How To Cope When The News Is Traumatizing

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Even if you pay attention to the news every day, it can still be surprising when a particular event stresses you out. But 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 feels like 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," 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."

You might even react just like you would if you were responding to a trauma, Klapow says. The degree of intensity can vary, but Klapow says the symptoms could 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. Below you'll find some expert-approved ways to care for your mental health when the news is traumatizing.

1. Balance & Monitor Your News Consumption

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. "Stay informed — but monitor yourself," Klapow says.

Brennan C. Mallonee, licensed mental health counselor, tells Bustle that it's totally possible to adjust your usual habits by giving yourself a window to consume news. "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," Mallonee says.

Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist says you can also limit how you consume coverage. "You may be better off reading about a violent event instead of seeing the graphic images on TV," Martinez says. Plus, 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, though. "Balance and moderation are key," Klapow says.

2. Meet Your Basic Needs

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If you're overwhelmed by stressful news, missing out on 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," 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," Klapow says.

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 [...] 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," McGinn says. "Don’t judge it or try to stop it."

Once you let yourself feel, remind yourself that the feeling will pass.

4. Differentiate Compassion & Empathy

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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," Martinez says. While compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma usually arise amongst helpers and caregivers, it's possible to occur from news 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." Katie Krimer MA, LMSW, psychotherapist at Union Square Practice tells Bustle.

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," Anxiety therapist Eileen Purdy, MSW, tells Bustle. One exercise Purdy suggests is to breath in for the count of four, then hold for four, and breathe out for eight.

6. See The Bigger Picture

When the going gets tough, even mental health professionals need a dose of positive inspiration, whether it's reading the good news section of The Week magazine or practicing gratitude. "I try to remember the Mr. Rogers quote, 'Look for the helpers,'" Mallonee says.

"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."

7. Practice Spirituality (Whatever That Means To You)

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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 [it's presented]," Terrany says.

If a belief system isn't up your alley, mindfulness 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.

8. 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 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. "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."

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.


Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and Host of The Web Radio Show

Brennan C. Mallonee, licensed mental health counselor

Dr. Erika Martinez, licensed psychologist

Dr. Lata K. McGinn, Co-Founder of Cognitive & Behavioral Consultants (CBC)

Katie Krimer MA, LMSW, psychotherapist at Union Square Practice

Anxiety therapist Eileen Purdy, MSW