The News Feels Relentlessly Triggering. Here's Why Rest Is Vital

From Meghan Markle's interview to the tragic case of Sarah Everard, it's been a tough time for women.

Some weeks, it feels impossible to separate the news cycle from our own lives.

Sarah Everard’s disappearance, the public outpouring around women’s safety, and the subsequent police response to a vigil in her name has left many women feeling broken. The first step in coping with these feelings is acknowledging that they’re not unfounded, says Dr Chloe Paidoussis-Mitchell.

“It is sadly a deeply unsettling and relatable event which has left a lot of women aware of their physical vulnerability and angry that this is what it is like for so many of us,” the London-based counselling psychologist tells HuffPost UK.

“Almost every female friend of mine has reported a scary experience where she felt vulnerable in the streets and as a psychologist in clinical practice I am noticing a worrying rise in female clients reporting personal and distressing experiences of sexual assaults, incidents of rape and physical intimidation in the streets.”

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We also need to recognise the wider context of the past week to understand why our resilience may feel even more tested.

Everard’s story broke at a time when many women were already running on empty. We’d watched as a white man called into question Meghan Markle’s account of her experiences of racism and suicidal thoughts. We then listened as MP Jess Phillips read out a list of all the women who’ve died at the hands of violent men in the past year in the House of Commons. We did all this during a global pandemic – where women are already exhausted after disproportionately shouldering society’s unpaid labour alongside their full-time jobs.

The cumulative effect of these new stories – amid the current restrictions of lockdown – should not be underestimated, says Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell.

“Women have been in psychological overload,” she says, “without the usual positive outlets they may have relied on to cope with chronic stress – such as gathering with friends to let off steam, going to the gym, enjoying a film or heading out for a meal – the ongoing news cycle is destabilising for many and depleting.”

Our go-to de-stressers are inaccessible, but so are the people we habitually chat with to process such big news stories, says psychotherapist Jo Boffey.

“Certainly those water cooler moments are virtually non-existent now, innocuous conversations with strangers on the bus rare, chats in waiting rooms no longer taking place. These were all spaces where we shared our thoughts and feelings about the world around us and for a year now those spaces have gone,” she says. “As the opportunities decline in which to share our feelings, the more ‘full up’ we have become.”

News stories such as Everard’s case can be hard to process as they may trigger past personal trauma, adds Boffey.

“Often we are able to set aside our own personal experiences of trauma – sometimes we just have to in order to live our lives,” she says. “However, tragic events like this remind us of what has been consciously and unconsciously ‘buried’ and it tugs at something old and painful.”

She recommends talking to a trusted friend or therapist if you’re consumed by past experiences. You should also try to limit your news consumption. “With a news story like this, it is tricky to entirely avoid hearing the news,” she says, “but we don’t have to watch rolling news, just because it’s there.”

“Grounding exercises” can help during moments of overwhelm related to the news, adds psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo – especially if you’re finding it hard to put down your phone.

“Try naming two things you see, hear and smell or breathing simply in through your nose and out through your mouth,” she says. ”[This] can help you focus on the here and now and help the clarity of your thinking in terms of how you want to behave, turning off your device and engaging in something mindful or valued.”

Focusing on each of your senses will help keep you in the present moment when you’re tempted to start scrolling again, adds Boffey.

“Listen to a piece of music that relaxes, smell a scent that calms you, eat something that you enjoy, but do it mindfully, noticing the tastes, sensations and textures, the way your tongue moves, how you swallow,” she says. “Take a walk and look up at the trees, notice the wind in the leaves and the colours. Be present to these sensations.”

Recent news events have led to a collective outpouring of sadness, but also a lot of anger and pain around the fact that missing women of colour are rarely given the same press attention at white women, and the fact that it’s taken the arrest of white protesters for some to start discussing police brutality.

Allow yourself to feel angry, says Boffey – this isn’t an emotion you should repress. “Anger can be an incredibly positive emotion when tackling social injustice - it can be a driver for good,” she says.

Writing about your feelings can help to process the anger, so you can unpack it and “attend to your own feelings first,” she adds.

“Then, you’re more likely to feel more grounded when expressing your needs and those of others around you,” she says. “Anger is a healthy emotion, it can give us energy to change what we feel is unjust and motivated to fight for our beliefs.”

If you’re witnessing the anger of others, embrace it as a powerful opportunity to listen, learn and support change.

“The culture we want to foster is one of psychological safety – where people can handle conflict and anger but do so with a sense of being acceptable, valued, understood and respected,” says Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell.

“Until we have a culture of collective empathy for the lived experience of the other, we risk anger marginalising people and sidelining extremely distressing and important issues.”

When a news story galvanises you to engage in social justice, switching off from the story completely may not feel like an option. In this situation, consume media consciously to protect your wellbeing as much as possible.

“Although it is an emotionally charged story, try and stick to digesting known facts rather than suggestion or hypothesis,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. “Use reputable sources of news in order to inform your thinking.”

If a news story has triggered any personal trauma, reach out for support, whether from trusted friends of family or professionals. Your GP can refer you for therapy, or you can self-refer via the NHS website. You may encounter waiting times, so you’ll also find a list of mental health helplines at the bottom of this article if you need to talk to someone sooner.

Above all, be patient with yourself if you’ve found the past week tough and set kind expectations. “Being triggered to a traumatic story is a normal response to an abnormal event,” says Dr Paidoussis-Mitchell. “So [having] boundaries in how much exposure you expect yourself to tolerate is important for your mental health.”

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).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.