Are you feeling overwhelmed by news burnout, or bad-news distress? Perhaps you'll relate, as I do, to the following quote, taken from a social media post that appeared in my feed today from one of my beloved family members:
I'm struggling with being really happy today in my personal life, but also crazy alarmed that the Northwest is on fire, it's raining ash, the air is so smoky you can look directly at the sun if you want to (Yesterday I caught myself staring at it for some time trying to decide whether I was looking at the moon or the sun. Turns out: sun, but no big deal.) Big parts of Texas are underwater, Puerto Rico and Florida have their own hurricane on the way, I don't even know WHAT'S going on in India but it looks like the apocalypse, our President is… truly just the worst and arguing that none of this is climate change related don't worry about it, and now DACA. DACA. Seriously you guys, WTF with DACA. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Nazis are now a thing.
(And as if all that weren’t enough… I find the news continues to be crammed with deeply frightening conflicts and potential for future conflicts.) This post got a number of responses of the “I feel that way, too!” variety.
If you are already carrying significant stress in your personal and work life, then an onslaught of bad news can put you seriously at risk for burnout. Let’s address that, from a burnout-prevention point of view.
First, please be aware, even if you are not close enough to the fires to be breathing smoke and have ash coating your car, or even if you have no family or friends in harm’s way of the fires or the floods (as many of my friends do) – all this distressing news can STILL be a major source of stress for you. We are hard-wired to pay more attention to threats than to the good things in our lives. So, let’s talk about four specific sources of bad-news distress: fatigue, inflammation, helplessness, and survivor’s guilt –and what you can do about each of them. Finally, we'll end with some light thoughts and fun pictures!
Four Sources of News Burnout, or Bad-News Distress
Fatigue. Symptoms of this kind of fatigue include a significant increase in tiredness, crankiness, food cravings, and clumsiness. As we’ll discuss in more detail in a moment, emotional stress takes a significant toll on all your body’s systems. The good news is that your body and your emotions are designed to handle stress and are actually good at doing so. It is important to realize, however, that handling any stress takes significant energy. As your energy reserves go down, it is vitally important to replenish them. Replenishing your energy stores means: getting enough sleep, remembering to eat regular meals, and – if you are rested enough to safely do so – getting some exercise.
A few days ago, Elizabeth Haberman had a wonderful brief post about this on Instagram/Facebook. I couldn’t possibly say it better, so I quote her here in full (she gave permission):
If you are in Houston or an area affected by Harvey, even if you are “ok”, you are likely not ok. Your nervous system is likely shot from anticipating your house would flood- even if you ended up being lucky and it didn't. Your sleep has likely been spotty, fitful and interrupted by hypervigilance. You likely have spent days and nights worried sick not just about your safety, but the safety of your friends and family. You likely have encountered days of eating things you are not accustomed to, trapped between four walls that could be invaded by water at any time. You may have been in more constant conflict with loved ones due to heightened anxiety. Substance use and reactivity has likely escalated, and if you have a history of trauma you have likely been triggered various times. If your home is intact, you may feel forced to say “great, I am lucky” when asked how things are with you, because you are, in many respects, but please remember that we have survived a collective traumatic experience. Your body, nervous system, spirit, and heart are likely a kind of tired and overwhelmed that is bone deep- and that is to be expected. You are not alone. You are ok, and you are not ok. Both things are true. It’s ok to take a break. It's ok to seek help. We are in this together.
Inflammation. Both emotional stress and environmental toxins are sources of increased systemic inflammation. (Such toxins may be particularly of concern if you are in an area that is undergoing an environmental challenge such as floods or fire.) Inflammation is at the root of increased risk for a long list of both acute illnesses, like the flu, and chronic illnesses, like heart disease.
Inflammation responds very well to a diet high in plant nutrients, especially anti-oxidants and omega three fatty acids. In practical terms, simply remember: “eat the rainbow every day.” This means, challenge yourself to consume as many different colors of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables each day as you possibly can, along with nuts and seeds. Be careful about supplements, however. Fractionated antioxidant supplements such as vitamins have a decidedly mixed track record in reducing inflammation. The one exception: whole food supplements. My personal favorite of these (because of the extensive research on it) is Juice Plus (TM).
To reduce inflammation, if you have any blood sugar or insulin issues, these must also be effectively and closely managed.
Finally, exercising for 30-45 minutes per day is also very effective at reducing inflammation (especially when combined with a diet high in fruits and vegetables.)
Helplessness. Emotional distress in the face of global bad news can also carry a high dose of a feeling of helplessness. Helplessness crates distress that not only eats into your personal health, it also negatively affects your productivity and creativity.
If you’re feeling helpless, the obvious place to start is to do something to help. If you are not able to offer your services directly, by far the most direct and useful help you can offer is to send money. This is one of many articles listing a wide variety of reputable organizations that urgently need your donations. (My family chose to give to the American Red Cross, because they have so much knowledge and experience in dealing with severe crises.)
But, unless you’re a millionaire, there is no way you can donate to them all. Or even most of them. So, if you’re like me, even reading such an extensive list can make your heart sink, and at least temporarily increase your sense of helplessness. It is worth making yourself consciously aware of this kind of overwhelm, long enough to forgive yourself for not being able to fix the whole problem all by yourself.
In response to this feeling, seek out news stories that help you be aware that you are part of a community of caring people who are together responding to these crises. If your church, club, or neighborhood group have an arm that is actively helping, getting involved in such an effort (if possible) can certainly help make you feel part of that larger whole. Even donating a small amount of money, when taken in the context of a large community, can make a vital difference.
Second, a feeling of helplessness can be caused by feeling responsible for things that are out of our control. We certainly are responsible as members of the community to mount effective, caring responses to climate change, natural disasters, bigotry, and war. But feeling an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility, helplessness, and even guilt, can actually impede our ability to respond. One solution for this is mindfulness meditation. Concentrating your mind on the here and now, for a while every day, is a proven source of calm and resilience in the face of pressure.
One last caveat, to this section: if you’re living with financial difficulty that is already causing you significant daily stress, then you absolutely should not increase your own financial burden to try to decrease that of others. Once you’ve recovered from your own state of financially being upside-down, then you can contribute. You can trust that at that time, there will be something that needs your donation.
Survivor’s guilt. This article details the huge burden of distress that was felt by a family in Houston who came through the hurricane and flood “unscathed.” This distress is real.
In my experience, a version of this distress affects many of us who are at a much greater distance. In fact, it’s telling that this was the first line of my family member’s post: “I'm struggling with being really happy today in my personal life, but also crazy alarmed…”
It can be very hard to allow oneself to be happy, to enjoy life, when you know that others are not able to, through no fault of their own.
Yet, truly, how do we actually improve the world when we allow ourselves to be miserable, out of sympathy or empathy with others’ pain? In fact, we can be much more effective in the world, much more productive of good to counterweight the bad, when we are happy.
A Few More Resources to Combat News Burnout
My last recommendation, then, is to find these three sources of comfort: humor, personal connection through touch with close friends and family, and solace in pets. On that note, I will close with a response shared to that first post by another family member, along with photographs of the pets he is referring to. (Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the little girl, but I bet you can imagine her.) Enjoy!
On the positive side. People are rallying in support of DACA. There are dogs in the world. Fluffy white ones too. Pigs. Pot bellied and otherwise [such as guinea pigs]. We were at a restaurant two days ago and met a little girl wearing a unicorn horn. I asked if it was a birthday unicorn horn, or casual everyday unicorn horn. It was, of course, a casual everyday unicorn horn.
Beth Genly co-authored (with Dr. Marnie Loomis, ND) the book, “Save Yourself from Burnout: A System to Get Your Life Back.”