Bad News Can Take a Toll on Your Mental Health—Here’s How to Cope

With natural disasters, health epidemics, and terrorist attacks dominating the news, it can be hard not to slip into a funk. These simple coping mechanisms can help.

bad-newsg stockstudio/ShutterstockAs human beings, it’s really challenging for us to digest daily installments of upsetting information, whether it’s fires, hurricanes, kidnappings, robberies, illness, firings, or worse. It can really take a toll on our nervous system, not to mention our mental health.

Grappling with disturbing current events is especially tough for people who struggle with anxiety, PTSD, depression, or other mental health issues, any of which makes us more vulnerable to everyday stressors in addition to the natural fear response that bad news tends to trigger.

As a survivor of the terrorist attack in New York City on 9/11, I’ve learned a handful of coping mechanisms that have really helped me, and that should be able to help you too when you feel emotionally triggered by what’s going on the world.

1. Mind your feet

What’s especially important during challenging times is to stay where your feet are and stay focused on the next thing you have to do. If you respond well to structure, you may want to do this even after work, or if you freelance or don’t work at all, make a schedule and try to stick to it. That’s the first thing: Stay where your feet are, which is code for staying grounded and knowing that in the present moment, you’re always okay.

2. Stick your head in the sand occasionally

Several wise women over the last few years have told me we have the right to control what we let into our world. We often feel like we have to know what’s going on to stay safe or be informed. But that’s not a rule. It feels easier said than done to take a break from the news, which is on screens at the gym, in restaurants and bars, and on our social news feed. Let’s say you’re at the gym or at a restaurant and you have no control over changing the channel. First, feel empowered to ask management to change it. If that fails, find something else to focus on. Always have a magazine or book with you to focus on, or listen for the bass or the rhythm of the song playing in your headphones.

3. Seek out positive news

You have permission to not watch the news, avoid websites covering this news, and read the lighter sections of the newspaper, and you can unfollow people on Facebook or limit what you both see in your privacy settings. This way, you don’t totally cut them off, but if they tend to post links, images, or opinions that upset you, there are ways to minimize your exposure to that in those settings. Now for the proactive part: Seek out people who share positive news, inspiring quotes, happy stories, fun videos. There’s no rule that says you have to use social media in a certain way. Make it work for you, or do a detox for a few days if you need it.

4. Find healthy distractions

When we’re uncomfortable or scared or upset, we need relief. That’s normal. However, many of us tend to gravitate toward unhealthy distractions or behaviors. For some of us, that might be alcohol, food, drugs, sex, shopping, or other things that soothe us in the short term but has consequences in the long term depending on how we’re using it. As for what constitutes a healthy distraction, that’s for you to decide. We all kind of know what is harmless and even beneficial, including exercise, meditation, listening to music, dancing, getting out in nature, writing poetry or pursuing other activities about which you’re passionate. (Here’s how to find a hobby you love.) The key is to take your attention away from the trigger by doing something that doesn’t bring negative consequences on you or anyone around you. I personally take advantage of a free app called Insight Timer with hundreds of targeted guided meditations, talks, and sounds, so if you’re someone who can’t just sit in silence, there’s a talk here for you, and it might be aimed at helping you reset or relax, find your happy place, work through a difficult feeling, or fall asleep.

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5. Know how to cope in the moment

If you get triggered in real time, and you need relief immediately at work or on the subway or in traffic, try timed breathing exercises. You can do these with eyes closed or open, depending on where you are. Eyes open in a car, eyes closed at home or in your office if you have one.

Try this: inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds.

Another way to try that is a cycle of 5, 5, 5, 5, holding out the exhale for 5.

Do these 10 times or time yourself for two minutes. For me it’s a really good way to cut through the immediacy and intensity of any negative feelings, and I can concentrate on the counting and it varies so it really faces me to be mindful.

6. Mind your body

Lastly, feel where your body is receiving support. For example, if you are sitting in a chair, notice where your body makes contact with the chair. Then, allow your weight to sink down into that chair. This can be done walking down the street or standing too. After that, see if you can locate where in your body you’re feeling activated, maybe you have shooting pains in your head, or your neck is tense, or your stomach feels knotted up or it feels like someone’s sitting on your chest…and then, find a neutral body part, maybe it’s your elbow or your calf or your ear lobe, and see if you can focus on that area to neutralize yourself.

7. Make a move

Remember too that sometimes taking action helps. Donate to a cause, whether with time or money, to help the victims we see or hear about on the news. Not only will your charitable contributions make a difference, but you’ll feel like you’ve taken back a bit of control over the events of the universe, and it may alleviate some of your distress.

8. Reach out to your support network

Lean on the people you trust and let them lean on you. Talk about your feelings so they don’t stay pent up to the point of near explosion.

If you feel like your ability to function is being affected, you’re not alone. Don’t hesitate to consult a professional who specializes in managing anxiety and other issues by helping you learn skills like some of what I’ve mentioned above, and who can help you work through your fears and feelings.

Helaina Hovitz is author of After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey through Darkness to a New Beginning.

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