“The night is dark and full of terrors”.
The above may be a quote from a fictional television show, but it’s how many of us feel about the world today.
It’s President Donald Trump and his attempts to strip women of their human rights. It’s senseless acid attacks. It’s the world’s pitifully outdated approach to sexual assault, mental health and domestic violence. It’s horrifying tales of modern-day racism and xenophobia. It’s the enormous human cost of the Syrian crisis. It’s the shocking real-life events that inspired The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire, Sierra Leone mudslide, and the Gorakhpur hospital deaths. It’s terror attack, after terror attack, after terror attack.
It’s the cold and creeping fear that comes from seeing references to nuclear war on every single newspaper stand.
While we absolutely cannot and should not ignore the news – we owe it to ourselves and everybody else on the planet to pay attention, now more so than ever before – the 24-hour news cycle means we’re constantly surrounded by frightening headlines.
And experts agree this can have an impact on our mental wellbeing, especially for those diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety disorders.
Studies have shown that when exposed to negative news – particularly that which uses emotionally charged language – we’re not only more anxious, but more likely to catastrophize worries in our own lives and make them bigger than they are. And thus, more difficult to keep under control.
As Dr Graham Davey, who specialises in the psychological effects of media violence, explainsThe Huffington Post: “Negative news can significantly change an individual’s mood – especially if there is a tendency in the news broadcasts to emphasize suffering and also the emotional components of the story.
“In particular... negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”
But, without shutting ourselves off from the world or ignoring the plight of others, there are some coping mechanisms we can employ to alleviate overwhelming feelings.
1. Do not feed the fears
The news is 99.9% negative so it's no wonder that if we're constantly bombarded with scary images and stories, that it feeds into our sense of fear and uncertainty. If the frequent news updates spike your anxiety levels, think about what you can do to reduce your intake – turning off news alerts on your phone or steering clear of the nightly news. You can still be informed, of course – you just need to make sure that you’re not taking a dose of fear multiple times a day.
2. Write a worry list
When anxious feelings spiral out of control your brain looks for a way to quantify them. A way of streamlining your thought process is to write down what you’re thinking, as you think it. With this in mind, make sure you have a notebook and pen by your bed and before you go to sleep, so that you can jot down your worries and concerns. It helps to get things out of our heads and seeing worries in black and white can help us to gain more perspective on them. Think of it as a brain dump, allowing you to calm your mind and sleep more easily.
3. Switch off
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, distraction is your friend. If your brain is buzzing from with a sense of threat and uncertainty, try losing yourself in a good, light-hearted novel for 20 minutes or more before bedtime. It can be enough to calm you down and help you to sleep.
4. Talk to others
Find someone to confide in about how you are feeling right now, be it your best friend or your mum, because putting your emotions into words can provide some relief by reducing the fight or flight response, according to researchers at UCLA. Simply saying ‘I feel scared’ can go a long way to helping you to feel calmer – so don’t bottle things up.
5. Shake it off
When animals in the wild have gone through something traumatic, they shake their bodies vigorously to discharge the tension. By doing this, they release the stress so that they don't have to hold on to it in their bodies. To copy this technique, shake your whole body vigorously for a few seconds. Music such as Shake It Off, by Taylor Swift, or Hey Ya by Outkast, is optional (but recommended!).
6. Float don't fight
The more we fight against our own anxious feelings the more panicky we become, so psychologist Claire Weekes suggests we ‘float’ with anxiety instead of fighting against it. Try imagining you’re swimming in the sea and instead of flailing and exhausting yourself you relax your body and lay back allowing the water to support you and allow you to float. When you’re anxious, relax your body and float with the feelings, instead of fighting against them.
7. What is within your control?
The antidote to anxiety and worry is action. Instead of fretting about the state of the world, what action can you take now to make it a better place? Think about what actually is within your control: what can you do about the state of the world? Perhaps it's about getting more political – try signing and sharing petitions, giving money to charity or voting for a party that supports peace. Taking some positive action can help you to feel more in control.
8. Answer back
A technique in cognitive behavioural therapy gets us to look at our worries, write them down and then ‘answer back’ to the worry in a kind and rational way (try imagining what a wise friend or someone you look up to would say about the worry).
An example of a worry might be, ‘It’s the beginning of World War 3 and mankind will be wiped out’. A wise and rational person might answer back something along the lines of: ‘Many experts believe that this is very unlikely. The vast majority of people do not want a nuclear war and despite a lot of bluster from Trump and North Korea, it's likely just that.’
9. Breathe deep
This sounds like a typical solution – the sort of thing that someone who doesn’t have anxiety would tell you to do. But research shows that there is a direct correlation between the way we breathe and our mental health. The advice from Mark Krasnow, a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, who lead the research is to take deep, slow breaths.
He told TIME magazine that “if we can slow breathing down, as we can do by deep breathing or slow controlled breaths, the idea would be that these neurons then don’t signal the arousal center, and don’t hyperactivate the brain.
“If you can calm your breathing, you can also calm your mind”.
10. Address those thinking errors
Another approach from CBT gets us to look at our ‘thinking errors’. These are ways of thinking that are not rational, such as catastrophizing. Examples of this include thinking ‘the world is going to end’, or over-generalising and stating: ‘Nothing good ever happens in the world!’
Ask yourself questions like, 'Is there another way of seeing it? What's the most likely outcome?' Am I blowing things out of proportion?’
By recognising the errors in your thinking, and then questioning the thoughts, you can help to reduce your anxiety.
11. Listen to meditation music
Popping in your headphones and opening a sneaky YouTube tab is a quick and easy way to seek some solace in the office. To target feelings of anxiety particularly, tune in to meditation music and try to focus on the calming sounds instead of the chaotic chatter around you.
Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably, close your eyes and centre your thoughts on the present moment. The idea is to focus on your breath and nothing else, slowly eliminating your stressful thoughts. Click here to find out more about meditation methods and benefits.
13. Drink a glass of water
It’s one of simplest things you can do, but by drinking a glass of water you are forcing your mind and body to focus on something different to the hurricane of thoughts spinning around your mind. If you’re experiencing a common side-effect of anxiety, hyperventilation, sipping water will help to ease this and calm your breathing.
14. Be the change
Gandhi said we should ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’ by having an attitude of acceptance and love instead of hate and fear. So stop lashing out at people, and focus on being kind to other people and yourself. Maybe this means ending that feud with your neighbour, veering clear of the comments section online, or resolving an argument with your partner. Whatever works for you, remember: an attitude of kindness and peacefulness is contagious.
If you suffer from anxiety, experts advise that you visit you GP to explore the number of treatments available.
You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website.
Images: Rex Features / iStock