Health

How to Cope with a Terrifying Planet

We asked psychologists and a chaplain how to handle weeks of headlines dominated by shootings, political turmoil, and terrorist attacks.

by Harry Cheadle
Jul 20 2016, 3:46pm

You get to a point where words are just totally inadequate. Someone is held down and killed in an "officer-involved shooting." An angry young man walks into a nightclub and becomes an "active shooter." A "suspect" fires on police officers; later he is revealed to be a "lone wolf." A truck is steered into a crowd of people. Another cop, another man dying, bleeding to death while his fiancée sits next to him and films. More cops are murdered. Protesters are "taken into custody," sometimes while screaming and crying. Tanks roll through a foreign capital. These are "incidents," they are "BREAKING," they are upgraded to "tragedies," sometimes "terrorist attacks."

Every time, "officials" appear on television after these things to deliver "statements." These are often thoughtful, sometimes even powerful. "I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency," says President Barack Obama. "I've hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence."

"There will be a temptation to let our danger harden our divisions," says House Speaker Paul Ryan. "Let's not let that happen."

The country's leaders always urge calm. They say the words we'd like them to say. Peace. Unity. Temperance in the face of pain. Then something else happens, another shaky cellphone video, another blurry horror on our monitors. We all want it to stop, but it keeps happening. "The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe," intones former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani at the Republican National Convention. He sounds less like an authority figure than a man ready to lead an angry mob, but you wonder if he's right. When did we get so afraid?

"The world has always been stressful,"Mary McNaughton-Cassill tells me. She's a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio studying how the news media can affect stress levels. "There's always been disasters and shootings and wars. But prior to this century, if you heard about them at all, it was through newspaper clippings. It was kind of delayed and distant."

Thanks to social media, the old saying about bad news traveling fast has been proven empirically true. The press has always trafficked in sensationalism in order to attract eyeballs, but now everyone can record disasters and death in real time on their phones, and everyone else can share those videos in an outpouring of outrage and grief.

Part of the problem is that humans evolved to survive in a world of predators, not smartphone news feeds. "Our brains are wired to look for danger and monitor it. And that worked better when you were looking for danger in the real world so the scope was limited," McNaughton-Cassill says. "But now we're seeing danger everywhere, all the time."

Pam Ramsden, a psychology lecturer at the UK's University of Bradford, says that this constant sense of danger can give some people symptoms that resemble post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her studies have found that some people are more vulnerable to this, a group she calls the "supervigilant."

"They're the ones who are constant worriers: They're the ones who worry about the weather; when they're driving [they worry about] car accidents," she tells me. "Those are the ones who are more susceptible to PTSD." These people are also more prone to seeking out these traumatic videos and watching them over and over again. "They are drawn to them, traumatizing themselves, and I can't tell you why," she says. (She is currently studying this question.)

Even if you aren't compelled to investigate images of suffering like a tongue probing a rotted tooth, you still may come across moments of horrific violence casually scrolling through Facebook. And even the toughest-minded among us may feel queasy when faced with a video of murder. Statistics remind us how rare terrorist attacks actually are, and a quick Google search will inform you about the long trend of falling violent crime rates, but what are numbers compared to the sight of someone being shot and killed by a hate-filled maniac or an panicked cop?

Greg Epstein is the longtime Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and an advocate for godless congregations, a.k.a. "atheist churches"; he's a bit like a priest without a deity. In the past few turmoil-filled weeks, he tells me, he's had atheists, agnostics, and religiously unaffiliated people approach him "who just want some kind of comfort right now."

I asked Epstein, basically, how do you dig yourself out of the hole of pain that you can easily wind up in after seeing death after death on your phone? He told me that in a lot of cases, the news is painful because we are increasingly attuned to the struggles of others—black people fighting institutional police racism, French families celebrating in Nice, Syrian refugees hounded and killed by ISIS, kids in Orlando whose club became a murder scene.

"We're trying, slowly but surely, to figure out how to have compassion for the entire world. And that's really, really hard to do," says Epstein. But even when our anger and sadness are rooted in empathy, it's important to know when to pull back, realize the point at which we are just making ourselves miserable.

This can be a tricky balance. McNaughton-Cassill tells me that many of her students, who have never known a world without 24-hour news, are inclined to ignore headlines and politics entirely—but that seems to me like a form of surrender. A better way, she says, is to think critically about the stories we read and see, to remind ourselves that terrible events may be dramatic and noteworthy, but they are also incredibly rare. She also advises knowing what sort of material affects you. If, like her, you are disturbed by graphic images, get your news from the radio and text rather than Facebook and other video-heavy social media networks—if that's even possible.

Though it may be difficult, it's important to find ways of disconnecting from the wider universe and all its horrors in favor of the world you can reach out and touch. Many Humanists Epstein knows take a "social media sabbath" one day a week, and the chaplain says that some other parts of religious practice can also be helpful, like finding the time to come together with your community (i.e. church), focusing on what really matters to you (i.e. prayer).

"There are physiological reasons why those religious traditions actually help people," says Epstein. "There are things that happen in our bodies when we take time for rituals that transform our consciousness from a state of 'I'm worried about whatever,' to 'I'm focused on something in particular.' It lowers our blood pressure, it reduces the level of the stress hormone cortisol, all sorts of things."

"Sit quietly in contemplation" is sort of banal advice, but the media's anti-banality bias is maybe its most pernicious bias. It's worth reminding yourself that the stuff of everyday life—that is, actual life—is not made up of active-shooter situations or calls for peace from politicians but the small happenings the media never bothers to report: People sitting, talking, coming together, improving what they can, piece by piece.

"You need to look around and find a place you can throw your efforts," is the advice McNaughton-Cassill gives to her students. "Say, 'I can't fix the shooting in Orlando, but maybe I can work with a group that's working on mental-health awareness... Don't think about changing the whole world, but if something really bothers you, think about whether you can put your efforts into some sort of work that makes you feel like you are contributing."

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