On 17 August, Barcelona became the latest European city to suffer a vehicle terror attack when a van drove into people on Las Ramblas, killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 100.
When tragic events continue to dominate the news, it can cause us to feel overwhelmed, distressed or pessimistic about the future. And while many follow every aspect of these stories in support of those affected, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact this is having on our own emotional health.
As Dr Mark Williamson, director of Action For Happiness, told HuffPost UK, maintaining good mental wellbeing through tragedy isn’t about turning a blind eye to the news, but learning how to navigate it.
Practising self-care is not only essential to carrying on with your everyday life, but is also vital if you want to be an active citizen and lend your support to those in need.
It’s natural to feel upset when others are hit by tragedy, but there are steps we can take to improve our own emotional wellbeing through such hard times.
Limit your access to technology.
According to Cal Strode, senior media officer at the Mental Health Foundation, “while it is important to stay informed and do whatever we can to help, it’s also important not to let ourselves become consumed and overwhelmed by distressing news”.
“When George Gerbner, a pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society established his ‘cultivation theory,’ he coined the term ‘Mean World Syndrome’ to describe what he had found,” he told HuffPost UK.
“The more time people spent watching the news or ‘living in the television world,’ the more likely they were to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place, harbouring more fear and anxiety about the world around them.”
According to Strode, while we used to hear the news on the television or in a newspaper, we’re now more connected to tragedy than ever before.
“Today, our phones and social media keep us connected to a live stream of tragedies as they unfold and it can be much harder to maintain healthy boundaries and take time out from emotionally overwhelming news when we need to,” he said.
“Constant connections to social media and news can keep people feeling like they are well informed and connected to the world at large and a part of a bigger community,” she said.
“However, you only ever get a certain version of events as reported in any media, which leads to a false sense of knowledge or understanding.”
Dr Thomas pointed out that many news outlets focus on negative or sad stories and these will then circulate on social media.
“There can be a lot of scaremongering because this sells papers. This activates our amygdala [the part of the brain responsible for emotions and survival instincts] and threat system, so we feel constantly hyper-vigilant to danger and on edge,” she explained.
“We think about these negative events more, talk about them more and pay more attention to them, which is very physically and emotionally draining.”
Try to maintain perspective.
Positive news can be found among tragedy, such as stories of how strangers have helped one another.
To combat the impact of reading sad news, Dr Thomas recommended “seeking out stories of people’s resilience and connectedness after reading distressing headlines, which can help soothe the threat system”.
She also pointed out the importance of staying connected to loved ones in real life and consciously limiting the time you spend reading news and social media, to foster more positive feelings.
Dr Mark Williamson also said it’s “vital that we keep a balanced perspective,” when tragedy hits the news.
“Yes lots of terrible and sad things happen, but the world is full of so many good things too - from major scientific breakthroughs to the incalculable number of small acts of kindness which happen each and every day,” he told HuffPost UK.
“Coping effectively isn’t about naively pretending things are all fine when they’re not. But dwelling excessively on negative news isn’t healthy, especially for events that we have no control over.
“The best approach is to be a rational optimist - by accepting how things really are, but remembering to stay hopeful and to also notice the ways that things can - and do - get better.”
Dr Williamson pointed out that there are lots of practical things we can do cope better when we feel overwhelmed by tragic news.
“Firstly, it really helps to get the basics right - we’re much better able to make wise decisions, help others and bounce back from difficulties when we get enough sleep and stay physically active - even if it’s just a short walk to get some fresh air,” he said.
“And although we may be powerless to change a negative situation, we still always have a choice about how we respond.
“So for example, we can be willing to reach out to others for help; we can choose to also notice the good things; and we can respond constructively by showing more kindness to others - and ourselves - too.”
Perhaps most importantly, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by events in the news, reaching out to share your feelings with those around you could help.
For those who may not feel able to speak to loved ones, or simply want further support, Strode recommended contacting a mental health charity.
“The Mental Health Foundation provides a range of resources to support good mental health on our website,” he said.
“And if things feel they are getting too much, the Samaritans offer 24/7 emotional support and you can reach them by calling 116 123.”
You’ll also find additional resources that may help below.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org