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Strategies for surviving the news

30 June 2022 - Dr Jan Orman

That’s a quote from an article I just read in a psychiatric journal. It’s an article that argues against the idea that mass shootings are all the result of mental illness, a reasonable premise, but that one raw sentence stopped me in my tracks.

I’m just back from 10 days in California where the sky was blue, the sun was shining and everyone was smiling. After yet another report of a mass school shooting, this time in Uvalde in Texas, my natural reluctance to go to America at all was peaking, so it was with amazement that I saw a community that was not paralysed by the violence around them, as I thought they might be. I’m not in a position to know whether and how much people were affected by these events on an individual level, but I do know that all seemed to be well on the surface.

I know a lot of people here in Australia are appalled by events such as mass shootings, new wars and natural disasters, and frightened that society, even ours, is moving in the direction self-destruction.

The concern for me is how to help people live in the world without these worries paralysing them.

My patients and I have worked together to develop some simple strategies that seem to be helpful. Not everyone responds to the same strategy but some of these things are useful for most. It goes without saying that these strategies are in addition to basic self-care strategies like relaxation, mindfulness, exercise and nutrition.

Limiting exposure

I know this may leave us open to accusations of burying our heads in the sand, but I find most people benefit from limiting their exposure to the news. That’s not to say ignoring it completely but simply watching one news bulletin a day, and only one, seems to help a lot of people.

Of course, there is also the issue of news feeds on our phones and exposure to news on social media, so we often need to develop strategies to manage those as well.

Controlling conversations

Most people have some friends who like to talk about the news – some of them like to talk about it a lot, especially during elections and natural and man-made disasters. These conversations may help them understand the world but too much talk will often amplify distress.

My patients can usually identify these people in their lives and have often chosen to try to talk about other things in their presence (that may need negotiating) or to limit the time they spend in their company.

Managing thoughts

What do you think when you hear news about things like war, natural disasters and mass shootings? Is there an element of catastrophizing in your thoughts? Do you wonder whether things will become dangerous here soon? Do you place yourself in the minds and hearts of the people affected by these events and feel their pain?

If any of those things are true, what do you do in response to those thoughts and feelings?

Many people I know do nothing, or they just lie awake at night worrying and despairing. For these people worry management techniques can be useful, but so can activities that help prevent suffering in their own back yard. We might not be able to do anything about mass shootings in America or earthquakes in Afghanistan, but we can be kind to those around us and help people whenever we see their need.

Changing the language

I find it always helps to bear in mind that news outlets are in the business of selling stories. If those stories are attention-grabbing and disturbing, all the better. I try to listen to the language journalists use that aims to excite and alarm and see if I can express things differently. Nothing makes a mass shooting better, but the way you talk about it can change the emotional impact on yourself and others. Changing language won’t stop you from feeling bad, but it may stop you from feeling so bad that you can’t function.

My patients and I often look at the language of the news as well as the language we use ourselves in relation to the news to help us understand how we are being manipulated.

Turning to history

One of my patients taught me about the benefits of reading history. She said that reading about ancient history in particular – Greek, Roman, Persian and I’m sure there’s a lot more – made her realise that what’s happening in the world is not new. People have been exposed to natural disasters and behaving cruelly to each other forever and what we are hearing about now, is just more of the same, rather than an escalation towards the end of everything. It’s an interesting idea that I’ve been exploring myself and I think she’s right. Reading about history can help put contemporary worries into perspective. (My most recent read was a book called Persian Fire by Tom Holland – I recommend it!)

Once we have perspective perhaps we will be able to do something to help.

One thing I do know is that I don’t want things like mass shootings to become “part of the landscape,” so we need to all do what we can to make the world a better place – and that won’t happen if all we can do is worry.

More reading

A happy distraction! Guardian article: The 50 cheeriest social media accounts

Handout: Tips to Manage worry during times of Uncertainty  

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Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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