8 Ways to Care For Yourself When a Tragedy Is In the News
Lately, checking in on the news has felt tougher than ever. Whether it’s politically charged disagreements, acts of war, racist attacks, natural disasters, or instances of mass violence—feeling safe and staying optimistic about the future isn't easy.
After tragedies, we can often feel torn between wanting to stay updated and informed, but also struggling to process the information emotionally.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the news lately, you’re far from alone. The American Psychological Association reported that at the start of 2017, 66 percent of Americans saw the future of our nation as a very or somewhat significant source of stress for them. They also found that in 2017, 34 percent of Americans reported stress because of their personal safety, which increased by 5 percent since 2016.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by the news, you're far from alone.
Researcher Mary McNaughton-Cassill at the University of Texas-San Antonio specifically studies how negative news affects viewers and readers. In an interview with New York Magazine, she said while ingesting bad news won’t give us anxiety or depression if we’re not predisposed to those illnesses, it can affect our attitude about the world around us. Consuming bad news can lead to feelings of helplessness and can trigger us to view the world in darker ways, which can impact our optimism. It can also affect our desire to take action.
“When I’ve done studies and people watch coverage of, say, 9/11, they don’t then meet criteria for depression in the DSM,” McNaughton-Cassill told The Cut. “But if you ask them how they feel about the world, what they end up with is this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”
But there are steps you can take after a tragedy to help you get back to a place of self-care, optimism, and advocating for the issues you care about.
Here, a few tips from experts:
1. Acknowledge What Happened
Before you can process the information, it’s important to accept that it happened. “The first thing I would recommend is to acknowledge that a tragic event happened, and that it’s okay to have feelings about it,” Stephanie Dowd, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, told Teen Vogue.
Take a moment to acknowledge what happened. If you feel comfortable, maybe read a few articles or view videos from different sources to get the best picture of what happened. If visuals tend to be too much, try listening to a radio news briefing instead.
Then, start acknowledging how the events are making you feel. It can help to process the event with other people. If you can, talk to a close friend or family member so you’re not alone while coming to terms with what happened.
2. Take a Break from the News
Matthew Goldfine, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Shine that it’s easy to get sucked into the 24-hour news cycle, especially during a tragedy. “It can distort how we see the world around us, usually as much more dangerous and violent than it really is,” Goldfine says.
It’s more than OK to turn off the TV or put down your iPad and limit your intake of information. And if you don’t ever feel ready to learn more? That’s OK, too.
It’s more than OK to turn off the TV or put down your iPad and limit your intake of information.
Use that break to take care of yourself by getting exercise, nourishing yourself in healthy ways, or getting some sleep. “By taking care of our bodies, we put ourselves in the best position to cope with whatever life throws at us,” Goldfine says.
3. Gauge How This Affects You
Perhaps you have anxiety, PTSD, or depression, and certain news events may trigger a more intense response. We all have unique backgrounds, and we react differently to certain events. Taking these factors into consideration will help you understand and gauge your emotional reaction.
Ask yourself: How do I feel as a whole? How do the events affect me, and how do I feel about that? What do I need right now to soothe me emotionally?
Ask yourself: How do I feel as a whole?
Sometimes, you might need extra help figuring things out. If you are continuing to struggle for a long period of time or you’re experiencing significant life impairment, Goldfine recommends seeking help from a professional as soon as possible.
4. Consult Your Support System
Goldfine emphasizes relying on your support system and reaching out after a tragedy. “There is a reason why so many cultures emphasize being around friends and family during difficult times—it helps,” he says.
When discussing the events, try and talk to someone who can listen, observe, and comfort if needed.
Try and talk to someone who can listen, observe, and comfort if needed.
If you don’t know how to start the conversation, try using a tactic created by psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg. His process can help you frame things in a non-threatening way, and it can help you understand your own thoughts and feelings, too. It all starts with “I” statements.
First, state your observation around the traumatic events and how it makes you feel. As an example: “When I observe racial injustices in my own country, it makes me feel scared and angry.”
After that, make your needs explicit and clearly request what you need to cope. This helps others understand how they can help you through the process. This could be something along the lines of: “What I need is to take a break from the ‘end of the world’ reactions on Twitter. Would you mind sending me updates on what’s happening via text so I can know what’s going on, but not have the unnecessary commentary?”
Let your support sytem help you establish the practices and tools you need to cope.
5. Try to Listen to Your Logical Self
As scary as tragedies are, it’s important to remind ourselves that we live in very safe times.
“It may seem that danger of some sort is lurking around every corner,” Goldfine said, “but we are likely just as safe as we were the day before this tragedy.”
To return back to your usual routine, focus on the facts (“How many times have I known a victim of something like this personally?”) rather than the emotion (“How awful would it be if something like this happened to my family?”). This framing can help you stay realistic.
6. Focus Your Attention on Something Good
Goldfine recommends putting your actions towards doing something good to balance out the current negativity. This could mean supporting survivors, the community, or your family in the wake of events.
“Doing kind deeds for others accomplishes two important goals,” Goldfine explains. “First, it reminds us that we have the power to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Second, we start to surround ourselves with many kind, compassionate people who are doing good for others in need. The world may not seem so scary and dangerous anymore if you are surrounded by good-hearted people.”
7. Be Open to the Future
When we hear of something tragic, it’s easy to begin to map out what could happen next. “When we dread a future event, it’s often because we have already created a negative story about how the events will unfold,” Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D, explains in an article for Inside Higher Ed.
But we can’t predict things so plainly. Before you run off with a million “what ifs” and domino events that you think might happen, try to be open to the future and the potential for positivity. Stressing about what hasn’t happened yet will only add unnecessary weight to your shoulders.
8. Don’t Shame Yourself For Feeling Upset
It is completely normal to feel devastated, angry, or scared in the wake of tragedy. Goldfine mentions that as long as you are improving with time, don’t berate yourself for being upset. Let yourself heal at your own pace.
Also: Try to release your need to find a why behind a tragedy. Nobody understands tragedy. It happens and it’s awful, sad, confusing, and frustrating. As is natural in human nature, we want to try and break apart all of the details to find reason in the unthinkable. But it’s a futile mission.
Nobody understands tragedy.
“You won’t get an answer,” Dowd told Teen Vogue. “A lot of these attacks don’t make sense...Stop asking the question ‘why’ and tolerate the unknown.”
Accept you won’t have an answer to your why, but know you have the power to care for yourself as you cope with the what.
If you're feeling especially overwhelmed, know that asking for help is a strength—not a weakness. Text 741741 to talk with a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line—it’s free, confidential, and available all hours.
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