The attack on Brussels, Belgium, for which ISIS is officially claiming responsibility, came as a shock. At least three separate explosions, including at least one suicide bombing, were set off in the airport and metro, injuring nearly 200 and killing at least 34. All of this comes just days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam for involvement in the November 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, all while violence in our own nation persists, with police brutality and gun violence in the news more than ever.
Researchers have long been worried about the effects of flashy news and graphic, real violence on our psyches, and the coverage of tragedy is oftenlinked with a feeling a sense of “malaise” about the world in general. It can be tempting to just shut it all out, but staying current is important and most large-scale tragedies are impossible to avoid. Finding ways to cope with the stress, anxiety, and depression that these news story bring on, however, is not out of your reach.
“The first thing I would recommend is to acknowledge that a tragic event happened, and that it’s okay to have feelings about it,” says Stephanie Dowd, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center of the Child Mind Institute. “Express your feelings and thoughts about this event with people you love and trust.”
Here are six doctor-approved tactics to avoid being overwhelmed while staying informed.
Recognize where you’re coming from
The effects of consuming so much violence and traumatic news for someone with mental illness, particularly PTSD, anxiety, and depression, are not the same as they are for everyone else. In fact, people with mental issues that thrive when conditions seem hopeless may be seeking out bad news to begin with. “There’s a higher risk factor for anxiety [and related issues] if they’ve had a traumatic experience in their background,” says Dr. Dowd. “Be aware of your own personal risk factor.”
How the news affects your existing conditions can vary, from worsening melancholy to feeling pointedly apathetic, and are not a reflection of how much you care or don’t care about the news. If you have friends or family who might be better off without certain visuals or information, let them know you’re okay with looking for a different source or turning away from a story if they need to.
Dr. Dowd recommends that anyone who realizes they have considerable anxiety in the days following an event like the Belgium attacks, meaning that it’s affecting activity like going to school or sleeping, should seek help from a counselor or licensed psychologist when possible.
Find better news
A change in where you get your news can definitely help. Dr. Dowd recommends limiting images, taking away the visuals as much as you can, and also avoiding social media like Twitter, where she says people are going to be expressing more alarmist worry about the events.
She says, “Sometimes can people can make ‘catastrophic future predictions,’ or 'if/then' statements, that are not based in reality. These are called 'thinking traps,' and can increase our anxiety unnecessarily.” Limit your exposure to cable news, which uses terrifying graphics, gratuitous use of explosion shots, and screaming that the world ending is guaranteed — they just want to keep you watching longer. Dr. Dowd says reading a few reputable news organizations, getting the information, and then moving on is the right way to go.
If moving on is impossible once you’re interested in a topic or country, look for more information on the subject as a whole, instead of focusing on one disaster. More knowledge, instead of caricatured exposure, will bring you to the solid ground that 24-hour news cycles are trying to keep out of reach. A 12-page story about a war-torn country in National Geographicmight feel more extreme, but a measured, informed look at the world is always better than a three minute shouting news segment.
Understand what you can’t watch
It does not make you a bad or irresponsible person to abstain from particular stories. For some people, certain things are harder to hear about or view than others. Acknowledging that a problem is horrific is not turning your back on it.
“You’re doing nothing wrong by taking care of yourself in that way,” says Dr. Dowd. “It can be very healthy to recognize when something is too much for you, to draw a line and say, enough is enough, I need to read or do something else.”
Dr. Dowd notes that women and teenage girls are at a higher risk for stress and anxiety. If you’ve had a similar experience to something in the news and feel like it’s inciting dangerous or painful reactions in you, just turn it off and walk away. You never have to explain why something is harder for you to hear about or watch. Just try to show others the same respect you’re requiring and never scold people for being seemingly okay with something you’re uncomfortable with – remember that you know exactly as much about what the news means to them as they do for you.
Stick to your plans
It can be hard to go about your day when tragedy strikes, and that’s understandable — it’s often shocking and sad, and running errands can feel bizarrely disrespectful. But Dr. Dowd says we shouldn’t feel bad about having an otherwise normal day. “It’s really important to increase your own coping skills, by doing something relaxing or calming during this time.”
She also notes that seeking out ways to feel better, which at times can feel selfish, shouldn’t make you feel guilty and will calm your anxiety. In moments like this, she recommends that we “intentionally notice how good it feels to do something enjoyable,” adding that taking care of yourself by doing activities that distract you from the news, or doing something kind for others can also be really helpful.
Remember that it’s not about you
Human suffering is a tragedy, and learning details or seeing pictures of it can leave us devastated. In our own context, where things seem relatively better, we’re often asked to justify and explain our feelings towards anything, and the easiest way to do that is often to find a way that it relates to or affects us personally. But when tragedy happens hundreds of thousands of miles away and the only reason you’re sad is because it’s sad, it’s okay to leave it at that. Rather than force something unknowable to you into the knowable, Dr. Dowd recommends taking the time to feel the way you’re feeling, use whatever method of positivity you perform — prayer, meditation, sending well wishes — to do your part in adding something good to an otherwise terrible situation.
“It’s really important to recognize that you yourself are safe, and that the bad thing has not happened to you, especially if you have a higher risk for anxiety,” says Dr. Dowd. “When you separate yourself from the victims it doesn’t mean that you don’t care. Reassuring yourself that you’re safe is taking care of yourself.”
It’s always possible to care about yourself and others at the same time. Remember that everyone around you is feeling their own version of anxiety, and try to make your thoughts and feelings on whatever’s going on a conversation, rather than a declaration. Everyone handles tragedy in their own way, and the loudest person in the room is very rarely the most helpful.
Don’t try to find reason in violence
People who perform violent acts understand those acts, because to orchestrate a terrorist act or start a war, you have to have found the logic behind it. But this doesn’t mean it’s going make sense to you and me, and trying to understand violence through the eyes of someone for whom it’s an actual option is a lost cause.
“Sometimes, especially when people are feeling very anxious or confused about an attack like this, it’s easy to ask 'why?'” says Dr. Dowd, “and it’s important to note that you won’t get an answer. A lot of these attacks don’t make sense. The terrorist worldview doesn’t align to our own world. Stop asking the question why, and tolerate the unknown.”
Exploring the conditions that led to acts of violence is important in stopping more of them. But trying to rationalize violence often leads to brash assumptions. For example, thinking that certain nations or religions are" just more violent than you and I would ever be" can have harmful effects in the way we treat others and move forward from a tragedy. Understand that death and destruction, no matter where they come from, are senseless, and instead focus on the things that are within your comprehension and control.
Your reactions to violence, the way that you treat those around you who may be scared or anxious, your votes for the people who decide what our place in the world is — these are the things you can understand in the days and weeks following a tragedy. Get to know your place in the world, and what you can do to help instead of harm in times of violence and trauma, and the things you see on CNN won’t seem so impossible to confront.