Column: Coping with more bad news

“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”  Remember that line?  That’s how it feels this August as we get hit with more and more bad news every day.

The Delta variant of COVID has thrown everyone for a loop. Those of us who are vaccinated thought the worst of the virus was behind us. Now, many of us are back to wearing masks and are fearful for our young children. The TV images of crammed ICU units feel like déjà vu. And the conflicts between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, mask wearers and non-mask wearers, seem to get uglier each week. 

Meanwhile, as we watch the situation in Afghanistan unfold, it’s a nightmare in the making. In Haiti, an earthquake is destroying countless lives. Plus, a report recently told us what we all knew — that the planet is burning. And in our small corner of the world, drug overdoses have stunned our community.

How do you handle the stress of constant bad news? Put another way, how do you balance the need to know versus the potential to be overwhelmed? Is a news blackout the answer?  Do you narrow your world and decide to care only about what is happening in your immediate family? 

Most people would agree that such a level of self-absorption is not the way to live in the world. Should we not care about Afghanistan because it’s so far away? Our veterans would beg to differ.

How about not caring about the sick people because they refused to get vaccinated? A bit harsh, some would say. And does that mean we don’t care about their children, not to mention the health care workers toiling 24-hour days?

Mental health professionals, who overloaded themselves these past 18 months, agree that the constant barrage of tragedy around the world often leads people to feel anxious, depressed, helpless, and angry.

We see images of people suffering and it’s hard not to react. Plus, news outlets tend to focus on the most dramatic images, intended to grab us viscerally, and they usually succeed.

So if you want to stay connected to the world without being completely absorbed by it, experts suggest choosing your news sources carefully and with limits.

Disreputable and politically slanted sources will scream out headlines of questionable truth. It’s easy to constantly refresh your phone for the latest edition. (In fact, a Time Magazine article in May 2020 reported that 20% of Americans constantly refresh their news feed.) But it’s not emotionally helpful. Instead, arrange a set time to read a newspaper or tune into a reputable broadcast, and then call it quits for the day. 

Psychologist Steven Stosny even coined a term for this news-related anxiety: “Headline Stress Disorder.” He found that after the 2016 presidential election, many of his clients’ anger and vitriol was interfering with their interpersonal and intimate relationships. In a Washington Post article in 2017, Dr. Stosny says it’s essential to stay connected to people during times of upsetting news and that there are three levels of connection: community, personal, and spiritual.

In his view, “communities” consists of activities based on shared values or experiences.  “Personal” are friendships and intimate relationships. And “spiritual” can manifest itself through religion, nature, or creative work. Conversely, as many people learned during COVID last year, isolation during stressful times makes everything feel more difficult.

Mental health professionals also talk about the need for self-care. Yes, the term may be overused these days, but eating well, getting enough sleep, and listening to one’s body are important tools for emotional well-being.  During the height of COVID last year, it was not uncommon to be glued to the TV.

Every day brought new and useful information, and people were not leaving home much, anyway. Walking, exercise, yoga, and meditation became crucial to many to “keep their sanity” during that time. These are also useful now.

There will always be sadness in the world. As citizens of the world, it’s our responsibility to have a certain level of awareness. How much or how little is determined by many factors, including our interest and how much our emotions can sustain.

Let’s take care of our physical and emotional health, stay connected with people, and demonstrate compassion wherever we can.

Nancy Green is a retired social worker and a member of the Shelter Island Health and Wellness Alliance, along with Lucille Buergers, Jim Colligan, Laurie Fanelli, Trish Gallagher, Bonnie Stockwell, and Ryan Sultan, M.D.