Rebecca Elia's Blog

All about Feminine Health, Healing, and Greece

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What You’re Not Hearing About “Balloon Boy”

Did you, like me, get caught up in the “Balloon Boy” story? I long ago promised myself to stop watching the news since I was fully aware of its devastating effects on the immune system. Research supports that bad news wreaks havoc with our immune system, potentially making us more susceptible to such diseases as infections and cancer. I often wonder if the news came with an attached hazardous health warning label, similar to cigarettes, whether or not it would convince more of the general public to turn it off.

As everyone was calling the Balloon Boy story a “good story,” I was left questioning what was good about it, beyond, of course, the obvious—that he was safe and alive. Was anyone else out there upset by all of the usual drama? It was quite familiar to me. It was the same drama that the news strives for, the same kind that had convinced my father, several years ago, that the new strain of Japanese flu was going to lead to the worst outbreak ever. Sound familiar? This year, same story, different flu… While the newscaster excitedly reported that this was going to be the most devastating flu ever, that it would lead, potentially, to thousands of deaths, I turned to my father and said, “Every year tens of thousands of people die from the flu. This doesn’t appear to be any different than usual.” Ignoring my expertise as a physician and accepting, instead, that of the newscaster, my father answered, unconvinced, “But he said it was going to be the worst, ever.” My father is not a stupid man so he’s reaction was shocking. I was witnessing the power of the media, of sensationalism, right before my very eyes, with someone who “should know better,” who was rarely swayed by others. I continued, “Watch, in a few days, they’ll have to retract everything they’ve just said, because they are wrong, and what they are doing, scaring hundreds of thousands of people, is wrong.” Sure enough, three days later, what I predicted took place, very quietly, so that one could have easily missed it. Again, I was sitting next to my father when he heard the good news. He barely reacted. I asked if he had heard it. He said “yes,” and shrugged it off, like an afterthought.

But well before that third day, the damage had already been done…to hundreds of thousands of immune systems.

So, when I watched the “Balloon Boy” saga, I couldn’t help but notice the drama, the excitement of the unknown, the fear, the terror. It was disgusting. And I couldn’t help but wonder what toll this drama was taking on our immune systems. How many parents were thinking about the possibility of their own children being in danger? How many were filled with anger that the child could have been in such an unprotected situation?

When they announced that he had been found, safe, at their home, hiding, some two-plus hours later, my relief was coupled with a bad taste in my mouth. Once again, we had all participated in this wasteful drama. And our payment goes beyond the enormous financial price tag of such a rescue mission. One of the crazy hopes I have is that, in my lifetime, I will see those who purposefully create negative drama pay the price for the harm that they cause to others. I wonder--am I the only one who sees it this way?


  1. Why is it so disgusting?

    All stress harms our immune system. News stress can be especially costly, and is not as rewarding as real interactions that cause stress. However, I would argue that stressful stories such as the balloon boy lead to rewarding interactions with others, even if it is shared disgust.

    They lead to interesting analysis, such as yours above.

    Sharing an interactions in the space of common consciousness, to me, is often worth the stress. I'm willing to make that trade as long as it continues to be rewarding.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Clayton.

    As a physician, my observations/opinions are obviously biased. I see, day-in and day-out, the harmful effects of all kinds of stressors.

    Perhaps I wasn't clear. I find the deliberate exaggeration or misrepresentation of a medical threat, for financial gain, disgusting. When you have hundreds of thousands of people worried about the H1N1 virus, for example, that fear (stress, worry), in itself, makes those individuals more susceptible to the actual virus.

  3. Elia,

    Oh, I see. I did understand your point, I meant to comment more as a reaction, not to refute.

  4. I guess it does suck that people will inevitably be stressed out by certain breaking news... but it's the same type of 'epidemic' of sorts as obesity in America- it only affects the people who more or less choose to let it affect them.

    If the news stresses you out, don't watch it. If you don't want to get fat, eat right and exercise.

    This may seem unsympathetic, but the majority of humans like drama because it makes them feel alive. There is something exciting about being able to react to something. We get off on it. For those who don't, maybe they should focus on stuff they enjoy. People don't attend scary movies so they can be terrified for their lives; they do it for a thrill, to feel *more* alive. As with anything, peer pressure can make you do things that are unwise for your health, but it is always up to you to decide what to pass on and what to care about/take advantage of. That is my opinion.

    If news is your escapist vice and stress is the consequence, there are worse vices out there. If it isn't a vice, it stresses you out and you are still watching it... stress from the news probably isn't your worst psychological problem.

  5. Thanks for your comment,Samiflick.

    You have made some really important points. You have, in fact, described an addiction. I would add that no one has the "choice" to simply not watch the news until they have recognized the behavior first--along with its benefits and its potential ill-effects. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss. Most people are completely unaware of its potential negative effects on the immune system and are, as you say, "getting off on it."

    I hope this post and these comments bring attention to this, because, once you read this, you do, in fact, have exactly this choice.

  6. I think we also self-medicate using events like this. When we don't get enough sleep, or suffer from poor nutrition, or we're chronically hypothyroid, for example, we gravitate towards "stimulants" like caffeine or nicotine as self-medicating "energizers."

    Similarly, we may also gravitate toward situations that can self-medicate us in a stimulating way. So we get all fired up, excited and stressed out about events in other parts of the country or the world that have no bearing on us, pose us no danger, and have nothing to do with us. But they DO produce a stress response, and that pumps us up with adrenaline.

    One of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to take news fasts. And generally, we're better off reading our news -- newspapers or online -- rather than getting news from tv/video and radio -- which have moving images, voices and anxiety-laden newspeople -- who themselves are marinating in stress hormones -- communicating the news and stress to us.

    And in particular, "Sweeps" months are an especially good time to take a total break from the TV news. All those "Do you know about the life-threatening danger lurking in your bathroom? Find out tonight at 11 on News 7" teasers are KILLER for the adrenals and the immune system.

  7. Thank you Mary. I couldn't agree with you more.