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A Psychologist Explains How to Deal When the News Feels Overwhelming

May 3, 2019

We try to stay positive and see the good in the world, we really do. But sometimes it feels like tragedies pile up, like there’s just so much bad news all the time. Then, when an especially big thing happens, it’s too much.

Here in the Clean Plates community, we’re all dedicated to keeping up our physical health and we want to make sure we’re also caring for our mental health as well. So we checked in with clinical psychologist Dr. Sumi Raghavan, PhD, to find out how our exposure to tragedy affects us and what we can do to take care of ourselves.

Q: Is there actually a mental threshold for tragedy? Like, a certain amount after which the average person becomes more acutely affected?
A: We’re living in troubled times, and many people are impacted by the frequency and intensity of difficult news. I think a lot of people are curious as to how mass tragedies like shootings and natural disasters can impact people who weren’t directly involved. We have a ton of research on this coming out of things like the September 11 attacks that suggest that even those who are physically removed from the experience can experience a lot of emotional distress, particularly if they’re constantly watching images and videos of the tragedy, hearing testimonials, etc.

This is particularly true for people with histories of trauma themselves, even if it’s a different trauma. For example, watching a video of a survivor describing feelings of helplessness and horror can remind somebody of when they felt that way, and the feeling themselves can awaken memories of the previous trauma. We are built to remember difficult events for the purpose of protecting ourselves from them in the future, so it’s actually not difficult to kick those memories back up again if there are enough familiar cues and signals.

In terms of the question, “How much can one person take”? The answer—as always with human psychology—is that it depends.

We all have the ability to cope, or psychologically defend against the negative impact of life-stressors. But how much we can cope with is impacted by things like the level of social or external support we have, previous history of trauma and how we think about or appraise the stressor. People who have experienced a lot of tragedy, have little social support, and see their stressors as uncontrollable and unpredictable, often have the most difficulty bouncing back. But that threshold really varies person to person, which is why self-awareness is key to recognizing when your emotional distress is really impacting you.

Q: How can someone tell if all the bad news is affecting them?
A: I’m really glad you asked this, because speaking as a psychologist, I’m grateful for clients who are really tuned into how they’re feeling. The first thing is to gauge the intensity of your emotional reaction, maybe even checking in with yourself on a 1 to 10 scale. If you’re watching a tragedy on television and are upset by it, but you’re able to turn off the TV and resume your normal activities, that’s a positive sign. However, if you feel thrown off all day, like what you saw on TV keeps looping itself or popping into your head at inopportune moments, it’s probably taking up too much head space.

If you find you learn of a tragedy and you’re suddenly remembering your own difficult experiences, and again those memories are popping up more often, at unexpected times, and distracting you, that’s worth paying attention to.

Sleep and appetite are intimately connected to our mental health and well-being and I think clients should always check in with themselves when they notice changes in these areas. If these things are happening and you also notice you’re increasingly irritable and having difficulty managing your day-to-day tasks, you’re probably in need of a self-care break.

Q: What are some ways people can mitigate some of the effects?
A: Psychologists often talk about coping in two ways: Problem-focused or emotion-focused. The former is taking concrete steps to cope with the problem; an easy example would be as a New Yorker, when you realize your train isn’t coming, you start brainstorming alternate routes or call an Uber. Emotion-focused coping is about dealing with the difficult feelings. Sometimes you need to make the judgment call that you can’t concretely fix the situation, so you need to protect your emotions.

First, turn off your TV, close your social media feed, whatever it is. Reduce the bombardment. Then, ask yourself, what makes you feel good? Some people love meditating, others don’t. If you know that 30 minutes of escapist TV or a quick run can give you a mental break, then do that. If you can do things to change the way you feel in a particular moment, you can reduce your stress load, and regroup your emotional resources. I’d also say don’t underestimate the impact of actually talking about how you’re feeling. Call somebody you trust and say, “Man, I just heard about X event, and it’s messing with me.”

Gratitude practices are great and there’s research to support it. I’d say it falls into a different category because it’s hard to access gratitude in a moment of anxiety or overwhelming feelings. So, it’s less something you’d do in response to the tragedy and more part of your daily self-care ritual, like brushing your teeth.

Q: Is it harmful to watch footage of a tragedy over and over? Or helpful?
A: Historically, psychologists have thought of avoidance as a poor coping strategy. It can become extreme quickly because in the short term it works—you can’t have bad experiences if you have no experiences. There’s a value in facing your fears and recognizing that you can handle them. That said, we all need boundaries and it’s important to find a balance.

People are glued to the news during tragedies because it can create an illusion of control. People believe they need information, that having this information will protect them or inform them if they need to take action, and in some cases it confirms their existing anxieties, which people find very validating. For example, if you’re the stereotypical helicopter parent, you may be really drawn to negative news stories about child abductions because they confirm your fears and justify your parenting style. So there’s a lot of reasons why we’re drawn to those bad stories, but the answer isn’t necessarily to just avoid the news entirely. Ideally you want to balance your bad news consumption with some well-protected boundaries. Like, no more than 30 minutes spent on news stories per day, or no more than 30 minutes on social media. You can set timers for yourself and say, “I am allowed to fall down the rabbit hole until this timer goes off,” as long as you can stick to that and afterwards, you go back to your life.

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