We are living in an era of unfathomable news.
Just this week, two disturbing headlines ran parallel in the media landscape. The first focused on the plight of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border who, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, are being held in concentration camps. The second circled around a spare, unflinching essay by E. Jean Carroll entitled "Hideous Men." In it, she states that Donald Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room.
That claim didn't even make the front page of the New York Times, and there's more discussion of how little reaction it caused than its actual content, revealing how numb we've become to bad news. In her recent New Yorker essay, Jia Tolentino writes that after Trump was elected, her vision of the future looked something like this week: relentless persecution of immigrants and endless bad news met with no nationwide resistance, no mass protests in the streets. "Specifically, I feared that the Trump era would bring a surfeit of bad news, and that I would compartmentalize this bad news in order to remain functional, and that this attempt to remain functional would itself be so demoralizing that it would contribute to the despair and distraction that allowed all this bad news to occur," she wrote. But she hadn't counted on the E. Jean Carroll's accusations, or the fact that "I would be so sad and numb, after years of writing about Trump's many accusers, after watching Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed to the Supreme Court in the face of credible sexual-assault allegations, that I would not even have the courage to read the story for days."
Like Tolentino, I also didn't read the Carroll story for several days. My eyes glossed over the headline, and it barely even had an affect on me, partly because I've lost faith in the possibility that Trump will ever be taken down by the word of any woman. But I also chose not to see it; as I later realized, I have grown comfortable with stories like this. I have learned to compartmentalize media stories like it, separating them from reality so I don't have to think about their implications. In other words, I'm suffering from bad news burnout.
Image via Grazia Daily
I find myself skimming over the news quite often, particularly news about climate change, which is perhaps the most ominous and urgent story of them all. And yet, like the E. Jean Carroll piece, unless I specifically open my mind to thinking about it, climate change headlines appear strangely theoretical when they flash across my screen, almost holographic in their surreality.
I don't think I am alone in this. Though many of us are glued to the news and are actively protesting and engaging with politics, I believe that just as many of us have fallen into a deep hole of pessimism, which often cools to quiet numbness. We grow complacent in our oblivion, and we use it as an excuse to do nothing. And so we go about our lives never really reacting to the news but followed around by a creeping cloud that sometimes manifests itself as anxiety and depression, which often simply echoes in our ears like the whine of a small mosquito.
This whining easily turns into white noise. After a while, we get used to feeling numb and lose all desire to engage. We're exhausted, unable to go on participating and reacting to everything, and so we do nothing.
This is bad news burnout, and it may be one of the defining characteristics of the millennial generation.
Burnout is a very real affliction. Studies have shown that burnout actually affects the brain, with one study finding that an overworked group seemed to have less activity between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex than a control group, meaning that the overworked group had less control over executive functions. Burnout can be detrimental to physical and mental health, and it often starts a vicious cycle: People suffering from burnout often don't seek help and are less open to learning new information.
Though normally associated with work, media burnout also exists. News media is known to trigger bursts of the hormone cortisol, which can affect concentration and digestion; it can also affect sleep, having an all-around detrimental effect on one's life and health.
Fortunately, there is research-based advice on how to combat media burnout. As with many afflictions, we can't simply wake up one day and decide that we're not going to be burned out anymore. To combat burnout, we need to develop consistent strategies. We can start by placing limitations on our empathy.
The Issue with Empathy
According to the psychologist Paul Bloom, excessive empathy makes us more prone to burnout. If we feel every injury we read about in the media as if it were our own, we'll inevitably get overwhelmed.
Even if does manage to spur us to action, empathy can even have a negative effect on the way we respond to natural disasters, violence, and bad news at large. An excess of empathy can make us overly attached to the struggles of people similar to us, causing us to ignore larger turmoil in the rest of the world (hence the fact that the media barely blinks at another bombing in the Middle East, but a Paris shooting makes the front page of every paper). It can also make us focus on individual stories, like the plight of a single suffering child, while ignoring the larger issues that cause that suffering in the first place.
Instead of prioritizing empathy, Bloom advises that we practice "rational compassion," which means that we should focus on doing the maximum good for the most number of people, rather than getting too hung up on individual stories.
Put the Phone Away
Even with limitations on our empathy levels, it's incredibly difficult not to grow burned out if we're plugged into the 24/7 news cycle. Obsessing over headlines doesn't actually help anyone, and the importance of limiting your engagement with news and social media cannot be overstated.
That doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep up with the times and do as much as we are able to combat injustices in the world. Actually, staying perpetually keyed to the fluctuations of world events may be detrimental to our ability to think critically about news stories and engage productively with issues. "Understanding anything, including politics, involves longer term investigation and contemplation than we are affording ourselves when we buy into being news addicts," writes Megan Nolan.
In order to do the maximum amount of good and to maintain our own sanity, we need to be careful where we focus our energy and attention. The behavioral scientist Kristen Lee writes that in order to avoid burnout, we need to take care of ourselves by staying grounded, setting boundaries, practicing a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and doing what we must in order to ensure that we have the strength to keep up and take action when we can. Putting down the phone is one of the most important things we can do to shield ourselves from falling into despair, along with focusing on practicing gratitude for what we have.
Ultimately, the point is that we need to learn how to pace ourselves. We need to spend more time off our screens, so that when we do plug in, we can be fully present to digest information.
Self-Care as Conscious Action
Sometimes, self-care can take the form of direct action. With issues like climate change and the camps at the U.S.-Mexico border, direct actions—whether that's political protest, lobbying, donating, or something else—can be the most effective ways to assuage our own feelings of uselessness and guilt, and it can hopefully help heal some of the problems at their core Plus, joining communities that are engaged in active resistance can help us feel less alone in our fear and anger, allowing us to face and process it, rather than letting it control us. As Robert Frost said, "The best way out is always through."
For a long time, I avoided thinking about climate change, because I knew if I looked at it head-on, I'd have to do something about it. Since I allowed myself to fully realize the extent of the situation, I've actually felt much more free, able to dive in and learn about the situation, instead of feeling overpowered by a vague sense of hopelessness. Obviously, none of us can engage with every world issue, but sometimes focusing on one or two and taking action is the best form of self-care.
After all, despite our selfish human natures, there's something in each one of us—though sometimes it lies very deep below the surface—that feels we have a moral responsibility to work for a better world for all, that believes it's possible. Sometimes, having the optimism and courage to make small changes is the best way to move forward. According to Angela Davis, "You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time." Instead of passively accepting the news, we can focus on combating it by creating a better world—or at least we can go down fighting for one.
According to Richard A. Friedman, we can avoid burnout not by withdrawing from the world, but rather by lowering our expectations and embracing the negative feelings that accompany the news cycle. He writes, "I suspect my generation suffered less burnout than the current students for the simple reason that we expected to have a rough ride, and our expectations often turned out to be worse than the real stresses we confronted."
Though this advice may seem harsh, especially because the news today is far more apocalyptic than it was when Friedman's generation was coming of age, there may be a seed of wisdom within it. Today's American millennials face a particularly jarring contrast: In keeping with the American dream, many of us were brought up to think that the world was our oyster, and we had little to challenge our self-centered perspectives. We quickly learned to obsess over success, wealth, and personal happiness. Now that we're being told that the world is on the brink of collapse, we face a completely different reality than the one we were born into.
Many of us have also never been taught how to process emotions in a healthy way. We get hung-up on small injustices without working to understand the larger systems behind them, and that quickly becomes too overwhelming for anyone to bear. Perhaps, if we focus less on our own unhappiness and realize that the world will never be a perfect place, we can focus on making things a little better by doing our small part for the whole.
We're All in This Together
When apocalyptic headlines announce unbearable injustices or threaten our ways of life, and when we realize that not only are humans not the center of the world but that we have almost certainly destroyed it, something glitches in our minds. We can't process what it all means.
But we don't have to rationalize or make sense of all the bad news. Since we are not the center of the world, it is not our responsibility to single-handedly change everything. Understanding this can liberate us to take small actions that will actually benefit ourselves and others if it's echoed by a thousand or a billion other small actions.
It also helps to process what's happening with others. When it comes down to it, there's no way to really comprehend the news as it is today, and almost all of us are feeling lost, confused, and helpless in some way—but we're far from alone in that, and we'll have to help each other develop the skills and techniques to make it through this. By maintaining our connections to our communities, both locally and globally, we can develop networks of support that can help us survive and thrive in these strange times.