You don’t need to look far for bad news. In fact, turn on the TV or radio, check your social media feed or hang out at the workplace watercooler and chances are bad news will find you. War, torture, natural disasters, gun violence in the most unimaginable settings — it seems there’s no break from fear and heartbreak. We’re inundated with warnings about which foods are harmful, and what was healthy one day is demonized a week later. Fluctuating prices for necessities like gas and groceries pinch our wallets. We hear of mass extinctions on the planet and wonder whether we’re next. Government scandals make us shake our heads in disillusionment.
Excessive TV watching often regularly exposes us to this kind of disturbing content. Add in its correlation with inactivity, overeating and obesity and you have a recipe for increased depression and anxiety. We may feel emotionally immobilized when we “veg out” in front of a screen. The journalism industry has an adage about bad news: “If it bleeds, it leads.” But the element of drama that makes a story newsworthy can also lead to emotional hemorrhaging in its audience. Even if we aren’t immediately or directly impacted by specific world events, we can experience vicarious traumatization. This is typically encountered by health care professionals who serve abuse or trauma survivors, but anyone immersed in witnessing the woes of the world might notice:
- Increased cynicism and pessimism
- Isolation from family and friends
- A desire to numb emotions with substances or addictive behaviors
- Sleeplessness and nightmares
- Impatient and critical communication
- Hopelessness and a sense of helplessness
- Fear for the safety of self and loved ones
- A perception that those with different beliefs are the enemy
- A tendency to catastrophize experiences or to dwell on problems rather than seeking solutions
Although you might want to stay informed, a brief “news fast” might help you determine how traumatic news events affect you emotionally. As much as possible, avoid reading or hearing about the news during those times. Getting involved in organizations that work to improve the community or heal the planet can also help stave off some of the symptoms of vicarious traumatization. These activities could take many forms, such as volunteering to read to children, mentor youth, care for animals, visit isolated elderly, build for Habitat for Humanity, or cook for those who are shut in. Look for ways to pay kind deeds forward. If someone does something caring for you, pass on the good feelings that come along with it to someone else. This gesture might be as simple as paying for a meal of people at the table near you at a restaurant. One such deed in 2002 led to the creation of Twilight Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to seniors. After seeing a group of elderly women cobbling together change to pay for their food at a Pennsylvania diner, Cass Forkin asked the server to let her anonymously pay their bill. When her cover was blown, the women thanked her “for not forgetting us.” That small act of kindness led to the establishment of a full-blown nonprofit organization a year later. Reframing your perspective can also help you weather traumatic news. Consider what’s right about the world, not just what’s wrong with it. Kindness is all around. Notice it in your daily interactions, or perhaps be the source of it. You’ll see yourself as part of the solution rather than feeling helpless and afraid. If you are spirituality inclined, you might pray regularly for guidance to see things positively and take uplifting action to be that force for good in the world. You might also pray for help realizing that circumstances are uncertain and that worrying won’t prevent stressful events. Here are some other simple ideas for ways to use positivity to temper the stress of bad news:
- Seek out uplifting coverage at sites such as Good News Network.
- Plant a garden to grow your own food, and share the bounty with others.
- Donate used clothes, toys, furniture, books, and magazines to shelters.
- Leave money in the meter when you leave a parking spot.
- Listen to someone who needs a sympathetic ear.
- Make extra food when preparing a meal and give it to a neighbor.
- Give to charities if you can.
- Compliment someone else on a job well done.
- Smile at strangers.
- Encourage children in your life to be pro-social so they feel they’re making a difference, too.
- Steer clear of intoxicating substances.
- Shovel a neighbor’s driveway or mow someone else’s lawn.
- Speak kindly to family, friends, and strangers.
- Spend time with positive and pro-active people. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn has been quoted as saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
There’s a famous old folk tale called the Stone Soup Story. In it, villagers put together a feast with shared ingredients, though all they had to begin with was a rock. The people in the story believe the rock makes the soup delicious, but the truth is that the meal gets its flavor from the ingredients they add. We all feed the collective soup pot. Make sure your contribution nourishes the world — and yourself.