By Carrie Cantwell
I’ve never been a news junkie … until recently. Ever since the pandemic hit, I’ve had the TV on all day, obsessively scrolling through headlines on my phone before I fall asleep, and checking news websites first thing in the morning. I struggle with mental health issues, including anxiety. So, I know these habits threaten my stability, but it’s hard to stop.
And these habits are easy to justify. After all, I need to be informed now more than ever. Reliable public health advice is incredibly important, and everything is changing so quickly, from mask mandates to vaccines to economic stimulus updates. And the news affects me directly. I can’t just ignore important findings that are crucial to my health and safety.
But so much of this information is terrifying. I feel anxious, overwhelmed and helpless, frozen in fear. Breaking news updates trigger cold sweats and a mixture of dread and exasperation. I either want to curl up in a ball and hide under my bed or throw my hands up and declare, “That’s it! We’re doomed!” So many of the problems we’re facing feel too big to wrap my head around. They seem impossible to solve. This information overload can be toxic. It’s easier to shut myself off and play word games on my phone.
Even if you don’t struggle with a full-blown anxiety disorder, this situation we’re in can trigger overwhelming feelings. So, it’s important to protect and nurture yourself mental health, no matter what your situation is. That means not flinging yourself headfirst down that rabbit hole. There is a middle ground between plugging into an IV of media and totally burying your head in the sand. I've found six effective ways to keep myself sane while staying aware of what’s important.
- Limit your news exposure. At the start of the pandemic, I purchased an online subscription to a national newspaper. Because I downloaded the newspaper’s app, my phone dinged constantly, alerting me to breaking news. For $4 a month, I certainly got my money’s worth. But I quickly grew exhausted from all this information.
Now, I designate certain times of day for catching up (notice I said day, because nighttime is for winding down). I read the news between ten and eleven AM. That way I can familiarize myself with current events and get on with my life instead of being pelted all day by a steady stream of horror stories. So, no more breaking news alerts from my newspaper app – I need to control when I consume this information on my own terms, on my own time. And I make it a point not to check the news on weekends. Saturdays and Sundays are reserved for sacred activities like socializing (now video chats) and laundry. This keeps me from burning out. I no longer feel like I’m being bombarded by things I can’t control.
- Focus on what you can do. I love the serenity prayer. I’m not religious, but this mantra has been my touchstone recently:
God (or higher power) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
So much of what is happening is too big for me to handle. But there are some things I can do. As I watch COVID-19 case numbers climb daily, I’m doing my part by staying home when possible. I wear a mask, and I practice responsible social distancing when I do have to venture out. I can’t singlehandedly stop climate change, but I can live my life in a more ethical, responsible way. I can’t fix the country, but I can vote, and voice my opinions through letters and phone calls to local legislators.
No matter what the situation, chances are there’s something I can do to help, even if it seems insignificant. Every time I read a disheartening story, I ask myself if there’s any action I can take, no matter how small. Change doesn’t always come from big leaders making big moves. It’s everyday people who make the world a better place through individual choices. If enough of us stand up for what we believe in, a small group can grow into a massive movement for good.
- Don’t believe everything you think. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and hopeless in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. My life has changed so dramatically, it’s been hard to see a way out. Sometimes, the idea that society could ever get back to normal seems like a pipe dream.
My mind can be my enemy. It plays tricks on me. It’s completely normal to be afraid right now. Anxiety disorder or not, everyone is struggling with some level of internal panic. My feelings transform into thoughts like ‘We will never recover.’ But those thoughts in my head aren’t absolute truths or future predictions. They’re just thoughts that spring out of a natural reaction to fear and uncertainty. Internal dialogue is a powerful thing. I tend to trust what I hear from the little voice in my head. But that voice is just me trying to make sense of the world around me. We know dreams aren’t prophecies—they’re us trying to process and understand the day before. Thoughts are the same. I don’t have to believe everything I think.
- Remember that this is temporary. Are we ever going to get back to the way things used to be? If so, when? Will things change forever? If so, what will this new world look like? Will it be better or worse than before? Questions like these can keep me up at night.
I can handle almost anything—no matter how bad it is—when I can see an end in sight. This pandemic has been tough on everyone. But just like the weather and the stock market, things will change. Things are changing every day. Scientists are working toward a vaccine. Doctors are discovering new treatments that lessen the severity of the virus. People all over the world are working their butts off to solve this crisis. There is a bright light at the end of this tunnel. Just because I think this seems permanent, doesn’t mean it actually is. Life may not go back to exactly the way it was before, but we won't have to live like we are now indefinitely. I repeat to myself over and over again that this is temporary. It won’t last forever. And that, more than anything, is what’s helping me face tomorrow.
- Read some good news. I love cat videos. But watching fluffy kitties play the piano or ride robot vacuums doesn’t always cure the emotional toll of bad news overload. I need a real palette cleanser if I’m expected to digest everything that’s going wrong in the world right now. I subscribe to email newsletters with cute animal stories about everything from the unlikeliest animal friends to heartwarming rescue tales. I’ve also recently discovered the good news network, which is a repository of positive, uplifting current events. These resources help balance the scale by reminding me that love, kindness, and compassion are still alive and well.
- Get off the computer. Yesterday, I walked to a local park with a pond. I left my phone at home. All I brought with me was my house key. I smelled the freshly cut grass, damp from an afternoon rainstorm, as I strolled to the park. I listened to the summer sounds of happy children at a nearby playground. I was comforted by the hum of a distant lawnmower. Once I got there, I watched the ripples and reflections on the water as little brown ducks played with their new babies. As I passed the familiar houses in my neighborhood on the way home, I saw them with fresh eyes. I noticed a pair of funny pink plastic flamingoes, and a cute black and white cat staring out a window.
By just getting outside and off my computer, I’d inadvertently practiced mindfulness. Going on a walk was such a simple act, but it changed my whole perspective. It got me out of my head, and away from current events. The world that seemed so ugly the day before felt less stifling. I remembered the beauty in nature, and in everything. I stopped focusing on the past and worrying about the future. I simply existed in the present moment. It was like I’d awakened from a bad dream. I felt rejuvenated once I got home, and it didn’t cost me anything or involve a huge time commitment. I didn’t even need a car, just some drugstore sunscreen and an open mind.
With all the urgent, devastating headlines lately, I’ve graduated beyond waiting for the other shoe to drop. I feel like thousands of steel-toed combat boots are falling from the sky daily. Yes, I need to stay informed. No, I’m not going to stop reading the news. But I have to set healthy, reasonable limits if I want to preserve my sanity.
So, no more breaking news alerts for me. No more continuous flood of COVID-19 reports. Just measured, well-managed doses of information. And I’m finding that now, with my news habit under control, it’s a lot easier to believe that things are going to be okay.
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light .