Editor’s Note: CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.
Well-meaning advice for people stressing out about current events often includes encouragement to be patient, stay calm and keep the faith – but how on Earth are you supposed to do that when the onslaught of troubling news seems never to stop?
As a practicing clinical psychologist and professor who studies how to manage anxiety and tolerate uncertainty, I offer 10 suggestions to make it through this highly stressful period.
1. Put the phone down!
While it is tempting to stay glued to your devices, never-ending doomscrolling and screen-refreshing can become overwhelming and keep you in a state of tension and constant vigilance. Excessive consumption of news and social media predicts poorer long-term mental health during times of crisis.
Plan some breaks where you can engage in activities that take your mind off politics and the uncertainties we face, and allow things to feel a little more normal for a while.
2. Uncertainty doesn’t equal catastrophe
It’s hard not to know things – outcomes of elections, for instance. But not knowing doesn’t mean you should assume the worst-case scenario has occurred. When anxious – as many in the U.S. are right now – people tend to assign threatening meanings to ambiguous situations. But this tendency is neither reliably accurate nor helpful. Jumping to catastrophic conclusions is like setting off a series of false alarms that keep you on edge and exaggerate your sense of threat.
3. Don’t retreat into bed
The feeling of deep disappointment about election results you don’t like, or apprehension about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, can trigger a desire to withdraw and hole up. While that response is natural, it tends to be counterproductive. Staying engaged in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment, pleasure or meaning can make managing this time far less painful.
4. Remember, it won’t always feel this intense
It’s normal and understandable to feel overwhelmed by current events. Focus on what will help you manage this day without punishing yourself for being upset or feeling depleted. Attending to what’s happening in the moment while also recognizing it’s not permanent can help you stay both present and hopeful. While in many ways it is true that we’re living in a unique and unprecedented era, it’s also the case that human beings tend to be remarkably resilient, even in the face of tremendous stress and trauma.
5. Don’t go through this time alone
Feeling isolated, whether physically or emotionally, can make a hard time feel worse. When people experience acute stress, they cope much better if they have social support.
So reach out and stay connected – whether that means texting about the latest vote count with a friend or purposefully taking a break from ruminating on current events. It’s a great time to deeply discuss what you think about Taylor Swift’s new album.
6. Stay regular
No, I am not referring to your bowels – maintain regular and healthy eating, sleep and exercise patterns. While self-care may seem unimportant, attending to those basic bodily needs can go a long way toward keeping your internal resources sufficiently replenished so you can meet the high demands of this time. There is increasing evidence that poor sleep is closely connected to many mental and emotional health difficulties.
So stop refreshing your feed in the wee hours and try to sleep.
7. Help others
It may feel odd to be asked to support others when you feel so depleted yourself, but helping others is linked to benefits in your own mental health.
Moreover, it provides a sense of control. There’s so much during this time that you cannot control – there is no magic wand that speeds up vote counting in critical contested races or makes climate resolutions between countries come sooner. But taking action to improve things now for the people around you both helps others and reminds you that you can make a difference in meaningful ways.
So, bake cookies to drop off on the doorstep of the friend who caught the flu. Offer to take an item off a work colleague’s overwhelming to-do list. If you’re in a position to help, make a donation to a cause you care about. It’s a win-win.
8. Add to your toolbox
Each person is different in what helps them to relax or feel more centered. Focusing on and slowing down your breathing, for instance, can help keep you grounded in the present moment and reduce the spiral of upsetting thoughts about what might come next. Others find it helpful to more directly practice taking a different perspective and reevaluating their anxious thoughts.
For many people, online mindfulness or cognitive therapy exercises can make a big difference. Check out online mental health programs that have been reviewed by experts and pick the resource that’s right for you.
9. Offer compassion to yourself
The combination of pandemic stresses, economic worries, social injustices, climate breakdown and more means few of us will be at our best right now as we try to just make it through the day.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
There’s a lot of room between performing at 100% of your usual capacity and climbing into bed and hiding under the covers for days on end. Personally, I’m trying to average 80%. People managing greater challenges at this time than I am may shoot for a lower percentage.
No one is making it through this time unscathed, so kindness to ourselves and others is desperately needed.
10. Reach out if you need additional help
If recommendations 1-9 aren’t cutting it, there are lots of resources to help people through this difficult period:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- Use my research team’s free intervention to reduce anxious thinking: MindTrails (part of an online study)
Be patient, stay calm and keep the faith is a tall order. I’ll be happy if I can get most of the way there.
Bethany Teachman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on November 6, 2020.
Republished under a Creative Commons license from The Conversation.