Headline Stress Disorder: How to Cope in the Face of Horrible World News

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When traumatic world events occur, it can be hard to resist obsessing over things we can't control — or checking our phones every five minutes. If you feel like you suffer from Headline Stress Disorder, here's how to cope.

And the hits keep on coming…

For almost an entire year, our collective mantra was “2020 is the worst. We joked about it. We cried about it. And we couldn’t wait until New Year’s Day, as if some magical poof! would happen that would somehow make all the trauma of the past year fade away into oblivion.

And then in the first week of 2021, bam. A group of unhinged rioters stormed the US capitol, causing death, destruction, and a whole new level of dismay and disgust for the state of this country of ours.

And as is the standard procedure when something both traumatic and newsworthy occurs, many of us stayed glued to our screens. This past Wednesday was the enemy of productivity, as we kept the new channels going in the background while compulsively refreshing our browsers and checking social media sites for every last morose and morbid detail of the unfolding chaos.

There’s a very real fatigue that sets in when you’re so inundated with bad news. There’s even an actual name for it — Headline Stress Disorder, a term coined after the 2016 election. These urges to take in as much information as possible during traumatic world events can have a very real effect on our mental health.

But it is possible to stay informed and still emerge from such a traumatic news cycle relatively unscathed. Here are a few things that might help.

Check Your News Consumption — and Your Sources

Yesterday, Facebook made headlines after they said they were suspending President Trump’s account indefinitely after this week’s events. And my first thought was, “You know, that’s good advice for all of us.”

Several months ago, I took the app off of all my devices. I didn’t delete my account, and still get email notifications if someone sends me a message, but I purposefully made it an effort to log back on and check in. And I can genuinely say that my stress levels went down as a result.

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Yes, as productive members of society it’s important to stay informed, but we don’t need to stay informed of everyone’s opinions about everything. If you find the online vitriol of that one chick you haven’t seen since high school getting under your skin, remove yourself from that situation.

Also, take the social media and news alerts off your phone. And take push notifications off your email if possible. Those beeps and dings are just little anxiety bombs that don’t actually do you any favors.

And set serious boundaries about when and where you do check in on current events. For example, when you’re having a conversation with someone, hands off your phone. Don’t let the first thing you see in the mornings be negative reports. And make your bedroom a safe space away from the news cycle so you can sleep better.

Speaking of sleeping…

Take Care of Your Basic Needs

When we’re in fight or flight mode — and make no mistake, that’s the level of stress we’re talking about here — it can be easy to ignore the fact that we’re human beings who need some very basic, but very important, things to survive.

When did you last eat a meal? Did it actually nourish your body? Are you staying hydrated? Have you stood up and moved your body in the last few hours? Have you talked to another person today? Did you get enough sleep last night?

Related: 6 Reasons You Should Be Eating All of the Radishes

When these needs aren’t being met, our stress is exacerbated, and we can feel like things are far worse than they actually are. Or that it’s somehow our duty to dwell on the current happenings in the world, as if our being upset is actually helping anything.

Accept Your Level of Control

Have you ever stood on the beach and looked at the ocean, and suddenly felt a wave of calm rush over you? I’m sure many people have many different explanations for this phenomenon, but for me, the fact that I feel so small in the midst of such vastness puts me at ease.

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My stresses aren’t the most important thing in the world. My responsibilities aren’t the most important thing in the world. The world will keep on spinning whether I stress over (fill in the blank) or not.

In the face of such horrific global events, we can start to feel like we’re a part of the things we’re seeing on our screens. But it’s important to distinguish the ways we actually can help — like voting, or volunteering our time or money for an organization making a difference — from the ways we fool ourselves into thinking we’re making a difference — like doom-scrolling, or getting into virtual shoving matches with acquaintances or strangers on social media.

When you find yourself on the brink of a panic attack because of the news swirling around you, pause, take a step back, and remind yourself that the world isn’t actually on your shoulders. Then stand up and stretch a little bit.

Acknowledge Your Own Anxiety, But Maintain Strong Boundaries

None of this is to say that your stress levels are unfounded or don’t matter. It’s important to pause and reflect on what you’re feeling, and to understand why you’re upset. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t bury your feelings.

Related: It’s Okay to Set Boundaries

It’s possible that an extreme reaction in these circumstances could be because it’s triggering something in your own life, and if so, you should reach out to a friend or a professional to talk things through.

But it’s important to understand that thoughts and feelings aren’t facts. If you’re someone who takes in other people’s emotions like a sponge (and I’m speaking from experience, here), sometimes it can be difficult to tell where your feelings end and another person’s begin. And trust me when I say that those feelings can bleed through screens. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are very real things.

But there’s a difference between empathy — in which you take on another person’s pain — and compassion. “Compassion is the act of wishing someone to be free of suffering — it is an energy that you can engage in that doesn’t necessarily involve the rekindling of difficult emotions that might result in compassion fatigue,” says psychotherapist Katie Krimer, L.M.S.W.

Things might feel out of control on a global scale right now, but that doesn’t have to carry over into every part of our lives. And by taking important steps to safeguard our mental health, we’ll be able to ride things out until the world starts looking sunnier again.

Because there are bright skies ahead. There have to be.

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