It’s been a tough week. It’s felt as if every time you turn on the TV or look at Twitter or Facebook, there’s another “Breaking News” alert. My current reaction seeing it is an immediate knot forming in my stomach, tension rising in my shoulders as I brace myself for the next spate of terribleness.
And it’s never good news, right? Just once I’d like to hear that ominous music, and see that red screen that says “NBC News Special Report” and see Savannah Guthrie or Lester Holt appear and say, “NBC News just learned that the world’s first unicorn has been uncovered in the Welsh village of…” or “We here at NBC are hearing this afternoon that a new form of ice cream has just been invented that tastes EXACTLY like actual ice cream, is 100% natural and healthy and will actually contribute to massive weight LOSS…” Same thing happens when I’m out somewhere and start scrolling through Twitter on my iPhone. I see that red and I see – well, black.
My husband just started a new job and we are transitioning to a new city later this summer. That sometimes means he’s working there while I’m holding down the fort where we currently live with our two teenage sons. Last week, after more terrible news came down (at this point I can’t even keep up with WHAT terrible thing happened, but I’m guessing it had to do with the dire immigration situation) I literally turned my phone off, settled into the couch and binged Sex and the City. I was troubled by whatever this news was, and so I couldn’t really pay attention to the TV, or get comfortable or relax. I was alone and felt that way.
How can we cope with this endless cycle of terrible information that bombards us every day? Turning off your phone isn’t the answer all of the time – not only is it not feasible, but it’s important to know what is happening in the world. “I strongly urge you not to ignore the news/current events. Ignorance is one reason we have this society. It won’t make the problems go away & contributes nothing to their solving,” tweeted Cindy Otis (@CindyOtis_), who as a former as a CIA military analyst managed a daily deluge of awfulness. Her Twitter thread about ways she and her colleagues managed the content they witnessed regularly went viral earlier this week and bears repeating as many times as possible.
Why? Because, as she Tweeted, there are real consequences to being constantly bombarded with negative content. They are:
- Complacency – becoming so used to the deluge that it all starts to seem normal.
- Paralysis – that is, being so overwhelmed, you can’t figure out what to do/how to move forward.
- Crisis perspective – you get trapped in the Breaking News cycle where everything seems like a potentially world-ending crisis to you.
- Depression/PTSD – you don’t have to be on the frontline of a war have either/both. Disturbing content is absolutely a trigger.
She told the story of a colleague who didn’t know he had Stage 4 brain cancer “because the symptoms were the same as our very stressful careers–exhaustion, random fevers, stress, and dizziness.” And then thankfully, she offered up tips on dealing with all of the negative. Here they are, verbatim from her Twitter thread:
- TAKE ACTION. Volunteer for a food pantry, canvass for a political candidate, donate to a NGO, visit a sick friend. Seriously. Service of some kind in your community lets you be part of SOLUTIONS. You will see RESULTS when otherwise you’d feel helpless.
- Conversely, for those who may take tip #1 to the extreme–know that you alone can’t save the world. Accept your limits. You aren’t a 7/11. You can’t always be open. At the end of every day when I reached my limit, I silently told myself, “I’ve done what I can today.” Otis added, “(Note: Repeating that to myself did not stop me from feeling like I could have done more most days. But it was important to tell myself anyway because I am human. We are human. It’s good we *feel* things.)
- RESEARCH BEFORE PANICKING. Easier said than done, but everything will seem like crisis/earth-ending if you don’t know what has/hasn’t happened before. If it has happened before, it’s can be hugely comforting to know how it was resolved and/or what might happen next.
- GET UP & MOVE. Put the phone away, turn off the TV, log out of Twitter. Go for a walk, sit outside, get some coffee, call a friend. CIA is full of ppl walking the building with a colleague/friend. There’s a reason. Our brains & bodies need breaks from stressful content.
- SET RULES. Because of my work at CIA, I had a rule–I only read fiction at home. I had enough reality at work. In the civilian world, I set blocks of time each day where I turn everything off–no news or social media. Let yourself recharge so you can keep fighting later.
- AVOID DARK HOLES. (I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about that.) It’s easy to get sucked into the swirl of bad news. You watch a gruesome YouTube video and the next one is all queued up to play right after it. Focus on one issue at a time. Deal w/ it before moving on.
- YOU NEED FUN. When there is suffering, war, despair, etc. around you, it’s easy to feel guilty when you have fun, feel happy, have a good meal with friends. You NEED these things. You will be better able to do good in the world if you let yourself have these things.
- TALK TO SOMEONE. Often, we curl inward socially when overwhelmed w/ negative content. It’s a means of protection. One of the great things at CIA was that everyone else knew what you were going through. Whether it’s therapy or talking to your person, talking helps.
After reading her thread, lightbulbs went off everywhere! YES! YES! YES! This is what I felt that night on the sofa and this is how to manage it (turns out my Sex and the City binge covered both #5 and #7). I sobbed Thursday night after the weight of the murder of five journalists/newspaper people at the Capital Gazette set in. As a former full-time journo at a daily, it struck very close to home and stirred up memories of times that I was threatened while doing the same job these people were killed for doing. A-ha! PTSD. Because of Cindy’s thread, I recognized it and did #1 (I sent a note to the editor and managing editor of the local paper for which I string expressing my sadness and outrage; I went out and bought a physical copy of my local paper – I subscribe digitally – as a way to honor the people killed, support their colleagues who put out a paper the morning after the tragedy and advocate for free press; I encouraged others to do that as well on Twitter and Instagram).
Sometimes we can feel so isolated in this world – even when we can virtually connect with people online on so many platforms. And while it is important to look up from our phones and actually engage in the physical world around us – we’re fortunate that people like Cindy Otis use social media to help us navigate those online experiences.
Send us a note to let us know if you’re using any of Cindy’s tips and what you’re doing to combat the negative.