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9 Ways to Avoid Panicking About Current Events

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMarch 02, 2020

If you even halfway pay attention to the news, you’ll find many things that trigger anxiety: natural disasters, potential pandemics, threats of war, and the political outrage of the day, to name a few. It’s normal to feel afraid in response to a frightening world and a worrisome future.

But what if your anxiety becomes unmanageable? What if you find yourself in a state of near-panic, worsened every time you see the news? Extreme anxiety is not just overwhelming, but can interfere with the things that are most important to us, like our loving relationships.

There are many simple and effective ways to manage the stress and uncertainty of scary news. Try the following techniques to prevent anxiety from developing into full-blown panic. I’ve divided them into cognitive (Think), behavioral (Act), and mindfulness (Be) practices, each of which is a research-tested approach to lowering anxiety.

No single exercise is likely to be the magic bullet that frees you from anxiety. These practices work best in combination with each other as a mind/body/spirit approach for coming back to center.

THINK

Your mind is a powerful tool in managing anxiety. By changing your thought patterns, you can shift your perspective and calm your nervous system. Give these three practices a try.

1. Beware of Fortune Telling

The news can often trigger terrifying thoughts and images about the future, and it can feel like these fears are sure to come true. You might even believe that something awful is likely to happen because you thought of it. Distinguish today between the mind’s fantasies and reality. When you notice you’re fearing an imagined disaster, call it what it is: “That’s a fantasy.” Take a slow breath in and out, smile, and return to reality.

2. Question Catastrophizing

Anxiety can turn a potential problem into a complete catastrophe (similar to what news reports often do to capture our attention). Notice today when the mind runs away to feared disasters. Realistically, how bad is the problem likely to be? Worse than bad? The worst thing that’s ever happened to you? Something you’d never recover from? Or is it a situation you could live through and manage? Ask yourself whether it’s likely to be as terrible as you fear.

3. See Yourself Coping

As the news reminds us every day, bad things do happen. One of fear’s greatest lies is that you won’t be able to handle these problems when they arise. And yet you probably know from your own difficult experiences that they’re not the end of the story—that you find ways to handle life’s inevitable challenges.

Today when you’re worried about something that could happen, start to see yourself coping skillfully with it. Recall the strength you’ve shown countless times before as you’ve risen to the occasion. Expect yourself to bring the same resourcefulness and determination to the problems of today.

ACT

Anxiety often tries to dictate our behavior in ways that set us up for even more anxiety. For example, when you’re anxious about current events you may be driven to read every terrifying headline carefully crafted to capture your attention. Choose more deliberate actions like the following ones to unwind stress and anxiety.

4. Be With What’s Real

When you notice you’re caught up in the latest fearful forecast, call it what it is—a fantasy that may or may not come true. Then touch something near you—a table, a desk, a utensil, a book—saying to yourself, “This is real.” Let contact with the world around you be the touchstone that helps you release the grip of fear.

5. Turn Off the News

Until recently, we did just fine getting our news at most once a day. Now news outlets would have you believe that you need to check them constantly to get the latest “Breaking News” updates – this is great for their bottom line, but not for your peace of mind. Remember that most of life is happening away from the 24-hour news cycle. It may be unrealistic to avoid the news entirely; a general rule of thumb is to read the news once a day. Any more than that and you’re probably just scratching the itch of anxious preoccupation.

6. Release Tension

Stress and anxiety about current events lead to physical tension that builds up in the body—knots in the shoulders, stomach tightness, an aching back. Pause several times today when you notice you’re holding onto unnecessary tension in your muscles. Take three calming breaths, exhaling for a count of five. Now inhale as you shrug your shoulders up toward your ears, then exhale slowly as you completely let go of the tension, allowing the shoulders to relax and drop. Repeat twice more, each time with a calming breath in and out. End with three more breaths, and notice how you feel.

BE

Frightening current events can wear you down over time, leaving you feeling exhausted and dispirited. Renew your spirits by stepping into a place of mindful presence—being truly in the moment, with an openness to life as it is. The following practices can lead you in that direction. 

7. Open to Uncertainty

It’s stressful to face so many unknowns about our lives and our world:

“Will our country go to war?”

“Are we heading for a viral pandemic?”

“Will climate change destroy the planet?”

“Will we choose sensible leaders to guide our country?”

Trying to know in advance the answer to these questions often leads to worry and anxiety, and a false sense of responsibility that you need to figure them out.

Consider today as an opportunity to be open to—even embrace—the fundamental uncertainty woven into our existence. Let go of worry and let life do what it will.

8. Connect With Love

Love and fear are opposing forces—as one grows, the other shrinks. Look for ways today to meet the needs of those around you, especially in ways they aren’t expecting. Focus on acts of love rather than waiting to feel loving. See what happens when you let love be the antidote to fear.

9. Find an Unconditional Peace

The most powerful way to address anxiety is to recognize that everything will be okay—always—even when it isn’t. Perhaps life is about more than avoiding bad things and making sure we never experience loss. Beyond our fear, deeper than our dread, we can find a peace that allows us to open to all of what it means to be alive. We can even find a sense of gratitude for our difficult experiences, since nothing about life was ever guaranteed. This is not to deny the pain we’ll experience, but to transcend it.

Some of these practices are adapted from The CBT Deck and the forthcoming sequel. If you'd like some easy daily practices to help manage anxiety, my e-guide “10 Ways to Manage Stress and Anxiety Every Day” is available for free when you sign up for my newsletter.   

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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