It’s been a tough few weeks.
Whether it’s another domestic shooting or the rainforest in flames, it can feel overwhelming to stay abreast of what’s happening yet impossible to turn away and unplug. Many of the people I meet these days aren’t sleeping well; they have trouble focusing at work. They’re angry, hopeless, or in despair. The news takes over conversations with friends and loved ones.
In an age of online connection, record numbers feel depressed, alone, and alienated. In many ways, we’re undergoing a vast social experiment: is it dangerous for large numbers of people to be absorbing disturbing news alone?
Given the intensity of our times, finding balance in relation to current events is essential for our ability to stay engaged and meet the challenges upon us. Here are five tips for how to help stay sane in relation to the news cycle.
1. Acknowledge the addictive nature of the news
First and foremost, know what you’re dealing with. Remember that the news media as an industry depends on advertising and viewership to survive. (Even patron-supported public news depends on keeping listeners and readers engaged enough to donate.) Whether it’s profit or donations, the monetary incentive often drives sensationalism; values for utility, accuracy, and ethics often have lower priorities. Violence and intensity sell; goodness and stability don’t.
The next time you find yourself consuming hours of news, struggling to exercise choice over how often you check the feed or turn on the headlines, remember that it’s designed to keep you addicted. Bear all of this in mind as you choose what to absorb, when, and for how long.
2. Know your purpose
Why are you reading the news? What’s your purpose?
Democracy is an experiment in sharing power, and to share power in a meaningful way requires that citizens be informed. Yet the concept of being a “citizen” has atrophied, becoming more of a spectator sport than an active role. The news media contributes to this sense of being a passive observer watching a “show.” Its purpose has become distorted to entertainment, excitement and titillation rather than providing useful information.
What if watching the news were part of our civic responsibility in the true sense of the word: supporting our ability to respond? When we turn towards suffering with a caring, balanced heart, a compassionate response is born. The point isn’t to drive ourselves into a state of despair or paralysis; it’s to wake up to reality so that we can respond.
3. Moderate your intake
A wise relationship to the news includes evaluating what amount of information supports your ability to respond. Having a choice around exposure to painful news is in and of itself a privilege. We can take that privilege seriously and make conscious choices about our news intake.
How and when do you get your news? What’s your intention in reading or watching? Do you check your feed when you first wake up? How’s that affect your mind? If it’s helpful, try creating some guidelines for yourself. Here are a few I’ve explored:
For a week or longer, follow a couple of key issues that you care about, leaving other news aside.
Set a daily time limit for how long you want to spend consuming news.
Do a “digital detox” once per week, staying off devices and doing things that nourish you.
4. Make looking at the news a mindfulness practice
Mindfulness is a powerful ally for finding balance in relation to current events. Make watching news media into a practice of mindful consumption, observing the entire process and taking steps to stay regulated.
Notice the whole experience from beginning to middle to end. Try to become aware of the impulse to check the news. Is it conscious or compulsive? How do you feel before you open your phone, computer or switch on the radio? What thoughts and emotions are present? Is there anxiety, rushing, interest, excitement? You don’t have to change what’s happening; simply stay aware and study it so that you can begin to learn more about where and how you get caught up.
As you begin to read, view or hear the news, pay attention to what happens. Are you aware of your body? Are you holding your breath? Does the mind start racing? Can you maintain awareness from one story or article to the next? Notice the impact each image or headline has on your heart. How do you feel?
Be willing to give yourself time and space to digest your experience. Pause. Breathe. Check in with your heart: “Is this enough for now? Do I have the space to take in any more?”
Staying balanced doesn’t mean that we stop feeling our emotions or don’t have a reaction when tragedy strikes. It means that we are in touch with our heart enough to recognize when we need to step back and give ourselves the space to heal.
5. Build community and Get involved
The idea of a participatory democracy is that we need to participate. Wise action relieves anxiety. The fear and anxiety we feel in a crisis are there to help mobilize our resources. When we have something to do in response, we access our agency and power.
Choose an area that you care about and find ways to get involved. This means continuing to educate yourself about the issues, who’s currently involved and what they need. Getting involved could be doing something on your own (donating money, contacting your representatives) or with others (joining a local organization or movement).
Ultimately, one of the most protective things during these times is building community. There is strength in numbers, and great solace and healing in connection. To counter the negative effects of social isolation, reach out to friends and family. Get together regularly. Make time for both casual fun and more heartfelt discussion about what’s happening and how you feel.
The issues we’re facing today are larger than any of us can solve. They may be larger than any of us can face alone. The more we can build community and strengthen our connections with one another, the more resourced we are to respond in times of crisis.
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