Events unfolding globally during recent years have brought up difficult feelings for many. With fear of illness, disease, death and war consuming our screens and subsequently impacting our thoughts emotions and our reality, many people have reported a decline in their mental health and ability to cope. But are we really supposed to be carrying the burden of the entire world? How can we manage our emotional response when faced with consistent messages of danger?
I experience heightened anxiety when I watch people suffering through the window of my television. I experience a deep sense of peace, tranquillity and connectedness when I listen to the birds singing in the trees through the window of my house, which I’m very grateful for. How can two seemingly opposite hellish/heavenly realities exist within my same world? In hindsight, they always have and sadly probably always will for as long as I live. The answer here is focus, recent events portrayed through the lens of the media, seem to have heightened our focus on the painful stuff.
It’s common knowledge that restricting and reducing news viewing has a positive impact on mental wellbeing. It’s also recognised that completely ignoring world events can become a form of denial, so how do we strike the balance and why is it so difficult to turn off the news if we feel so adversely impacted by it? First, we need to understand what is happening to us phychologically when we become adversely impacted by hard-hitting media stories.
We pick up a newspaper, a shocking headline catches our attention, we experience a mild feeling of unease as the body releases a short, small burst of cortisol and adrenaline. That feeling turns to an emotion when we decide to read on, the bold red letters used by the media unconsciously tells our psyche there is danger. Whilst in this hyper aroused state, we decide to scroll through more news stories, our emotion turns into a mood as we begin to experience anxiety for our own safety. The world feels like an unsafe place, even if the birds are singing outside of our windows. Negative statistics and images of suffering activate the mirror neurons in our brain, we begin to feel some of the pain we see and hear. This process becomes habitual and we become “newsaholics”. Our brains become addicted to the stress response and our anxious mood becomes our nature. A study during 9/11 showed that people watching the event unfold on the news developed symptoms of PTSD, simply watching traumatic events can make us mentally unwell. This is called vicarious trauma or secondary trauma. If you feel stuck in this cycle, here are three steps to help you break the pattern:
- Proact – if you feel impacted by worldly events, decide how much of your time you want to spend each week consuming this endless information. Set yourself a boundary and stick to it. There are always good and bad things happening in this world.
- Counteract – for every one minute of news you read, counteract with two minutes of self-care by changing your focus. When we are impacted by difficult feelings brought about by world events, our fight/flight system is activated. Make sure you have a ritual for soothing your sympathetic nervous system, moving from anxiety, into rest, recharge and recover.
- React – you don’t need to watch hours of the news to know what is going on in the world and to make a difference. You can still dedicate your life to helping others and making a change in the world without absorbing endless trauma. Remember, you can’t help anyone if you’re suffering yourself.
I appreciate we don’t all have this same emotional response, but for those that resonate here, I hope this helps. For more support on soothing the fight/flight system, please get in touch.