Living with anxiety in the age of nonstop bad news

It’s easy to feel helpless in the wake of Brexit.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the wake of Brexit.
Image: AP Photo/Tim Ireland
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Like a lot of anxious people, I have a tendency to catastrophize. First, I think about all the things that could possibly go wrong. Then I leap straight to the most irrational, worst-case scenario of the options I’ve come up with.

But last Friday morning, I woke up to discover that a majority of British citizens had voted to split from the European Union, the markets were crashing, the value of the pound was plummeting, and our prime minister was set to resign. My phone was flooded with texts from friends and family across time zones. My heart rate was aflutter and my stomach was churning—and it didn’t seem like I was catastrophizing at all.

In the digital age, bad news seems always at our fingertips. For people who are already prone to anxiety or depression, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. If Brexit didn’t hit you in the literal gut, perhaps it was this month’s mass shooting at a gay dance club in Orlando, Florida that shook you to your core. Or the possibility that Donald Trump could yet become the next president of the United States. Or this week’s tragic terror attack in Istanbul.

People who feel helpless in the face of such events are often urged to exercise self-care and unplug. But for me, and for many others, unplugging isn’t possible—or that effective. For me, the internet is not simply a source of anxiety; it’s also a crucial source of information, income, and communication. In addition, it’s a place where a large part of the world’s troubled democracies are unfolding. If you want to be politically active, you’d better be online. How can concerned citizens still engage without succumbing to paralysis?

First, it helps to understand exactly what’s happening to our bodies and minds when we scroll through our social media feeds.

“The news is full of stories that make us feel out of control, a feeling which is really the central point of any anxiety condition,” says Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of the charity Anxiety UK and a trained cognitive behavioral therapist with a background in neuroscience. “This can trigger a cascade of adrenaline, which is meant to prime our body for action, but there is usually no response needed. This adrenaline is circulating your body with nowhere to go.”

After reading about an upsetting new event, your nervous system is kicked into overdrive, Lidbetter says. As you attempt to go about daily routines, your body manifests this “fight or flight” mode in various ways: increased heart rate, sweating, loss of appetite, dry mouth, shaking, and tightness across the chest, to name a few.

Though these symptoms are familiar to many, it’s unclear whether contemporary humans are actually more anxious than their ancestors. The modern media diet, however, which has taken us from an information-scarce climate to more than eight hours per day of various media, is not helping to keep us calmer. In fact, according to Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, this over-stimulating deluge is exacerbating the problem.

“Since people tend to pay more attention to negative than positive information due to negativity bias, news outlets focus disproportionally on bad news,” McNaughton-Cassill, a leading researcher on the connection between news and anxiety, said in an email. “We remember those things, even if they are rare, or unlikely to affect us directly.”

Indeed, although the results of the UK referendum will have far-reaching consequences, life in London remains mostly normal. Shops are open. Children are going to school. The buses are running on schedule, and people aren’t rioting in the streets.

That’s not to dismiss the incidents of racism targeting immigrants and people of color that have broken out in the aftermath of the vote, or the concerns of many European expats. As a concerned citizen and strong believer in the value of diversity, I believe we must actively push back against this ugly sentiment and provide support to the people who are most affected by it. But it’s also important to remember McNaughton-Cassill’s point: We are hard-wired to focus on the 85 reported incidences of hate crimes between Thursday and Sunday, rather than the millions of Britons rallying against such abhorrent behavior.

It can also be helpful to think about contemporary events in a broader global and historical context. History is full of man-made disasters, yet life stubbornly goes on. As Steven Pinker writes in the preface of his 2011 tome on the topic, The Better Angels of Our Nature, “From a contemporary vantage point, we see [modern traumatic events] of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.”

Both Lidbetter and McNaughton-Cassill also suggest limiting news exposure where you can. Click only on reliable and reported links so as to avoid exposing yourself to unnecessary (and unsubstantiated) stress. Schedule time in your day to go for a walk or exercise without a phone in hand. It’s also smart to try turning off push notifications and sticking to a social-media schedule: Rather than leave Facebook and Twitter open all day, log into the sites at specific times.

But even McNaughton-Cassill readily admits that limiting media exposure is only a partial solution. We must also address the way we think.

“I am a strong believer in the idea we can’t always change or control the things that happen around us, but we can choose how we think about the events and therefore how we respond,” she notes. “Stress is the gap between what we have or need, and what we want. You can change what you have, change what you want, or change what you think about the meaning of the gap.”

When I consider the gap between the world we have and the one I want, it’s clear that now is not the time to let my brain slip into fight-or-flight mode. Anxiety does a lot of things, but it doesn’t help me accomplish much of anything. So while I can’t control Brexit, I’ll be working to keep my anxiety in check–and focus on digging into the task of making the world a kinder and more inclusive place.