Editor's Note: This story was published before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news: can’t live with it, can’t live without it. Whether it’s politics, climate change, wildfires, shootings, bombs in our mailboxes—that feeling you’re having these days has a name: headline anxiety. The obvious strategy for managing this angst is to limit our consumption of news, but for some people, everything feels too important to miss.
The feeling of being stressed out, anxious or overwhelmed by events taking place around the world is not new, but today’s heightened emotional responses do stand out, according to professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Cheryl Gore-Felton, a member of Stanford Medicine’s Center on Stress and Health. She compares them to the feelings many Americans had during the Vietnam War. (Gore-Felton’s father served three tours of duty.)
“The fear and worry feel the same, particularly for young people,” she says. “Back then, people were worried about being drafted. Today, the topics are much more varied, but I think what’s underlying it all is this uncertainty about the future. People are feeling a little hopeless.”
Chronic stress of any kind is unhealthy—it can lead to sleep problems, among other things, Gore-Felton says, resulting in a weakened immune system—so finding ways to reduce such stress is crucial. Gore-Felton breaks it down.
Accept that some things—OK, a lot of things—really are outside your control.
“What causes human beings to feel distress is a sense of not being in control,” Gore-Felton says. If the stressor is something we can control—a work project, say—the best way to reduce anxiety is to develop problem-solving strategies. “Here are the steps to solve it, and all of those are in your control,” she says.
If the stressor is external, the strategies fall more along the lines of “emotional coping,” she says. That might include talking to a friend, seeking out a religious or spiritual connection, and, eventually, getting comfortable accepting the things you can’t change.
Take on something you can control. Even if it’s tiny.
Gore-Felton says it’s important that people find something they can do to make the world a little better, whether it’s voting, volunteering, or focusing on family and friends. This can also help us keep perspective about news stories that are distressing to us but tragic for those who are actually experiencing them.
“At the heart of what I would say people need to do to help buffer some of this stress is to figure out—in accordance with your own values—what you can do that would make a difference in your life and in the lives of others,” she says. “If people are doing things that are meaningful, even in the face of a catastrophic outcome, they do feel more empowered.”
Secure your own oxygen mask first.
In stressful times, it’s important to eat right, exercise and get enough sleep, Gore-Felton says, adding that dehydration in particular can make us feel more anxious and irritable. If you aren’t OK, you won’t be able to make sure anyone else is OK either.
“One of the things we like to tell our patients is, in the midst of an uncontrollable stressor, that is where all of your self-care starts to come in,” she says. “I can always control how I take care of myself.”
Find people. Get together.
Research has shown that support groups can extend life expectancy for people suffering from life-threatening illnesses, so look for—or organize—a group of people with whom to engage in healthy conversation. That doesn’t mean just venting, which Gore-Felton compares to candy: “It feels good in the moment, but too much is not a good thing.”
At holiday gatherings, designate a “no-news zone.”
Gore-Felton says that, lately, when she suggests that a patient reach out to a trusted family member for support, the patient often says: “Oh, I’m not talking to my brother right now; he posted this horrible thing on Facebook.”
In response, Gore-Felton prompts the patient to remember what the relationship was like in less volatile times.
“Administrations come and go, but really connecting to what brought you to that feeling of closeness—those are the things to honor and celebrate,” she says.
Gore-Felton recommends reaching out in advance of family gatherings to suggest a temporary time-out from discussions of politics or current events. Another option is to declare a particular space—the backyard or the living room—free from those topics.
Find something to feel good about.
Seek out things to be happy about. Some people deprive themselves of happiness in hard times out of a sense of solidarity with those who are suffering, but that only makes things worse, Gore-Felton says.
“I always tell people: a belly laugh a day,” she says. “When we are inundated with bad news, we tend to think the world is bad. Part of healthy communities is that we experience all of it. While we can experience heartache at something horrible, we also need to make sure we’re experiencing joy.”
Rebecca Beyer is a freelance writer in New York City.