by Kate Lynch Bieger, PhD
Between all the violence, trauma, and hostility happening in our world as well as the 24/7 news cycle and Internet connectivity, we are exposed to a steady stream of horrifying images and hostile discourse. We are no longer just informed about what is happening when we turn on the nightly news at the end of day. Instead, we are often watching it happen, sometimes in real time and sometimes over and over again – in doctor's offices, on line at the supermarket, and at work. More than ever, it seems impossible to control how we interact with difficult news and anxiety-provoking information.
So how do we balance our desire to show support and confront the reality of the world we live in with the need to take care of our mental health?
Should we click on that link showing the beating, the gunfire, the beheading? Are we bearing witness and confronting the reality of the world we live in, or are we just unnecessarily exposing ourselves to repetitive graphic details?
There are no simple answers. However, each of us can tune into the impact our media exposure has on our daily life and make conscious choices about how much media exposure we want, when we want it, and through what medium.
Here are some guidelines to make choices that are good for you:
Decide how you want to receive news (print, online, radio, TV). If you like to check the news online each morning, then try turning off the TV at home. If you catch up on current events by listening to NPR on your way to work, then experiment with not checking online news sites until after noon. Pay attention to which types of media empower you with knowledge and which cause you anxiety. Then stick to those formats in limited amounts.
Think before you click. We are all different in how much we can absorb without shutting down or becoming overwhelmed. When you are on Facebook, a news site, or a blog, and a link pops up with a disturbing headline, you can choose not to click on it. And by limiting how much you take in, you may find that you can engage in a more productive way. For example, you might read more closely about a concern close to your heart and feel inspired to take action, make a contribution, say a prayer, or spread the word. But exposing ourselves to too much, too often runs the risk of making us become numb or overwhelmed.
Know (and take care of) yourself. There is great variability in individual sensitivity to media exposure. But research shows that your level of distress can increase if you have experienced a similar event or have a history of generalized anxiety disorder or trauma.
Take information breaks. Turn off the television for an evening and engage with your family over a game or conversation. Listen to music on your commute home, instead of news on the radio. Allow yourself to sit in silence for part of the day, instead of clicking through news on the Internet.
At times, we are all troubled by the news we encounter. It is a normal human response to feel impacted by the difficult images and news we see daily. But we do have control over how much we expose ourselves and when. And if you find yourself struggling to let go of these images even days later, or if you experience increased anxiety, tearfulness, sleeplessness, or difficulty engaging in your normal daily activities, you may find it helpful to speak with a mental health professional to help you process your feelings.