Maverick Life


How to engage with the news without slipping into despair

How to engage with the news without slipping into despair
Doomscrolling is when you spend an excessive amount of time just sitting and looking at awful content and bad news. (Photo: Caftos / Unsplash)

A therapist’s guide on how to stay grounded despite your concerns for the state of the world.

There will always be bad news, but ensuring there’s less of it in the future means getting more people to read about it. The unfortunate irony is that if you care enough to read it, you’re invested enough to be upset by it – so the empath walks a tightrope, carrying their desires to improve the world without being weighed down by the current state of it and falling into despair. 

Clinical psychologists Micky Stern, Catherine Michelson and Brittany Everitt-Penhale provide insights into how to remain engaged without becoming overwhelmed.

Pick  your media and limit consumption 

“Take a moment to think about how your media is coming to you,” urges Penhale.

“If it’s pinging you as a barrage of app notifications on your phone at all times of the day, are you sure that’s what you want? Can you turn notifications off and choose when you engage? Or is there an alternative app that won’t send them?” 

“If you can’t stop yourself from checking alarming news headlines on an app like Instagram or Twitter, it may be worth considering temporarily deleting the app.” 

Having the discipline to self-regulate is no simple feat. Penhale suggests that routinely “experimenting” with one’s limitations can help a person hold themselves accountable and keep tabs on whether they are self-regulating enough.

“Do a little mood check-in before and after you consume media in different ways or at different intervals. How are you feeling on a scale of 10 after 15 minutes of engaging compared to before? Are you feeling better or worse after another 15 minutes? This could give you some actual evidence of how your habits are affecting you.” 

“What I often say is to make sure you’re making conscious choices because the alternative which many of us do is just to pick up our phone and click and swipe through an endless feed that just comes at you. I think that form of media, in particular, can cause problems and facilitate doomscrolling.”

Doomscrolling is when you spend an excessive amount of time just sitting and looking at awful content. And because these apps are designed to keep you locked in, spending as much time as possible on them, they create a vicious cycle – your algorithm learns that you will watch a particular kind of upsetting content, so it feeds you more of that, which can push you down a rabbit hole and skew your view of the world.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The impact of negative news and disaster reporting on mental well-being

Penhale emphasises the importance of finding methods of gaining greater control of one’s engagement, like creating a limited window of engagement during the day. If one struggles with self-restraint, they can at least make engagement a little bit harder for themselves.

“Maybe starting your morning off on that note, or doing it right before bed, is not healthy for you. Setting a timer for a certain predetermined period may work better. It may be a good idea to plan so that you do a regular activity that helps distract or soothe you afterwards.”

“If your main concern is just being informed about something, do you have people in your life who are already reading a lot about it who are willing to give you important updates? If you are becoming overwhelmed but don’t want to lose touch, having that filter can be a big help.”

Whether one is already seeing a therapist or unable to see one, Stern encourages taking advantage of digital and in-person resources that will help regulate the consumption of information.

“Focus groups where you can discuss certain things are a start. If you’re spending too much time on social media, there are apps you can use to set your parameters and limit your intake. Or there are fact-checking sites, if you are being bombarded with misinformation and you’re not sure what to believe anymore, you can leverage those.” 

“When you’re hearing about a lot of horrific things, it makes a hell of a big difference to be able to verify information.”

Stern and Penhale both recommend being particularly cautious of visual media. 

“I wouldn’t recommend you watch TV news for more than half an hour. It’s different from listening or reading because the pictures stay in your mind and can imprint on your brain and cause PTSD,” says Stern.

Penhale explains that this relates to the way humans store visual information:

“There’s this scary thing playing out in front of me – does my nervous system need to be in fight or flight overdrive right now? Or, am I safe, sitting here on this couch? That scary thing is not happening to you right now, but our brains are not well-evolved to note that difference, so that’s not necessarily what your nervous system is going to interpret.”

Penhale believes that, although it may seem counter-intuitive, reading longer articles may be wiser for some people than just the often alarmist and reductive headlines because in-depth articles can capture the nuance of an issue. 

“Reading things that are more long-form; that take a bigger picture perspective and give you a broader understanding of a thing, might be better than the short dramatic things that hit you in sharp, painful ways, especially social media updates. The added problem with newsfeeds is comments – there’s a lot of fighting, so you as the reader have to process not only the content itself but also the hostility of these humans, some of whom you may know – it’s conflicts upon conflict.” 

Avoid hyperbolic language 

Some social media sites limit the number of characters one can use in a post. Even those that don’t, may incentivise brevity. Stern believes that the reductionist responses to divisive issues are what makes social media so super-charged with tension. It’s a space where extreme statements are shared by others, and often validated by likes and comments

“At the beginning of a therapy session a person might be filled with rage, but we talk through it for 50 minutes, and by the end of the session, there are questions like, I wonder what he was thinking? I wonder what made my husband do that? They couldn’t have got there in the first five minutes because they needed to process it.” 

“It feels like social media perhaps only offers you time for that first explosive moment, and you don’t get past that. So you’ll write in the comments: I’m shattered, bloody horrific, devastating, all sorts of language that in another conversation is not helpful or meaningful, and yet there’s this strong desire to write it online.”

Be conscious of your mental state

Stern says the most important thing you can do to ensure that you aren’t overwhelmed when you receive bad news is to get into a state of mindfulness so that you don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to triggering news.

 “That’s where you want to be when you receive bad news, but it’s tricky to manage in the moment. When you are in a state of distress, your amygdala is firing, and there’s cortisol and adrenaline… you actually cannot think well in that state.” 

“It takes at least 20 minutes for your body to reabsorb that cortisol. During that time you’re not likely to make much sense of anything, so if you can, give yourself at least 20 minutes to calm down before engaging.”

Stern advises that anything that compromises your mental state is likely to impede your ability to engage productively with upsetting news. 

“Consuming bad news or debating it when you’ve had too much alcohol is not a good idea. Neither is trying to sort things out late at night. You might have heard people advise not to go to bed angry – I disagree – go to bed angry! Otherwise, you’ll be up arguing in an overtired state until three in the morning.”

Seek out conversations in safe spaces

Michelson suggests that conversing in spaces where one feels free to express emotions and interrogate views is a crucial first step in processing overwhelming news.  

“Something that gets my mind on track is speaking to people on the phone when one or both of us don’t know how to feel about something. And then finding the words to speak. Just being able to share how difficult it is – and how impossible it feels to express things, particularly on very divisive subjects – can help one articulate the complexity they’re struggling with.”

If one only interacts with people similar to oneself, it can warp and blinker one’s worldview, but Stern notes that in the initial phases of dealing with difficult news, ideologically homogeneous communities can be helpful.

“When something divisive is happening, you’ll want to speak to like-minded people, and you’ll get drawn to like-minded media – that’s okay. When you are extremely distressed, it’s difficult to manage too much of the other. And that’s not something that’s going to calm you, it will probably dysregulate you. So you read the news that you can bear.” 

“You basically talk in an echo chamber, because those are people who will listen to you and understand you, and help you to process. Rushing into a hostile discussion in a distressed state just starts a fight.”

How to safely leave your echo chamber

Michelson says cultivating an attitude of curiosity can help one to engage with people and media of different opinions without being overcome with anger. 

“Ask yourself if there is someone you know who you might disagree with but still share common values – someone who will still hear you out. One thing that helps in those conversations is curiosity. Coming at it from an angle of, how does your brain work? How do you get to that? I think that allows you to step a bit into different territory.”

Stern points out that this attitude is what allows therapists to assist patients they may strongly disagree with or even dislike.

“We try to listen to a story with curiosity. And sometimes we have quite strong feelings about the story that’s being told. Particularly in couples therapy. You’re hearing two people and sometimes you side with one of them. But you have to restrain the anger and maintain a position of curiosity because otherwise, you can’t do the work.”

Don’t over-identify

Stern asserts that taking on others’ pain as one’s own can be unfair to oneself and those around you.

“Empathy is data collection. It’s what allows you to understand people’s pain by locating yourself in a position that will give you access to what they are feeling. The great Austrian psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut explained it like this: while I can’t understand what it’s like to be seven-feet-tall, I can understand what it’s like to be conspicuous, so if I go into that place of what it feels like to be conspicuous, maybe I can start to understand what a tall person feels. What you shouldn’t do is take on people’s pain.” 

Michelson suggests that over-identifying may even put one in a less effective position to help those whose pain they’re taking on.

“It’s similar to what happens if a therapist takes on the emotions of their patient – they get into what we call a codependent space, and can’t actually do the therapy.”

Avoid guilt-tripping yourself

Michelson points out that those who can self-regulate and stay engaged without over-identifying, sometimes feel ashamed for being okay when others are suffering.

“One has to watch out for this sense of guilt. Maybe you have a laugh with somebody, and then you think, how can I be laughing at a time when all this bad stuff is happening? If it doesn’t get dealt with, this mindset can interfere with all their relationships.”

Penhale’s answer to such self-accusations is several-fold.

“First, even if the issue you’re thinking about is affecting people you care about, would they want you to be feeling these things? I would guess probably not. You may be able to channel that concern into appreciation of the safety and peace you have. That is not ignoring the suffering of others, but honouring it by being grateful.”

Don’t fall prey to sensationalism

Penhale points out that the infrastructure of news media, particularly that of fast news, incentivises catastrophism, so one should try to stay cognisant that the world goes on when things are bad, and not only focus on the causes that matter to us when they are in crisis.

“The nature of the news is that you’re subjected to a disproportionate number of horrific things. Amidst all of that, there’s also a lot of beauty and kindness and bravery that you’re not seeing. Remind yourself of that. Remind yourself that the impression you’re getting when you’re reading or watching something is warped through a negative lens.”

How to know whether to fully disengage

People process upsetting news in a variety of ways, and clinical psychologist Micky Stern points out that some people’s mental health may not be stable enough to keep them balanced on this tightrope. Stern explains that strong reactions to bad news do not necessarily mean that they should not be engaging.

“If you are a fairly healthy person with a cohesive, solid sense of self, you may receive bad news and process it calmly, or feel completely overwhelmed by it, depending on your personality and the news itself. Your adrenaline may go up, your cortisol level is raised, and you might start sweating. You may even get into a kind of hyper-stressed state where you can’t think properly or concentrate… you get that panicky, terrible feeling – but a healthy person should then begin to process it in various ways.” 

“The people I would recommend distract themselves and don’t watch or read the news are those with fragile mental health who might be flipped right over by it – people at risk of getting into a fragmented state which is very difficult to come out of.”

Help others

Research suggests that using one’s privileges to empower others through donating, volunteering or constructively creating awareness can stave off a feeling of paralysis that could lead to depression, even if the outreach you’re doing is not directly linked to the thing one is anxious about. 

Penhale elaborates: “When you’re sitting on your phone taking yourself into a pit of despair, it can feel like you’re contributing just by reading, but it doesn’t change the thing you’re concerned about. Sure, there’s something to be said for being informed, but if you weigh up how much it’s helping and how much it’s sucking the life out of you and impacting your mental health, you may find there are more productive ways to channel your desire to be helpful.” 

“If it’s something that feels too far away for you to do anything about, there’s probably someone else feeling similarly – maybe you could check on them.” DM

Brittany Everitt-Penhale is a clinical psychologist with an interest in trauma and AMDR. Micky Stern is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Cape Town. Cathy Michelson is a clinical psychologist who previously worked in academia and did training and intervention in trauma, which was the focus of her thesis.


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