with the price of gas. Yet people, when politically convenient, will blame the President (part of this may truly be lack of knowledge) but when gas prices come down….crickets from the same people. In July of 2008 (deep in election season) the price of oil hit an all-time high $145 per barrel (and gas prices were over $4 per gallon) 6 months later due to the market crash and recession, gas prices were shaved in half and oil had dropped into the $30’s. So if you blame Bush for the run-up of oil and gas, shouldn’t you also give him credit for the drop in prices? Same with the current president, if you are so willing to blame him for high gas prices, shouldn’t you also praise him for supposedly bringing them down? Of course not, because gas prices are just a way to vent your frustration, and the political channels know they have a good story to get you riled up and mad. I feel this is incredibly irresponsible for not just the media but for us to use selective ignorance to back up our own beliefs.

This is just one of the many juicy subjects that are tailor made to enable us to feel the way we do. The reason why news stations are so polarized is because by picking sides, it is a guaranteed stream of customers willing to listen to whatever suits their position, but we don’t have to support this. In the past few years I merely took a few weeks off each year from this rhetoric, but after a while (since I work at home and often times have the TV on as background noise) I would fall back into my routines of CNBC and MSNBC. This past February, I could feel myself getting irritable, and during all the hype around “Kony” I must have been on auto pilot and felt myself engaging in useless debates and speculation over a subject I honestly know nothing about. I knew it was time for a mental cleanse, but a longer one, time to go on a permanent diet from this mental junk food.

Habits are usually hard to drop, but I can say for the most part, since February I have hardly paid attention to the news and all the fanaticism surrounding it. Since then we have had the rise and fall of Kony hype, two major mass shootings, a looming financial cliff and a presidential election, who knows what else but nothing really comes to mind that has had a real effect on my life. I am pretty sure that I still have a good bearing of what has been going on in the world, and nothing in the news that I know (or don’t know of) has changed anything in my life. Well, with the exception that my brain is a lot less cluttered, with lots of space and time to fill with more productive and healthy mental food.  I have more time to enjoy being around those I love and time to spend on more productive and healthy pursuits. I am less reactionary, less contrarian, less argumentative, less irritable. It feels great!

Of course mental junk food can come in so many other varieties, what are some vices that your brain craves? Is it useless arguments with conservatives or liberals that don’t and never will share your same beliefs? Is it the latest reality series like Jersey Shore or Real House Wives of Beverly Hills that has you ensnared and watching in on someone else’s train wreck of a life? Is it the useless gossip going around at work or school that keeps you focused on someone else’s business and not your own? Maybe there are a few useless horror flicks that you might be able to swap out for something a bit more rewarding. The list is long but so are the options of direction your attention into a more fulfilling way.

I am sure you have heard the ‘conspiracy theories’ of a new world order that keeps people distracted and in debt. Sometimes it feels like more than just a conspiracy, we are very distracted and in debt. Not only are we fed such enormous amounts of garbage, but we are bombarded with advertising and live a lifestyle of trying to keep up with the Jones, in a rat race always needing to get the latest and greatest I-phone or whatever. Time to unplug a bit.

During the last mass shooting which occurred only a few months ago, I posed a question about gun control, which in retrospect was a big time sucker and of course didn’t change anything. I was curious why we can’t at least have a decent discussion about gun control without everyone getting all upset or divided, or feeling like rights were being taken away. What a can of worms it is and always will be. It always boils down to the question of if it is guns or if it is the people. I tend to think the problem goes so much deeper than just access to guns, it is our society which is constantly feed a diet of mental junk food. I can’t control guns or gun rights or change other people’s minds, but at least I can limit what comes into my own life.

A few weeks from now we turn the page on another year, most people like to have a list of ‘resolutions’. I seem to feel like there is no reason to wait for a new year to start on a new project or personal change, but nevertheless it is a great time to try out new things. Would you like to join me on a mental cleanse? Maybe even take it further and hit up my fiancé Angela for a full body detox (of course no pressure, just throwing it out there). It feels great to renew ourselves, it is what we are built to do naturally, of course there are ways for us to facilitate this process and help us to be the best that we can be.

Have a great holiday season!

Simon