I’m hearing a lot of guilt. A lot of anxiety tainted by guilt about anxiety.
I’m hearing “I don’t know why I feel so bad’ and ‘I’m normally stronger than this’ over and over again from clients.
Folk feeling impotent. Powerless. Scared.
Well, guess what? It’s normal to be scared. The war in Ukraine is scary – and not just because it’s close to home for many or because, as many news outlets have claimed, because ‘they look like us.’ It’s scary because of its potential to escalate. And if you are a child of the 80s, you’ll be triggered by talk of nuclear war. Kids -and adults- were genuinely afraid during the Cold War. You’ll perhaps remember government advice about storing canned food and water in the cupboard-under-the-stairs .
It’s normal to feel scared. It’s normal to feel anxious. And in normal times, you’d have reserves of confidence and resilience to dig into. But wait – we’ve used those up on two years of COVID fears and uncertainty. So, now, when you need those resources to buoy yourself up, they’re not there.
These are not normal times. Maybe stop holding yourself to your ‘normal’ standards. Normal isn’t normal right now. Give yourself a break.
Back in March, on another blog, I wrote that I was done with the news. I was aware that even reading tweets about UK politics, US elections and the aftermath, Afghanistan…(the list is endless), left me feeling anxious, frustrated, impotent. So I stopped. My mood and sense of self improved dramatically.
So it worked for me. Later, whilst counselling with Bob who suffers from PTSD (clearly not his real name, though he has given me permission to share the essence of the story) I shared my experience. And he bought into it wholesale. No more TV news. No more Twitter or Facebook on his phone. He even asked colleagues to avoid the subject around him and found himself instead discussing family, hobbies and reading with them. He changed a lifelong habit of listening the radio in favour of curated playlists (a later post will address music and wellbeing). And the reported drop in anxiety and negative self-talk was impressive.
So much for anecdotal evidence
So I began to wonder what research was out there on the subject. Perhaps not surprisingly most recent research relates specifically to anxiety and COVID19 news. In a 2021 paper, Jain found that, ‘High levels of news exposure led to lower levels of trust that led to low satisfaction and happiness.’ Stainback et al (2020) reported, from a survey of over 11,500 participants, ‘that greater COVID-19 media consumption is associated with greater psychological distress and that approximately two thirds of this effect operates indirectly through increased perceptions of COVID-19 threats.’ Neill et al. (2021) conclude that ‘Evidence suggests that frequent media exposure is related to a higher prevalence of mental health problems, especially anxiety and depression.’ Similar research produces similar results for other specific news events as well as for the more generalised consumption of news (Holman et al., 2019; Thompson et al., 2017; Thompson et al., 2019).
Bad is stronger than good
Whilst the Hollywood culture teaches us that good prevails, in fact it’s bad news that intrigues and draws us in. This goes back to hunter-gather times when your entire world was the 30 or 40 people you knew and gossip was a means of survival. Knowing who did what to whom, who could be trusted etc, was crucial. Fast forward to 24/7 news coverage and this evolutionary survival trait backfires on itself. News outlets claim that the increasingly negative bent of the news is consumer driven. Trussler & Soroka (2014) concur – in their randomised controlled lab study ‘regardless of what participants say, they exhibit a preference for negative news content.’ More generally, we are programmed to pay more attention to ‘bad’ – again, back to our hunter-gathering roots, ‘good’ could mean an extra meal, ‘bad’ probably meant death. (A study into psychological preference found that ‘Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.’ (Baumeister et al., 2001))
How to avoid the ‘news blues’
‘Numerous studies have shown that too much negative news can affect your mental health, promoting anxiety and depression, and even acute stress reactions in some extreme cases,’ says David Mischoulon, MD, PhD, Director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He suggests some tactics to protect mental health and avoid ‘news blues’.
Like dieting, think smaller portions. Some news is good, being aware of whats going on the world is good. Too much of the same diet however, is bad. Limit your news exposure to certain periods of time during the day and avoid ‘catching up’ just before sleep.
Self-monitor. If a news item is making you feel agitated, turn it off. Walk away. Breathe. Do something else and return to it late if you feel you need to.
Don’t watch the same news over and over again. News channels recycle their stories, producing ‘updates’ hourly or more often throughout the day. Usually nothing has changed, except one more ‘commentator’ adds their own opinion. News becomes views about news and spirals off into infinite regress.
If you can, take a day off now and then. A whole day. The world won’t stop just because you aren’t watching it. Take some time to watch yourself.
“How to Avoid the ‘News Blues’ While Still Staying Connected to the World: Limiting your news consumption and being more selective about your news sources can help.” Mind, Mood & Memory, vol. 17, no. 9, Sept. 2021, p. 3.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370. https://doi.org/10.1037//1089-26184.108.40.2063
Holman, E. A., Garfin, D. R., Lubens, P., & Silver, R. C. (2019). Media Exposure to Collective Trauma, Mental Health, and Functioning: Does It Matter What You See? Clinical Psychological Science, 8(1), 111–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702619858300
Jain, P. (2021). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Positive Psychology: The Role of News and Trust in News on Mental Health and Well-Being. Journal of Health Communication, 26(5), 317–327. https://doi.org/10.1080/10810730.2021.1946219
Neill, R. D., Blair, C., Best, P., McGlinchey, E., & Armour, C. (2021). Media consumption and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: a UK cross-sectional study across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Journal of Public Health. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10389-021-01506-0
Stainback, K., Hearne, B. N., & Trieu, M. M. (2020). COVID-19 and the 24/7 News Cycle: Does COVID-19 News Exposure Affect Mental Health? Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 6, 237802312096933. https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120969339
Thompson, R. R., Garfin, D. R., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2017). Distress, Worry, and Functioning Following a Global Health Crisis: A National Study of Americans’ Responses to Ebola. Clinical Psychological Science, 5(3), 513–521. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702617692030
Thompson, R. R., Jones, N. M., Holman, E. A., & Silver, R. C. (2019). Media exposure to mass violence events can fuel a cycle of distress. Science Advances, 5(4), eaav3502. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aav3502
Trussler, M., & Soroka, S. (2014). Consumer Demand for Cynical and Negative News Frames. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 19(3), 360–379. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161214524832
We may not know when, or how, but we do know that life will eventually return to normal. This doesn’t necessarily mean that things will continue as before, but routines will establish themselves, economies will recover and kids will go back to school, in some form or other. There will be a new ‘normal’.
This episode will never be forgotten, nor should it be. As with any trauma – and yes, this is a traumatic experience – people tend to rise to the occasion and ‘bear it out’. As with any trauma, the long-terms effects may well surface once the initial period of difficulty has passed.
With children returning to school, it is going to be vitally important that they get emotional support as they reflect on and assimilate this experience. Many schools have Counsellors, but some do not. Many School Counsellors have duties including timetabling, careers advice, curriculum delivery and day-to-day ‘putting out fires’ as incidents crop up in school. For students requiring a systematic, multi-session support programme, most school counsellors are simply unable to provide the support required.
With the rapid growth of online services precipitated by this crisis, there is a growing awareness that online support can work. It isn’t just a stop-gap whilst we are confined to our homes. It is something that can continue, not to replace what schools currently offer, but to complement it.
For more details about the support on offer from ExpatCounsellingNow for returning students, see here.
MBSR is a thing. And has been for a long time. But today, it is perhaps a ‘thing’ that you could turn to if isolation is stressful for you and you’d like to figure out how to be more at ease with this new paradigm.
“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Palouse Mindfulness is offering a FREE 8 week MSBR course online. I’ve paid for similar courses in the past, so this is an absolute bargain. Find more about it HERE. It is completely free and can even be done anonymously (though I’m not sure why anyone would want to….).
As a response to the crisis, you may have seen on this site that I will offer consultations for free. If you need to talk about your situation, please do get in touch.
. And remember, reaching out for help is not a sign of weakness. Suffering in stoic silence is never the best option.