mental health

Is It Okay to Switch off When News Gets Overwhelming?

A handy guide for those finding it tough to cope with the horrible things happening in the world but also feeling guilty about looking away.
Dhvani Solani
Mumbai, India
June 12, 2020, 10:00am
news, coronavirus, anxiety
Photo courtesy ofPhoto by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Last week, I woke up to yet another horrifying piece of news. A pregnant elephant in a forest in Kerala, India, had eaten a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers that had exploded in her mouth. Reports later came out that this might not have been an act of intentional cruelty against the elephant but regardless, she died a slow and brutally painful death—and might not have even been the first to go through this horror.

Months of living in lockdown has taught me that household chores make for a calming morning routine, but on that morning, I couldn’t even get started. So I continued scrolling through other bits of news that had emerged while I slept, jumping from one website to the other, and slowly a feeling of numbness came over me. I felt the crushing weight of a horrible world weighing down on me.

I wanted to look away, but at the same time, turning off the news somehow made me feel like a traitor. Was it okay to simply Netflix-and-chill while migrants in India died of starvation while attempting to walk hundreds of miles home? Would my silence be looked upon as complicity while anti-racist movements erupted the world over? Was it fair to look the other way while my species accelerated the planet’s sixth mass extinction?

In the pre-COVID era, the instinctive answer to this might have been a yes. Yes, we need to care for our mental health and so, maybe consuming only small amounts of news was enough. But in an era when the only way to know what is going on in the world is by scrolling, where do we draw the line between staying informed and feeling overwhelmed? What do we do when we feel like we’re losing humanity if we’re not invested in news and empathising with all the terrible shit happening to other creatures? And at a time when we’re all being bombarded by an onslaught of disturbing news, how do we deal with this “crisis fatigue”?

To find out, I asked some experts to craft a mini guide to help you—and me—through this minefield of FOMO v/s no-more.

Lesson One: It’s okay to seek out information

“As humans, our brains have an inbuilt ‘seeking system’ that once pushed us to find food, sex, and shelter,” says clinical psychologist Nusrat Ibrahim. “Now, this has been replaced with seeking out endless information which often makes us click on one thing, and then another, and then another, and so on. Curiosity is good but where it gets tricky is when it is rewarded with dopamine, which is what happens when we get an alert on our phones.”

The first step then, Ibrahim stresses, is to tell yourself that seeking information—especially in chaotic times like the current one—is totally natural. In fact, you’re hardwired for it. “The brain wants to seek reassurance in stressful times,” she says. Research also finds that under conditions of increased perceived threat and ambiguous feedback, anxiety and compulsive reassurance-seeking often follow. This means that switching off might not be easy because the thing about anxiety is that it generally pushes you to look for more information to relieve that anxiety. So ya, first step: Be cool with the need to scroll and then scroll some more.

Lesson Two: Try to be more conscious of what you’re consuming

“There is so much happening throughout the day that it is imperative you pick and choose what you want to spend your energies on,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Hvovi Bhagwagar. “There is also an infodemic of fake news out there. It’s important that you find out what it is that you want to be invested in. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about the other news but you can’t spend an equal amount of energy on it all. Someone who is very good with numbers and statistics might want to follow how coronavirus is infecting increasing numbers whereas someone else might be more interested in how the virus is mutating. Gravitate towards what interests you.”

Lesson Three: Remember that even though everyone else is “doomscrolling”, you don’t have to

2020 has thrown a lot of new words into our vocabulary, from “covidiots” to “patient zero” to ”doomscrolling”—the last one describing how we’ve all turned into junkies addicted to grim news. You see it in your partner randomly scrolling through Twitter feeds when they should be sleeping, in yourself when you look up and realise that a couple of hours have suddenly flashed by while you were swiping in a semi-comatose state. Swiss author Rolf Dobelli caught the phenomenon early on, and wrote the book: Stop Reading the News : A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life. “I would really suggest anybody struggling with their feelings at this time [to] think seriously about not just how much news they consume but what it is,” he says. “So know your sources – dip into it, and then limit your news consumption to 15 minutes each day. Literally, set a timer. That is more than enough to get a sense of what is happening in these extraordinary times.”

To help others out with their doomscrolling habits, Bhagwagar suggests applying a policy she has set for herself and her clients. “Just don’t bother with news you get on WhatsApp,” she says. “Look into it if you get it from multiple sources or a trusted source, and then go online to check if it’s really true. Forward it only if you know it’s not fake.” Other helpful tactics can include turning off notifications, using news aggregation apps, muting social media chats, actively looking for good news, and basically just going on a controlled news diet.

Lesson Four: Take action on the ground

If you’re continually worried your silence is a form of complicity, then consider taking some action. It can be on social media but look for practical ways to bring it to the ground. “Focus your energies on the community around you,” advises Bhagwagar. “Rather than going on talking online, which can make one feel alert and overwhelmed all the time, look for ways to bring about change. When the alcohol shops opened up in Mumbai and people broke social distancing rules to throng them, everyone around was just ranting about it online. But I care about these rules and so, I went out, took a photo of a crowded wine shop, posted it online, and tagged the government.” The government authorities followed up on her tweet immediately. “If we use our energies wisely, we can help others and also ourselves. They needn’t be big things, and it needn’t be with everything happening out there.”

Ibrahim adds that self-care—as clichéd as it might sound—can help with channelling the anger and frustration well. “You can’t empathise with every tragedy and respond to all of them equally,” she says. “If you try to do that, “compassion fatigue” can set in, and you may stop caring altogether as a defence mechanism. Instead, turn the guilt into small and sustainable actions. Finding purpose during a crisis is better than making a temporary situation bearable.”

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