How To Cope When The News Is Traumatizing
These days, a quick-moving but emotionally ravaging news cycle is to be expected. But sometimes, it can still be quite surprising when one particular event breaks, and is particularly upsetting. Just don't beat yourself up for not being able to shake it. Turns out, a lot of people don't really understand how bad news affects us, or what to do when it does.
So what's really going on in your head when the news gets too much? Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Web Radio Show tells Bustle that we're experiencing an indirect, but genuine, physical response. "We are hardwired to have physiological responses to anything we perceive as a threat or danger," Dr. Klapow says. "This is our 'fight-or-flight' response. As humans, we learn vicariously — that is we can learn without having to directly go through the threat or danger."
Next, you might respond similarly to if you were responding to a trauma, Dr. Klapow says. The degree of intensity can vary depending on how directly affected by the event you were, whether you've had a similar experience, or whether you have particular life stressors that can trigger that response, Dr. Klapow says, but the symptoms are very real, and include panic, difficulty concentrating, and shortness of breath.
Though the news won't stop coming, there are things to do to protect yourself from feeling overwhelmed. Here are nine ways to care for your mental health when the news is traumatizing, according to experts.
1. Limit Your Media Consumption
First and foremost: you're not a bad person if you spend less time paying attention to the news. "Stay informed - but monitor yourself," Dr. Klapow says. Whether it's a news break or setting guidelines for yourself to consume news media in moderation, taking a step back can really help your mental health.
Brennan C. Mallonee, licensed mental health counselor, tells Bustle that it's totally possible to adjust your usual habits. "Give yourself a window and then resist the urge to pull up Facebook when you have a spare minute," Mallonee says. "You might even get rid of news and social media apps on your phone to make it harder to give in to those impulses when you're out and about. If it's tough to stop scrolling at the end of your designated time, set a timer to help remind you to move onto other things."
If you find that those adjustments aren't helpful, Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist, suggests to Bustle that you limit how you consume media coverage. "For example, you may be better off reading about a violent event instead of seeing the graphic images on TV," Dr. Martinez says. Plus, Dr. Martinez adds, try not to consume news media of any sort at least 30 mins before bed.
None of this means to stop reading or watching the news. "Balance and moderation are key," says Dr. Klapow says. Build some no-news time into your day, and you might feel better already.
2. Meet Your Basic Needs
If you're overwhelmed by stressful news, missing out on food and sleep is not going to help one bit. "Stressful information takes its toll on body and mind — and so it is critical that you meet your basic physical needs to combat the stress of distressing news," Dr. Klapow says.
Ask yourself some basic questions. "Are you eating relatively healthy? Are you getting some exercise? Are you sleeping? Are you staying hydrated? These general health practices can help you keep your mental and physical health strong during stressful news cycles," Dr. Klapow says. Try going to bed earlier (again, without scrolling through your newsfeed right before you sleep), and making sure you get a balanced breakfast with a tall glass of water.
It's hard to feel good at all if you aren't addressing these issues first.
3. Accept How You Feel, And Know It Will Pass
Another key to feeling better is forgiving yourself. Fighting your feelings won't make the pain go away.
"Allow yourself to feel upset about what happened and for the victims (if there are victims) without judging yourself or feeling stressed out that you are feeling bad," Dr. Lata K. McGinn, Co-Founder of Cognitive & Behavioral Consultants (CBC), tells Bustle. Try not to focus on "shoulds" and "should nots." "Expect that if something upsetting occurs, you will be anxious," Dr. McGinn says. "Don’t judge it or try to stop it."
Once you let yourself feel, you can remind yourself that the feeling will pass. "Keep things in perspective," Dr. McGinn says. It may feel like upsetting events happen all the time because you're reading the news constantly, but you will feel OK again — and you deserve to.
4. Differentiate Compassion And Empathy
Empathy can be draining; compassion rarely is. Realizing this can help you refocus your perspective and start to feel better after a traumatic news event.
Too much empathy (understanding or sharing the feelings of others) may even lead to more serious mental health consequences when you literally start to take on others' pain. "It's called vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue," Dr. Martinez says. While compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma usually arise amongst helpers and caregivers, it's possible to occur from news media consumption, too.
To protect yourself, try mindfully transitioning from empathy to compassion. "Compassion is the act of wishing someone to be free of suffering — it is an energy that you can engage in that doesn't necessarily involve the rekindling of difficult emotions that might result in compassion fatigue ... Instead, offer gentle compassion, but know that you will be strongest and most aware if you are able to keep your head above water when it comes to your own emotional well-being," Katie Krimer MA, LMSW, psychotherapist at Union Square Practice tells Bustle. The shift to compassion is likely going to be more helpful to both you and the person or community you're feeling for.
5. Focus On Breathing
Breathing right is the key to bringing your body back down from an anxious state. When you need to feel better immediately, it's all about breath.
"Know that your breath has a VIP relationship with your nervous system ... If you're upset about something you just heard or something going on, make sure you take regular deep belly breaths with a longer exhale than inhale," Eileen Purdy, master of social work and anxiety therapist, tells Bustle. One exercise Purdy suggests is to breath in for the count of four, then hold for four, and breathe out for eight. See? Better already.
6. Consider History
Putting things into perspectives is sometimes a really big-picture ordeal. "Although it seems that the world is so much worse off than it used to be, when I look at the evolution over time I realize that in many ways it's much better, we are just more bombarded with information, and fear is what gets attention," Jasmin Terrany, licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) tells Bustle.
Things aren't great everywhere right now, but we've got billions of humans, across time, with shared experiences, on our side. "Remind yourself of the quote of Theodore Parker used by Dr. Martin Luther King, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice'," Purdy says.
Our access to information means that the world's pain is closer than ever before, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Humans have always found a way to pick up the pieces and build a better world, even after the worst of events," Mallonee says. We'll make it through.
7. See The Bigger Picture
Remember: it's not all bad. "One traumatic event gets 99 percent of the attention when it's really only one percent of reality. Find ways to broaden your view to notice all the positive and beautiful things that are happening as well," Terrany says.
When the going gets tough, even mental health professionals need a dose of positive inspiration. "I try to remember the Mr. Rogers quote, 'Look for the helpers,'" Mallonee says. Try the good news section of The Week magazine. Or, if you can, remember that even the most awful events are followed by love and care by some.
"Realize the positives that are going on each and every day," Purdy says. "This won't come via the main news outlets. If news is important to you, find sources that cover all the positive things going on in the world too and balance out the information you're receiving."
8. Practice Spirituality (Whatever That Means To You)
While a faith community can be a major source of comfort, so can personal spirituality in times of crisis. "When you have a grounding spiritual belief system it is easier to see the imperfect perfection of humanity and have love and compassion for not only what goes on in the world, but the way that media presents it," Terrany says.
If a "belief system" doesn't seem up your alley, mindfulness, too can act as a spiritual lifeline when everything gets to be too much.
"Mindfulness practice can also simply give you your own peace of mind amidst chaos... Mindfulness can help us build [our emotional reserves] so that we know when we are fusing too strongly with life's tragedies. Take care of your own heart and mind," Krimer says. Once you feel grounded in something, things may fall into place a little more smoothly.
9. Engage Positively With The World Around You
While you're looking for the helpers, try to become one yourself. "I try to engage — to take my distress and work with it — either directly by helping, indirectly by contributing and supporting others who are in a helping role," says Dr. Klapow. Plus, helping others is proven to be amazing for your health.
"Whenever you feel overwhelmed at the news, think of one or two concrete things you can do to make the world a better place," Mallonee says. "These could be small (smiling and saying "hi" to the barista when you grab your morning coffee) or big (volunteering for a local organization involved in something you care about). The news tends to make us feel helpless, but taking even the smallest action to build a better world can counteract that and help us feel more hopeful and motivated to play our part in changing things."
Whether or not you feel up to a protest or letter to Congress, you can help another person in some way. Being kind and generous may feel inconsequential, but it can put a smile on your face and readjust your perspective a bit.
It's important to remember that a trauma response to the news is normal and generally manageable. But also don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. "If the news has been triggering you to the point where you're not sure how to get your balance again, or if it's bringing up painful memories of frightening things from your own past, you might consider finding a trauma-informed therapist who can help you figure out the best ways to take care of yourself," Mallonee says.
In the meantime, care for yourself, care for your others, and try not to read the news before bed.