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If the news feels unbearable, stop and consider these coping strategies

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Flickr Photo/Modes Rodríguez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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At the end of 2017, we posed a question to KUOW listeners on Facebook: Have you experienced increased anxiety or depression this year due to world events and stories in the news?

The responses poured in.

“Since last year's election I have been an emotional wreck, even relapsing into self-harm behavior,” wrote one listener named Jessica, who asked to be identified by her first name only. “This country is a stressful place to be living right now, and for those of us who are already susceptible to depression and anxiety, it can be debilitating.”

Health care concerns were mentioned frequently.

“It feels like so much of who I am and those I love are under attack, and it’s terrible,” wrote Zoë Gluck, whose mother is disabled and faces high insurance premiums under new health care regulations.

And news stories about the #MeToo revolution brought back past traumas for sexual assault survivors.

“Although I am very glad our nation has been talking about sexual assault to create a cultural change, it has caused many problems for me in handling my own past trauma,” wrote Chanel Caulfield Riggle.  “It's also made me aware how survivors are not talking about how this conversation is affecting them.”

Others told how the police shootings of Philando Castile and Charleena Lyles brought on severe panic attacks. How the 2016 presidential election caused them to fear for loved ones’ well being. And how reading, watching or listening to the news can feel nearly unbearable.

“I ask myself if the world has always been this bad, or if I’ve only recently been paying attention,” one listener wrote on Facebook.

The election of President Donald Trump and subsequent changes to federal policies also weighed heavily on many, especially immigrants and members of racial minority, sexual, gender and disability groups.

Lonnie Tristan Lovell-Renteria is the executive director at Puentes, a Seattle-based organization that provides counseling to undocumented immigrants. He's seen a sharp uptick in depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms among the people he counsels — perhaps most notably among children. Some kids, especially those from mixed-status families, are acting out more at school. Others are withdrawing from friends and other support groups.

“They have to work really hard to keep the secret,” Lovell-Renteria said. “They isolate from their friends, and you can image that brings on depressive symptoms.”

That trend toward isolation doesn’t just apply to children.

“People have told me they don’t go out anymore,” Lovell-Renteria said. “They go to work and come straight home and isolate in their houses.”

Data from crisis-support hotlines tell a similar story of fear, especially following major news events. In the days following the 2016 election, calls to the LGBTQ crisis hotlines soared —  sometimes doubling previous records.

And rape crisis centers were overwhelmed with calls late last year as news stories about sexual assault took center stage. Hotline workers reported that many calls came at night, when victims had trouble sleeping.

Toni Aswegan, president of the Washington Mental Health Counselors Association, said she’s seen a notable uptick in anxiety about world events among the people she treats. Overall, she said there’s a lot of fear that the world is not a safe place — especially for marginalized groups.

“There’s this constant bombardment we have with all of these awful things happening around the world and in the U.S.,” Aswegan said. “Just the stress that creates from exposure to all of these really heartbreaking and painful things.”

And a constant stream of disturbing news stories compounds those fears and traumas. Rebecca Cobb, a therapist who teaches a course on trauma treatment at Seattle University, said exposure to disturbing events be traumatic in and of itself.

"Secondary and vicarious trauma is a very real thing,” Cobb said. “PTSD symptoms can be seen in people just from witnessing and hearing about experiences.”

Making things more difficult, demand for therapists has spiked since the 2016 election, and one KUOW listener said she’d had trouble finding a suitable therapist who could take her on.

So, what can you do to take care of yourself in the new year in addition to seeking counseling from therapists and other mental-health professionals? We asked — and collected a few practical bits of advice.

Limit your news intake

Aswegan and Cobb both advocate intentional news consumption for those struggling with news-induced anxiety or depression. That doesn’t necessarily mean cutting yourself off from news entirely, but it might mean only checking the headlines at certain times of day or turning off news alerts on your phone.

It’s a strategy that has worked for KUOW listener Kristin Wilson, who said it helps keep her anxiety under control.

“The world manages to go on without me being informed every waking hour,” Wilson said. “I'm trying to focus on the people around me, my family and friends, and my community —  and how I can make my little corner of the world a bit better.”

Practice radical acceptance

Lovell-Renteria advises undocumented families practice radical acceptance by gathering information and making plans to deal with worst-case scenarios.

“Yes this is real,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. But what is your strategy if or when this happens — or if it doesn’t happen?”

After learning their rights and thoroughly preparing for the thing they fear, clients often tell Lovell-Renteria their feelings change.

“They usually come back  to me and they say, ‘we don’t feel fear anymore.’”

Laugh — but only if it feels right

Humor can be good for mental health. We heard from some people that watching late-night comedy shows like “The Daily Show” and “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” helps keep their news-related anxiety in check.

“I know it sounds weird, but there’s something really empowering about being able to laugh at everything that’s going on,” said Zoë Gluck. “It takes away some of the power to cause despair that scary stories can have.”

But Cobb cautioned that one size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to humor. While it helps some people, it could be traumatic for others.

"For some people, the form of comedy can be triggering,” she said.

Take care of yourself physically

Stress, anxiety and depression take a measurable toll physically, sometimes resulting in high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems. Lovell-Renteria recommends anyone experiencing prolonged stress check in with a physician.

Seek out community

KUOW listener Maureen Mangrich Olson said the last year has been especially stressful for her. She runs a victim advocacy program for a local native tribe and worries about federal grant money being eliminated under the Trump administration. She also has a gay, gender-nonconforming child and worries about the future given emboldened hostilities toward LGBTQ people.

But Mangrich Olson said joining support groups for LGBTQ family and friends as well as social-justice groups has helped.

“Getting out with like-minded people helped me feel less alone and gave me a sense of purpose,” she said.

One other thing she said has helped manage her stress and anxiety: Adopting a puppy.

Ask for help

There’s no one-step fix for living with depression or anxiety, and both conditions thrive in isolation. So if you need help, reach out — to trusted friends or family members, to online communities, or to mental health professionals.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, try Washington’s 211 crisis hotline.

If you need help

Here are some resources for victims and survivors of abuse: King County Sexual Assault Resource Center {C}{C}{C}{C}888-998-6423 Hotline for therapy, legal advocates and family services UW Medicine Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress {C}{C}{C}{C}206-744-1600 Hotline, resources including counseling and medical care Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs List of providers across the state that offer free services. Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) 800-656-4673 Hotline and/or online chat with trained staff