It can become overwhelming to follow non-stop news in an age of gun violence, war and political division. And amid our many ongoing challenges – the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty – it is understandable to be sad, angry and anxious.
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in giving people tools to deal with intense emotions, I know how hard it can be to stay positive — or just balance — when we care deeply about our world. Some of my clients say they can’t stop doomscrolling, others engage in unhealthy behaviors to turn it off, and many bounce between the two extremes.
But it is possible to anchor yourself if you feel like you are despairing of the state of the world. I rely on these seven mindfulness-based strategies for myself and my clients to stay grounded.
1. Label your feelings.
If you can precisely name the emotion you are experiencing in that moment, you can reduce its power in your body and brain. Mention whatever emotion you’re feeling, whether it’s sadness, fear, anger, disgust, or guilt — and how intensely you experience it. Say it out loud, use a mood tracking app like Daylio, Reflectly or Moodnotes or write down your feelings in a journal.
However, try not to wait for your feelings to peak. Get into the habit of naming your emotions as they come. By following their intensity, you can slow down before reaching a boiling point and lose yourself in brooding or ruminating, snapping at someone, or mindlessly grabbing a substance.
2. Allow yourself to feel emotions too.
If you try to avoid your feelings, they will intensify, said Melanie Harned, a psychologist with the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and the author of “Treating Trauma in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.” When you are emotionally moved by a news story, take a moment to notice what you are thinking, doing and feeling in your body. Choose what’s most helpful at the time — whether that’s a window to feel your emotions for a few minutes, without trying to change them, or, if you’re in the middle of an urgent task, planning to redo painful news. at a time when you can mourn.
One way to improve your ability to deal with emotions is to remember that they can fluctuate quickly. An exercise that helps my clients stop worrying about getting trapped in their feelings is to watch several short, emotional scenes in succession – the deathbed scene from the movie “The Champ” followed by a clip from the music video for Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”. Trying this may find you bursting into tears one minute and dancing or laughing in your chair the next. The goal is to understand how that same impermanence can apply to the variety of emotions you experience when you stay present throughout the day.
Understandably, in the wake of tragedy, it can also be tempting to narrow the scope of your life to avoid painful emotions. For example, after hearing about mass violence in a supermarket, as we did in the horrific shootings in Boulder and Buffalo, it’s natural to feel uncomfortable when you go shopping. Keep in mind that allowing yourself to experience your emotions, including anxiety, while returning to a routine will eventually improve your anxiety, said Dr. Harned.
3. Practice different kinds of empathy.
You can feel driven to make a difference and help without identifying too much with someone else’s pain. “We’ve learned that the way to help others is empathy, but that can be a trap,” said George Everly Jr., a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who specializes in crisis intervention and resilience.
In his work to reduce burnout among humanitarian workers, Dr. Everly taking perspective, or trying to understand the world from another person’s point of view in the moment, rather than including yourself in their emotions, pushing the line between what they are experiencing and your experience.
“There’s a difference between being aware and being immersed and enveloped,” says Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher and author of “Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World.”
A survey of more than 7,500 physicians found that understanding and acknowledging patients’ emotions reduced burnout, while over-identifying with their patients’ experiences predicted emotional exhaustion in physicians. It takes practice, but if you find yourself feeling engrossed, try taking a few deep breaths and then moving on to a more cognitive form of worry, rather than participating fully in suffering.
4. Take action.
By thinking about ways to help others, you regain some control in a world that can feel overwhelming while improving your own well-being. Deliberately and repeatedly doing work, such as donating, volunteering, or being politically active, has been shown to reduce a person’s risk of falling into depression and increase happiness.
“If we mobilize and stand up with positive, tangible action, it’s nearly impossible to fall into despair,” said Shelly Tygielski, an activist and the author of “Sit Down to Rise Up.”
Spend some time thinking about ways you want to contribute to goals that make sense to you. As we work to correct injustice in the world, “we must balance compassion and our efforts with the wisdom that things can take time. They can take a long time, but sometimes our efforts are planting a seed,” said Ms. salzberg.
5. Rethink your words.
It can feel natural to use dramatic statements like “I’m broken” when something terrible is happening in the world. That’s especially true on social media, where extreme language can be confirmed by other people’s “likes” or comments. But our words and interpretations have a powerful influence on how we feel and behave.
While it’s helpful to allow ourselves to honor our feelings, our emotions escalate in intensity when we exaggerate circumstances that are already painful. Catastrophic thinking can trigger or exacerbate negative emotions in many people. So consider replacing thoughts or phrases like “The world is falling apart” with “I need to do something to make X better.”
6. Invest in a joy exercise.
Resilience, the ability to function after a stressful event, often depends on adding positive emotions and actions to your day to improve your ability to deal with challenges. Connect with people who inspire you and schedule hobbies that can excite you. Protecting your sanity is not selfish; it allows you to be the best version of yourself, not the burnt-out version, said Dr. Everly, making time for exercise even when he’s on disaster relief missions.
In addition to adding activities that promote happiness, practice paying attention to the times when positive emotions naturally arise in your day, whether that’s your morning coffee or spending time with someone you love.
“When the news cycle is so dominated by horrific things, we can lose sight of the good in the world and in our own lives,” said Dr. Harned.
But if you’re struggling to find moments of calm and find yourself experiencing sadness or anxiety affecting your ability to function, reach out to a therapist who can provide you with evidence-based tools to improve your well-being.
7. Respect your limits without losing sight of the problems and the pain.
Think about specific times of the day, such as morning and mid-afternoon, when you want to follow the news, rather than scrolling endlessly or keeping it in the background. Taking a break doesn’t mean you don’t care; it’s about hitting pause so you can get back to the challenges in the world and try to make a real difference.
Even in times of relative calm, it is important to stay informed about the causes that are important to us. “We feel pain acutely, then we forget,” said Ms. Salzberg. She suggests finding ways to pay attention to things that matter to us, even if they aren’t at the top of our news feed.
Give yourself permission to feel pain and joy, without getting stuck. This way you can let your emotions contribute to real healing. dr. Harned reminded me of an analogy taught by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist and pioneer in mindfulness-based behavioral therapy: You can visit a cemetery without building a house there.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of several books, including an upcoming book on stress.