Maintaining Our Sanity During Chaotic Times
Tragic news has become the norm. Here are some ways to cope.
Posted December 26, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it." —Helen Keller
Each day, it seems, as we turn on the news or scroll through our newsfeed, we get hit with one more piece of bad news. Whether it is another school shooting or a hate crime or a natural disaster caused by climate change, bad news has become the norm.
So, what do we do about it? How do we maintain our psychological—and thus, overall—health when our external environment grows more and more chaotic each day? How do we protect our inner landscape when our outer landscape seems to be literally crumbling before us? How do we “explain” to our children what we ourselves struggle to reconcile?
I interviewed several experts on this topic. I asked them how we can protect ourselves from the endless avalanche of bad news. How can we stay informed without feeling bombarded and overwhelmed? Below are some suggestions they offered for coping in this current age of anxiety.
Admitting to oneself the reality of what is happening can be too threatening to the psyche for some—even when presented with compelling evidence. Denial is comfortable. It helps us maintain a false sense of normalcy. However, like many coping mechanisms, at some point, denial no longer serves us, and at its extreme, denial can be deadly. When we refuse to acknowledge what is right in front of us, we do so to our detriment.
Acceptance is an often-misunderstood concept. It is not to be confused with complacency. To recognize and acknowledge what is happening in the world around us is crucial. It allows us to identify what is in our control so we can get to work on changing it.
It is equally important to identify and accept what is not in our power, so we can cope. If we use up precious psychic energy on what we cannot change—in other words, if we do not accept—then we compromise energy that can be channeled in more productive ways. We also risk our psychological, emotional, and physical well-being by adding to already existing stressful events.
"Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you've lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that's good." —Elizabeth Edwards
“Stress comes from fighting the acceptance of our ultimate helplessness,” says clinical psychologist Jan Harrell. “That stress is merely letting us know that we are attached to an outcome where we have no ultimate control.” The solution, she says, is to surrender to the reality of our ultimate helplessness that is a fact of existence for all life.
“Only then are we able to claim the power that we do have, which is to live—to fully express ourselves and take action where we are compelled to do so by our thoughts, ideals, and passions. Then,” she continues, “regardless of the outcome, we can be at peace, for we have fully been alive, expressing ourselves, claiming the power of our agency in the world, regardless of how limited it may be.”
Limit News Consumption
"Resilience is very different than being numb. Resilience means you experience, you feel, you fail, you hurt. You fall. But you keep going." —Yasmin Mogahed
Almost every expert I spoke with recommended limiting the amount of news we consume daily. Of course, this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, either. Staying informed is vital. However, so too is having healthy boundaries.
“Political unrest, war, hate crimes, and shootings have been a part of our country since the beginning,” says psychologist Derek Mihalcin, Ph.D., BCBA-D. “Today, it seems more prevalent because we are bombarded with an enormous amount of information through television, newspapers, radio, internet, and social media that is consistently negative and even scary at times. We can control how much information we let in our personal world, though.” He suggests blocking people from our social media who post hateful comments or discussions and trying to avoid anxiety-provoking topics.
"Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action." —Walter Anderson
“Taking positive action can be a powerful strategy for channeling emotional energy,” says Jeanne Devine, Ph.D., chief of staff at PsychAssociates, a group that provides psychological services to residents of long-term care facilities. “Donations of time [or] resources, charitable giving, or political action of your choice can feel satisfying and build community with others who are experiencing the same emotions.”
“Teach your children about how name-calling and intolerance exist even in adulthood (and among world leaders). Focus on things you actually do have control over, and work on improving them,” Mihalcin says. “Ultimately, change what you have the power to change. Change your mindset over things that you do not have the power to change.”
"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself." —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Devine also emphasizes the importance of self-care. She suggests developing techniques that are “not just escapism but psychologically nourishing.” Socializing, exercise, engaging in spiritual practices, getting back to nature, as well as developing good sleep and nutrition habits, are all examples.
Integral to self-care is having a positive support system. “If you find yourself emotionally drained from politics and news stories, and find anxiety, depression, and/or anger seem to be taking over, it may be time to see a therapist,” says Miyume McKinley, LCSW, owner of the Epiphany Counseling, Consulting & Treatment Services. “However, a therapist isn’t the only person on your support team. You can have close family, friends, community support groups, your doctor, or even online forums. They should promote peace of mind and provide reality checks when needed by helping to refocus you form what’s happening in the world around you.”
Finally, Devine says, “As with the conceptualization of crisis as both danger and opportunity, these times may indeed offer us an opportunity for growth.”