How To Face Up To The Distressing News Cycle – And Take Positive Action
The global news is deeply upsetting, and virtually inescapable – playing out in real time via both trusted media outlets and social media feeds. This year alone, we’ve seen the unfolding atrocities in Israel and Palestine, and ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses in Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran… the horrifying list goes on and on. Not to mention the increasing frequency of catastrophic climate events claiming lives and displacing millions all over the world. It can be difficult to process, let alone know where to start taking action to help.
“We carry the world around in our pockets,” says Professor Stephen Regel, psychotherapist and founder of the UK’s Centre for Trauma Resilience and Growth, who has worked with the International Red Cross in conflict zones all over the world. “People are feeling anger, distress, hopelessness and helplessness, and when it comes to [climate] disasters, guilt.” Guilt that we are the fortunate ones by sheer chance. “I too feel a sense of guilt when I hear about a climate disaster that affects people’s lives, their families and their livelihoods,” says Regel.
Against this backdrop, Regel advises setting boundaries in our interactions with the news. “I work with people in clinical practice who are traumatically bereaved through suicide, homicide and accidental death. Where normally I wouldn’t encourage avoidance, in this circumstance I’ve advised them to keep away because hearing about the terrible things that are going on won’t allow them to process their own grief and loss.”
For the majority of us, who are watching distressing events unfold from a privileged place of safety, Regel still recommends restraint. Constant exposure to traumatic imagery can elicit symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress and “interferes with our normal processing tasks – making sense of the world around us”, Regel warns. “I’m affected by any human suffering but given what I do, I know what suffering is like, so I don’t need to watch it. I’ve decided to restrict my news consumption to specific times, and specific platforms.”
“It’s normal to feel upset,” he adds. “The difficulty is you can become more upset if you feel you can’t do anything. That creates more anxiety, distress and anger.”
To cope with feelings of helplessness, Regel recommends first shifting your mindset to think about what you can do – both locally and further afield. “[First], focus on the things that are around you and the people closest to you. Try to make a difference to the things you can influence.” Donate to a food bank, volunteer for a community project, knock on an elderly neighbour’s door, join a climate action group. These acts might feel microscopic but, as Regel points out, “that’s where you [can start to] make a qualitative difference.”
He recalls a deeply distressing incident from his work with the Red Cross in Uganda to illustrate his point. “I saw a three-year-old child and their 18-month-old sibling scrambling through a rubbish heap looking for food. I rushed over and took care of those two children, but what about the other 10,000? All you can do is try to make a difference where you can.”
When it comes to global issues, rather than spending your time scrolling through endless harrowing footage, again ask yourself: what can I do? “You can give to a charity, sign a petition to put pressure on your government – those things mean you’re being proactive when you otherwise feel powerless,” suggests Regel.
Social media has become particularly polarised and manipulative, and Regel advises practising extreme caution when consuming it. “People feel they have to believe one end of an extreme, which isn’t helpful,” he warns. He also raises the risk of digesting social media content without questioning it. Misleading footage from Israel and Palestine has been widely shared, and social media is awash with disinformation, leaving us vulnerable to the ‘illusory truth effect’, where if we’re told a certain thing enough times, we believe it. It’s why seeking out factual information from reliable sources – whether news, books, podcasts or documentaries [find Service95’s list here] – is so critical. “If you’re unsure, find out a little bit more. I recently listened to a podcast by [BBC journalist] Katya Adler called Understand: Israel And The Palestinians, which explains the historical timeline,” says Regel.
Regel speaks for many of us when he says of the conflict in the Middle East, “I just want it to stop,” adding “but I don’t think that will happen soon. So I have to focus on what I can do.”
International Charitable Organisations To Support If You Can
- International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a global humanitarian network that helps those facing disaster, conflict and health and social problems.
- CARE International is a humanitarian organisation fighting global poverty, with special focus on women and girls.
- Fauna & Flora International is a conservation charity working to protect the planet’s threatened wildlife and habitats.
Laura Potter is a freelance editor and writer whose work has appeared in The Observer Magazine, The Guardian’s Saturday magazine, The Times Magazine and Women’s Health