Politics and Mental Health
I’ve been on a news break for about three weeks, and it’s been nothing less than wonderful. It feels like I’ve gotten out of a bad relationship. For the moment I have no desire to go back to the news, but ultimately I do feel a responsibility to be a conscious and active citizen. The question is how to do it in a sane and sustainable way.
This news break has given me the opportunity to notice what I’m not experiencing right now - a ton of unpleasant feelings.
Common emotions we experience with exposure to the news, 2017/2018 version:
And in 2017, with dramatic things taking place almost daily, these emotions were often at extremely high levels, and very hard to regulate and integrate into our day-to-day functioning. For many people this resulted in a new status quo of overwhelm.
So if we are operating with the assumption that we should put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others, how do we maintain our mental health in the midst of all this?
Honestly I haven’t figured this out yet. But here are a few things I’m thinking about
1- Emotional health and well-being essentials must be prioritized before attending to the news. According to the World Health Association, mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” Taking care of our own emotional health is our own responsibility. NPR and Fox News and Comedy Central do not make programming decisions with our mental health in mind. It’s necessary for each individual person to figure out what they need for daily emotional health and stability, and establish those routines in daily life in a very solid fashion. Mediation, good conversation with others, worship, prayer, creative work, taking medication regularly, volunteering, exercise, journaling, eating well, reading, dancing, time in nature- whatever it is for you, that has to come first.
2 - Notice what kind of material you are consuming, So much of it really isn’t actual news -- objective fact-based information about something that has occurred. I like to call this other stuff News Flavored Material - speculation, opinion, repetition, guessing, theorizing, critique, gossip, pontificating, mocking, attacking, judgement, satirizing, bragging, dismissal. Just because it’s on a news program doesn’t mean it’s news. These days I notice a lot of “reporting,” or articles on Facebook, with the tone of “Can you believe this?” Can you believe how stupid/dangerous/entitled/racist/ignorant/spoiled/hypersensitive/clueless these people are?” My suspicion is that “Can you believe this?” stories, while purporting to inform and educate, often generate feelings of superiority and disgust. An abundance of those emotions rarely translates into positive action.
3- - Observe your reaction to the news (or News Flavored Material). Does what you are consuming leave you feeling empowered, motivated and energized to think creatively and take action? Or does it result in rage, hopelessness, apathy or hatred? News organizations provide whatever material gets the most clicks, and we are biologically programmed to engage with threats more than we are to engage with positive things. The more time we spend on the news site or station, the more advertising revenue the provider is able to acquire. Cultivating outrage is lucrative.
Side note- there is a lot of evil in the world to hate and feel strongly about. Indignation is a natural response to injustice, and when horrible things happen, it’s appropriate to feel horror. But the human brain is not designed to be exposed to an endless number of dramatic events that are outside of our control. Constant exposure to events we can’t control results in overwhelm and burn out, in which we lose sight of what we
More stuff to consider if you need a news break:
Are the negative emotions you are experiencing while following the news interfering with your appreciation for what is right around you, and the people, places, natural wonders, opportunities, conversations and experiences that make up your
Is the news exposure creating feelings of hopelessness and paralysis, rather than motivating you to come up with creative solutions to the problems you am being exposed to?
For many of us this is a totally unique era, and there’s no roadmap for how to participate and still maintain your well-being. If 2017 resulted in record levels of burnout, perhaps the silver lining is that more people are being forced to consider how to take care of themselves in the midst of it all. My hope is that we can become less passive in our consumption of media, more conscious of what we are being exposed to, and better at regulating it and prioritizing our mental and emotional health. Then our engagement can be from a position of strength, and activism can be sustained.