Feel like the world is ending? You’re not alone. Here’s how to cope.
At this moment, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. We are facing an unprecedented climate disaster, the impact of which is already causing droughts, famine, flooding, wildfires, and mass extinction events. The political situation on the national and global level feels perpetually tenuous. And we continue to suffer through a seemingly unending pandemic, one that has thus far killed more than 680,000 Americans and 4.5 million people across the globe.
To put it mildly, things are not going great, and some crises, like climate change, are certain to worsen in the years to come. And living through this period of perpetual global tumult is no picnic, even for those who are privileged enough not to have been personally impacted by it—just the constant deluge of bad news can have a paralyzing, anxiety-inducing effect.
“We are currently living in a time when our attention is drawn to chronic threats daily,” Dr. Chelsea Ratcliff, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sam Houston State University, writes in an email. “These threats are often societal in nature, meaning it can feel like there is little one individual can do to address or eliminate the threat. This can leave us feeling tired, overwhelmed, and even hopeless.”
Many of us are lucky enough to live in places currently untouched by crises like war and the most palpable effects of a warming planet, which makes something like “feeling overwhelmed” seem pretty silly by comparison. But the human brain can think about and plan for the future, and ours are now recognizing that we may not be so lucky in the years to come.
We are currently living in a time when our attention is drawn to chronic threats daily.”
“Right now, we’re inundated with information about major threats, such as the ongoing pandemic and climate change, and our brains have evolve to keep a tight focus on threats so that we can escape them and survive,” Ratcliff says. “Unfortunately, in this modern age, the threats we are faced with are often longterm, and we can’t individually ‘plan’ our way away from them. When we feel overcome with worry about the state of the world, that’s simply our brain doing its job—scanning for threat and zeroing our attention in on it to try to keep us safe.”
As Ratcliff explains, the response is physical. When you are confronted with a perceived threat, your amygdala—the part of your brain that detects danger—sends a message to your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to elicit a “fight or flight” response. Stress hormones like adrenaline can make your heart speed up and your appetite slow down, which is useful when you’re fleeing immediate danger, but when dealing with a longterm threat like climate change or the pandemic, can manifest as ongoing anxiety.
And unyielding anxiety is difficult to process over an extended period of time. Bruce Poulsen, PhD., a clinical psychologist in private practice, says that it can overwhelm people in a few ways. “It leaves us doing one of a couple of things. We can dismiss everything out of hand and [live] as if, for instance, the virus isn’t happening. We do the same thing with climate change. If we don’t acknowledge it, it’s a psychological alchemy where we feel like we make it go away.”
Of course, we’ve seen what happens when we pretend that things we don’t like don’t exist. On the other hand, if you spend too much time with your anxiety response, Poulsen says you can become, “completely overwhelmed by it to the point of feeling paralyzed, as if nothing we do or can do will make any difference.”
You can make a difference, though, even if just on a small scale, and you don’t need to let your anxiety overwhelm you. Here are some tips to keep panic at bay.
Get involved locally
Since feelings of helplessness exacerbate crisis anxiety, a good way to mitigate them is to take action. Poulsen recommends volunteering or getting involved on a local level, since it’s easier to see the direct impact your work has on a given cause.
“I think on a personal level, we sometimes need to feel that what we’re doing is actually making a difference,” he says. “I had a patient once who successfully got his local community to put the elimination of plastic bags on their agenda. We can be catastrophic in our interpretations of the future, but while there are reasons to be concerned and even worried, there’s also some real promise that in fact, certain steps that are taken can actually make a difference.”
Balance your news intake
You shouldn’t shut out the news completely, but spending all your time glued to the news is not great for your brain. The human brain isn’t designed to consume a constant stream of distressing information, but social media, smartphone notifications and 24-hour cable makes it easy to leave the tap of bad news on full blast.
If you find news-reading necessary, seek out some positive stories too. Follow animal accounts, look for Twitter virus experts sharing encouraging vaccine news, read stories about people being kind to each other. As Poulsen says, “We have to work a little harder to balance our intake of news if we’re going to consume news,” he says. “It’s not all bad.”
Log off altogether
In general, limiting the news scroll is a good idea. “It could be useful for many people to simply take a break from the news,” Pousen says. “Maybe you get the headlines and read an opinion piece here or there.”