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 recognising that we may not be so lucky in the years to come.
“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 paralysed, 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.”
Set boundaries on social media
Watching people fight online all day does not do much to lessen one’s crisis anxiety. Michelle Young, founder of Untapped New York, writes that she ended up unfollowing or leaving all her Facebook groups, and unfriending people she didn’t know in real life after realising it was impacting her negatively.
“My news feed was filled with posts by people I didn’t know posting into groups I belonged to, often posting factually incorrect or upsetting content, or triggering work thoughts since a lot of groups I’m in are connected to work,” she writes. “I also unfollowed a lot of brands and media pages, since I can get that information elsewhere if I need it and I’ve blocked advertisers I’m not interested in.”
The result, she says, has been calming; she now only sees content from people she’s interested in interacting with. She kept her membership in one group, though: “One group I didn’t leave: Mid-Century Modern Cats, and it’s been amazing. My feed is filled with things from actual friends I care about, and a lot of cats, which I also care about.”
Do grounding exercises
A good way to mitigate anxiety of all kinds is through grounding exercises like meditation, which can calm your sympathetic nervous system and lessen the aforementioned fight-or-flight reaction.
“We can purposely turn our attention to the here and now, rather than thinking about missteps of the past or the dangers the future may hold,” Ratcliff says. “The process of taking ourselves off autopilot is called ‘mindfulness,’ and it has all sorts of benefits for people, even when their present moment is quite painful.”
You can practice meditation for 5–15 minutes a day on your own, or try a guided mediation app like Calm or Headspace.
Maintain a routine
Routines, it turns out, are good for our brains — especially in times of ongoing crisis and anxiety. “Rituals that you engage in become a signal to our parasympathetic nervous system to maintain sense of calm and equanimity,” Poulsen says. Having a bath every night, walking your dog, and making your morning coffee “are ways of preventing panic and maintaining a baseline level so when you hear something or begin thinking about something, you might be less likely to get panicky in the first place,” he says.
Similar helpful exercises include literally exercising, which releases calming endorphins, and making daily to-do lists. When you’re anxious, meting out necessary tasks in small bites and crossing each task off when you finish it can help the day-to-day feel less overwhelming.
“Something I started in the last week is making smaller to-do lists with only the things I can realistically do in a day, and taping a bigger one of everything I need to do/longer term stuff that to the wall, as a reference for the smaller lists,” Ben Firke, a playwright and producer, writes.
Practice gratitude and make time to do things that bring you joy
Even in the worst of circumstances, people can find things that bring them joy. This is important to remember when things feel especially bad.
“Making time to do something that brings you a sense of joy or meaning each week (such as gardening, volunteering, or calling a loved one) has also been shown to improve mood,” Ratcliff writes.
And remember that it’s always worth taking stock of what you do have.
“Practicing gratitude is another simple, but powerful way to broaden our awareness from the narrow focus of threats to include the many rich aspects of life,” Ratcliff writes. “When the pandemic first started, my spouse and I began to share things for which we were grateful each day to combat some of the doom and gloom we often found ourselves discussing. It was so helpful!”
When the world feels overwhelming, it’s helpful to remember that there’s much more to all this than your newsfeed.
“If you’re feeling the sense of panic and you’re inside, it can be really helpful to get outside and look at the sky,” Poulsen says. Go for a walk, take the dog out, toss your garbage and recycling, and look up at the big blue expanse.
Remember that we still have to live through it
Society-threatening crises make it feel like we’re at the end of the world. Which, well, we might be, to some degree. But even so, we do have to get through the day-to-day, and we do have to keep living.
“We have to be honest with ourselves. We can’t look away,” Poulsen says. “But we’ve still got to get the kids to school, we still have to go to our jobs, and take the trash out, and all of those things. I think it’s a matter of maintaining as much so-called normalcy as we can.”