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Screaming children, traumatic news photos: How to stay plugged in without letting anxiety take over
Chicago Tribune - 6/26/2018
June 26--Scrolling through social media in the current news cycle can be a jarring experience. A picture of a friend's adorable new baby ... a snap of kids laughing on their last day of school ... then, suddenly, a photo of a child caged like an animal.
In the last week, as awareness of families being separated at the border grew, it became impossible to turn on a TV or pull up Facebook without seeing images or hearing audio of distraught children. Reactions in the face of such trauma vary: While some might seek to unplug to avoid the images, others may consume as much news as they can to feel informed.
But is there a middle ground? Can you pay attention and contribute while not letting it overtake your life? Can you feel happiness in your own experiences without feeling guilty that others are in pain? According to Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, it's important to understand that grief and joy are not mutually exclusive in these situations.
"I call these moments 'both/and,' where two seemingly opposite things are true at the same time," Solomon said. "Those both/and spaces are really difficult to hold, but you can do it. I can hold both joy at what's happening in life with my children and heartbreak in one. We can't allow one to destroy the other. It's holding on to both. Both things are true. Those moments of joy with our own children can remind us of the pain that others are going through."
A 2017 American Psychological Association study reported that 56 percent of adults say watching the news causes them stress and 59 percent consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember. APA Associate Executive Director for Practice Research and Policy Lynn Bufka said it's entirely possible to set healthy boundaries when it comes to consuming the news, but those boundaries are going to be different for each individual.
"Paying attention to the news is important because it can help us be informed, it can help us make good decisions, it can help us decide that we want to take particular action or relate to others in certain ways. We need information to be able to do that. But sometimes so much information can feel overwhelming and distressing that it actually no longer helps us," she said. "Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to say, 'I can turn this off. It's OK. Just because I'm not paying attention to every piece of the news for every minute, it doesn't mean I don't care.'"
It's natural for guilty feelings to creep in when you take a step back from the news, but Solomon said it's a crucial piece of coping that actually goes hand-in-hand with taking action.
"There are two parts of coping, and one is stepping up: making calls, marching, donating, making your voice heard. Taking those kinds of actions is a way of helping with feelings of depression, anxiety, things that trigger our sense of trauma," Solomon explained. "But the other phase of coping is stepping back and stepping away and unplugging. That's as important as the stepping up. We need both.
"For those of us who, when we step back, sometimes feel guilty that we're not doing enough, one thing is to remember that's how we rest in order to be proactive again," she continued. "But the other thing is, I remember this thing I read maybe around the Women's March last year -- the idea that when there's a chorus singing together and holding a long note, different singers take their breaths at different times so that the collective can keep the beautiful tone. So when you're stepping back, someone else is stepping up, and when you're stepping up, someone else is stepping back."
When it comes to stepping back, Solomon said it's important to do so in a way that is present and honors the five senses -- going for a walk in nature, cooking a delicious meal, enjoying an uninterrupted conversation. These moments allow us to recharge so that we're ready to engage again when the time comes.
While this sort of self-care can inspire more feelings of guilt, both Solomon and Bufka said that guilt can be helpful in that it often inspires gratitude for our own blessings, as well as action.
"If an individual woman is saying, 'Listen, I have a trauma history. I'm teetering on depression. I have three kids who are going to be turning to me for breakfast in the morning. So I'm not going to listen to the audio.' She ought to be able to make that choice without beating herself up for making that choice," Solomon said. "Because she still has to do what she needs to do to get through the day. So she has other ways to be active and make her voice heard. She may call her senators, she may go to a march, she may commit herself to voting or volunteering to help people get to the voting booth. But for her, based on where she is in that moment at time, she can make the choice to not listen. Everyone is just doing the best they can do. We can be activists and self-compassionate."
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