In our era of apocalyptic headlines, it's normal to feel overwhelmed.
We are living in an era of unfathomable news.
Every week, disturbing headlines run parallel in the media landscape. From the plight of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border who, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, are being held in concentration camps to the world's most powerful men abusing their power, we become numb to bad news. When E. Jean Carroll published her essay titled "Hideous Men," in which she recounted how Donald Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room, that claim didn't even make the front page of the New York Times.
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.
A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, with many reportedly feeling anxiety, fatigue or suffering from sleep loss. Here's how to deal.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, we're all caught in a deluge of devastatingly bad news. According to a 2011 study, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers' worth of information—five times as much as we did in 1986, the New York Times reported. And that study is seven years old; since then, the pings are only coming faster and more furiously.
A recent survey from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, with many reportedly feeling anxiety, fatigue or suffering from sleep loss. Here's how to deal. One in 10 adults checks the news every hour, while 20 percent cop to "constantly" checking in on their social media feeds, Time reports. Women especially, who are twice as likely to be plagued by anxiety as men, tend to feel overwhelmed by the never-ending cycle of bad news, psychiatrist Gail Saltz wrote in Health.
"Compassionate people are overwhelmed now with the deluge of terrible news," Krista Tippett said recently on On Being. "The pictures are too present and too vivid. The news cycle is too relentless. I see pictures of children in faraway places that wreck me for a day."
What can the compassionate person do?
What we're experiencing now, Roshi Joan Halifax told Tippett, is "empathic distress." "When we are more stabilized, then we can face the world with more buoyancy, more capacity to address these very profound social and environmental issues," she said. Here are some ideas for what that can look like in your day-to-day life.
Limit your news—and be strategic
Instead of considering your phone and its news alerts an extension of your body, set aside time—at lunch, say—to check in with what's going on in the world. We're big fans of NPR's "Up First," a 10-minute podcast segment that tells you what you need to know to start your day. Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain, advises banishing the news from your bedtime routine.
Whatever you do, don't feel guilty about creating distance between you and the news in the name of emotional wellbeing. "It's important to maintain healthy boundaries, practice self-care. It's your life. Time is really precious," Kriss Kevorkian, who teaches classes on trauma, crisis and disasters in the Master of Social Work program at Walden University, told Quartz. If people find you selfish, she advises reminding them of the airplane air mask principle: "Tell them, 'Yeah, I am, because I come first.'"
Too many of your devices provide access to breaking newsNew York Times
Ask the right question—and then move on
When the news triggers your compassion ask yourself once, and only once, What can I do to solve this problem? On Tiny Buddha, Lori Deschene emphasizes the importance of thinking small. "Whether you have grand plans or not, I think it's important to play small every day—even while keeping your eye on a larger goal. The little things make a huge difference, both for us and the people whose lives we touch." Try not to ruminate and spin your wheels in compassionate distress. "If you can't think of a plan or solution that's realistic, rational, and logical, move on," Saltz wrote.
Go to a holy place
The news whirs, buzzes, drones, and whirls. Replace it with quiet and stillness. "I think there are many antidotes, actually," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "A setting...which is so physically beautiful and psycho-socially safe, is important. I think there are houses of worship in many denominations here, so people can go and touch into the stillness and, as well, into the inspiration." For you, it may be a Quaker Meeting, group meditation at the candlelit yoga studio, or a woodland grove. "This is coming back to the value of a contemplative practice," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "Within any tradition or non-tradition is that when you are in a state of deep internal stillness, you see the truth of change, the truth of impermanence that's constantly in flow, moment by moment. And so that becomes a kind of insight that liberates you from the futility of the kind of grief that disallows our own humanity to emerge."
Practice loving kindness
This form of meditation extends feelings of compassion, love, peace, and safety from the sitter to the greater world. Begin by extending blessings to yourself: "May I be happy. May I feel love. May I have peace." Then, visualize people you love—your mother, your best friend, your spouse—and extend blessings to them, eventually expanding the circle of compassion until it encompasses your town, country, and the planet. "May all beings be happy; may all beings feel love; may all living beings experience peace."
Broaden your field of vision
It's not only spirituality, meditation, and nature that can restore our feelings of interconnectedness and equanimity. This is also the dominion of great art and literature. "We've turned our vision to being so superficial and outward," said Roshi Joan Halifax. In addition to turning your attention to the wider world, focus your attention on works of art and beauty. News isn't the only form of media; remember verse, sculpture, sonnets? Artists have been working through questions of compassion and meaning in novels, poetry, and painting for centuries. Be restored by the answers there.
"There's a potential for a new kind of enlightenment in our time," said Roshi Joan Halifax. "And that is, I think, a yearning that many of us experience, as we see the world distancing itself from its own heart." Seeing this yearning, this desire, fills her with hope rather than futility. Follow the longing you feel. Reframe your discomfort as vital information—your body and soul are telling you they want to reconnect to the heart of the world.