A psychiatrist's tips for coping when you can't help but feel vulnerable or hopeless.
You turn on the news. You hear about more gun violence, or another act of terrorism, or a missing child, or a scary epidemic—and it seems as if the world is growing ever more frightening. I’ve heard this from family, friends, and patients: Many people are finding it harder to feel calm and present in their day-to-day lives. Women in particular (who are twice as likely to be affected by anxiety disorders as men) tend to feel beleaguered by the never-ending cycle of bad news, and end up with a constant sense of uneasiness.
Some anxiety is a good thing. It enables awareness and proactive problem-solving. It motivates you to take sensible steps to protect yourself and your loved ones. (A reasonable amount of anxiety may prompt you to report an abandoned bag at the airport, for example.) But what happens when your anxiety becomes more than constructive concern? A persistent sense of worry is joy-robbing at the very least—and debilitating at worst.
Our highly connected culture can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. The Internet and social media add to the illusion that the whole world is right outside your door; it used to be that danger from man-made or natural disasters seemed far away. Or you never heard about it in the first place. Today, we have headlines in the 24-hour news cycle that perseverate the most horrendous crimes and tragedies, from those that touch a few individuals to those that affect thousands.
The human mind tends to absorb threatening messages one by one, over and over, regardless of whether a danger is truly imminent. What’s more, as your fear, sadness, or cynicism grows, you may be transferring negative emotions onto the people closest to you.
If you’re a parent, your reaction to tragic events sets an example for your children; they look to you to set the tone for how worried they should be. Continuing to go about your life with some degree of positivity and optimism is an important cue to your family, reinforcing the message that you—and they—are O.K.
Can you make yourself completely numb to harrowing headlines? Of course not. You’re human. You experience empathy, and you have social, cultural, and political issues that you care about deeply. But there are steps you can take to control how much the negativity affects your everyday routine and outlook. Here are some tips on healthy ways to cope.
When fear first strikes, ask yourself once (and only once), “What can I do to solve this problem?” Then implement your plan as best you can. But if you can’t think of a plan or solution that is realistic, rational, and logical, move on. If worries like, “What can I do?” or “How can I fix this?” continue to flood your thoughts, pause and resist trying to answer them. Instead, let the questions sit there in your mind. Left alone long enough, the questions will lose their power, and your mind will stop asking them.
Sometimes reminding yourself not to answer worrisome thoughts ends up magnifying them. If that happens, try the old distraction route: You can preoccupy your brain with relaxing activities, like taking a warm bath, listening to music, or meditating. If these low-key methods don’t block out the anxiety, try something slightly more engaging, like playing a card game, catching up with a friend, doing yoga, or even a chore.
Get some exercise
Sign up for a favorite workout class, or go for a head-clearing jog; physical activity reduces stress and anxiety both in the moment and long-term. During your sweat sessions, practice mindfulness. Tune into the physical movement your body is experiencing, as well as your breathing. This way you'll have a conscious train of thought that doesn’t involve worry.
Be strategic about TV and Internet exposure
Check the most recent headlines first thing in the morning—then disconnect for the rest of the day. While it’s tempting to read every update of a breaking news story, our minds have a way of thinking that the longer a story goes on, the more we are actually involved in the event, even though it may not directly affect us. Even if a piece of news is of deep interest to you, do your best to read or listen to the updates the following morning, rather than in multiple installments throughout the afternoon.
Go light on caffeine
Limit yourself to a morning cup of coffee or tea. Consuming caffeine throughout the day will only amplify a state of worry.
Worry often interrupts sleep, and sleep deprivation increases worry. Short-circuit the vicious cycle by avoiding your television, iPad, laptop, and cell phone at least an hour before bedtime. That means no more late-night scrolling through Instagram or Facebook, where you might find reminders of heavy topics. Pick a before-bed pastime that doesn’t involve a screen, like reading a book.
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The key to truly diminishing anxiety is accepting that there is no such thing as absolute safety. Believing that there is such a thing as guaranteed security actually worsens anxiety. Every time you say to yourself, “If I just do this, then I’ll definitely be fine,” you probably feel relieved for a moment. However that relief acts as a positive reward for having worrisome thoughts, and in turn reinforces them. That’s not to say you should abandon all precautions (yes, you should wear a seatbelt, be wary when you travel, and so on). But when you feel plagued by current events, remind yourself that some things are simply out of your control.