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How and Why to Take a Break From the News

The world is "on fire" and so are our central nervous systems. Breaks help.

Source: Adobe/Spark/Pexel

This week, in America, and around the world, our ability to focus, be present in our daily lives, and stay emotionally regulated is at great risk. Historic events are unfolding before our eyes and critically important news stories are constantly evolving. The resulting state of high alert is taking a massive toll on our collective and individual well-being.

If we are to move through the next week with any sense of agency and groundedness, it is imperative that we do some thinking about the way in which we will (or will not) engage media. Our near-constant connection to our devices has always come with certain benefits and costs to our well-being. This particular time in history provides a uniquely tricky challenge in balancing these. Yes, we must be informed. We must also, however, tend to our own physical and mental health, both of which are impacted by the sensational way in which history is playing out.

In order to care for ourselves well, we would benefit from considering our media intake and making a plan for taking breaks throughout this week. Here are some ideas:

1. Establish a self-check norm and set limits on access to media. Our constant awareness of evolving and provocative current events, along with our immediate access to information, leaves us unable to be fully present to ourselves and the situations we are physically in. The knowledge that something new and frightening/angering/exciting/traumatic could occur at any moment puts us and our bodies on high alert and in a fight, flight, freeze, or faint mode.

Creating a habit of checking in with ourselves before accessing news sources can go a long way toward maintaining a sense of emotional balance. If we feel we must access the news, making a commitment to identify our emotional state, and taking at least one action to address it before doing so can help.

If we are already anxious or feeling distressed, taking three or four deep breaths and naming at least one thing we are grateful for before tuning in would go a long way toward approaching the news from a place of grounding.

Similarly, as we step away from checking current events, asking ourselves if there are big feelings we need to address (or exhale away to be addressed later) can help.

Practically, deleting news and social media apps from our phones and committing to only using them on a desktop or tablet can help limit unconscious news checking and doom scrolling. Pre-choosing specific times to check the news each day is also a good strategy. If we find ourselves tempted to seek out information between these times, it would help us to find something appealing or soothing to engage with outside of the digital domain (number 4 below will help with this).

2. Set specific times to take breaks and stick to them. We can set alarms or ask friends to hold us accountable. Letting people who may reach out to us during our breaks know that we won’t be responding would be a good idea. It’s important to do everything in our power to set ourselves up for success. The reward will be a greater sense of agency and grounding in our day.

3. At least once a day, commit to stepping away from all media. It’s easy to think that only current events and news stories can stress us. The reality is, however, that social media use is not only correlated with a higher incidence of anxiety and depression but it can also cause both. To step away from the news and into social media just means a switch in the kind of potential distress we expose ourselves to. If relational connection is what we need during our time away from the news, consider a phone call to a trusted friend, agreeing not to discuss current events, rather than mindless scrolling through social media.

4. Find, invest in, and have on hand things/ideas/activities to engage with when stepping away from media. Put a jump rope or balance board where they are easy to engage or leave a bowl of Legos or Kinetic Sand on the coffee table. There are plenty of high-quality manipulative games and skill toys available at our local toy or hobby stores and they are not just for children. These offer something for our hands and mind to engage while we’re doing the hard work of stepping away from our devices.

A few of my favorites are Perplexus Maze Balls, Rush Hour, Number Tile Scramble Games, Yo-Yos, Kendamas, and Luna Sticks. Learning a simple origami technique or doing a brain dump, writing down everything in our minds for five minutes without stopping, might also be good activities to try. For ultimate impact, get outside or near an open window during the break and move. Fresh air and movement help calm the central nervous system which is on high alert during times of cultural distress.

5. Get perspective. The news is going to be constantly changing in the next few weeks. Taking 30 minutes away from all updates and devices may mean we miss something but it doesn’t, necessarily, put us at risk. In fact, consistent times away from media will actually help us be able to synthesize new information (when we return) and give us the resources we need to stay emotionally regulated while doing so.

If you are a member of a vulnerable population it’s likely that you feel a heightened need to be informed of changes in national or local events almost immediately. This makes sense. If this is the case for you, consider forming a “pod” of people with whom you can share responsibility for knowing and sharing current events. For instance, if there are three other people who share your vulnerabilities, you might consider making a schedule where each of you covers a certain period of the day “on call,” promising to inform others of any pressing changes while they take time away from the news media. This time away is crucial for maintaining health in these trying times.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
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