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Last Updated Monday October 23 2017 10:27 PM IST

Heal Thy Self | How well do you handle the bad news?

Nirmala Ferrao
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How well do you handle the bad news? People’s reactions to bad news are as diverse as their personalities. Photo: Getty images

At the time of writing, the trending news included these headlines:

Karnataka road victim bleeds to death as bystanders film

Afghan civilian casualties hit new high

Oil prices edge up on Iran tensions

11 inmates die in 2 months in Asha Kiran home for mentally-challenged

Toddler turned away from hospitals still critical

Air India pilot risks over 100 lives

Man killed for tipping off Mumbai cops

Still in school, Hyderabad teenagers married off for ‘prosperity’

4,500 pederasty cases registered against Australia’s Catholic Church

New’ Chinese missile a threat to India?

Invasive pest armyworm rapidly spreading across Africa, threatening to reach Asia

10-year-old boy “turning into stone” due to rare skin condition

And what about the good news? Well, if you looked hard enough, you’d find a few stray sunbeams, such as:

Pakistan thanks India for returning boy to mother

Indo-American teen develops a revolutionary process to convert sea water into fresh water

Mumbai man saves stray from gallows and helps it walk again

New Yorkers unite to scrub hateful graffiti from subway

Of course, the bad news has always deep-sixed the good news in the media. Even so, there’s no question that, in recent decades, the 24/7 bombardment by bad news has reached manic proportions. Social media platforms have added their own tweak to the toxic brew. Today, everyone’s a publisher, a photographer, a reporter, everyone wants to be the first with the worst. In real time. But the bad stuff that engulfs those on social media isn’t fact-checked, it is not metabolized, it is not curated. One of the spin-offs is that fake news, sloppy news and conspiracy theories have now reached pandemic levels.

Also read: Heal Thy Self | Smart foods: Do they really exist?

For digital news junkies, the response to the endless stream of bad tidings has gradually hardened into palpable exhaustion. You see it and hear it, in their memes, their tweets, on protest placards. Enough. Enough with all of this. Enough already.

Also check: Heal Thy Self | Is your skin under stress?

Even for those who are not hooked to the digital drug-push, the relentless onslaught of bad news, rolling in as inexorably as the tides everyday, comes with an inevitable price tag, though it is not yet recognized by most people. Psychologists are witnessing plenty of news-induced depression. And research has found that we all have elevated levels of anxiety compared to even a decade ago. This rise in anxiety is, of course, not fully attributable to the daily overflow of bad news, but there is no doubt that a lot of it comes from the helplessness that people feel when the picture painted for them adds up to threats they feel defenseless against.

The eye of the beholder

How well do you handle the bad news? People who are deeply affected by traumatic news may engage in obsessive consumption, such as watching and re-watching a traumatic video long after its message has been absorbed. Photo: Getty images

People’s reactions to bad news are as diverse as their personalities. Some people may be haunted for days by major catastrophes. On the other hand, there are those who let it all roll right off them. The way people handle bad news is highly correlated with the way they handle life issues in general. Some of the unhealthy responses include the following:

Vicarious trauma: You don’t have to be directly involved in a tragedy to feel pain. Pick a tragedy, any, from the last few months. Chances are, you will have returned, from time to time, to images you just can’t 'unsee', to painful memories that keep pulling you away from happier thoughts. This is a type of short-term (acute) trauma, though it is not a specific psychological diagnosis. It is similar to the reaction pattern that plagues first-responders such as volunteers, emergency teams, doctors and nurses.

People who are deeply affected by traumatic news may engage in obsessive consumption, such as watching and re-watching a traumatic video long after its message has been absorbed.

Fears and Phobias: A steady media diet of death and disaster can cause anxiety-prone people to respond to bad news with enhanced fears – especially fear of crowds, fear of travel and fear of dark places. Thus, after the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, polls showed a spike in the number of people anxious about or unwilling to fly – similar to what had occurred in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack in the US, and after other major air crashes. Aviophobes (those in whom the fear of flying is so intense that it qualifies as a phobia) see news about such disasters as a reason for not flying ever again.

Even in those who are not phobic, a major catastrophe such as a bombing in their city, may cause a disturbance in their psyches. They may, at least temporarily, alter their routines, isolate themselves, make decisions dictated by their fears.

Guilt: It's a common response to feel guilty when our own lives are going well, and we see so many tragedies projected by the media. A different source of guilt afflicts those who know that some reported events are ghastly, repulsive or terrible, but paradoxically feel themselves drawn towards viewing, hearing and reading more and more about those things. They feel guilty about the macabre fascination that such news holds for them, but they can’t turn away.

Numbness: On the flip side are those who numb out in the face of major bad news, putting on metaphorical blinkers or earplugs. This is a kind of emotional disconnect, similar to what happens in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is a protective mechanism of the brain that prevents a person from thinking about an event that is experienced as too traumatic.

The wild response: This is found in the group of people who somehow use bad news to justify carrying on their lives with a devil-may-care attitude. Their mantra is: “The world’s going to pot anyway, let me just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”

How well do you handle the bad news? You find yourself caring less and less about the human misery being projected by the media. Photo: Getty images

Toxic effects in your body: The constant spate of bad news we are exposed to fires up the limbic centre in our brain that generates emotional arousal. Trauma-inducing stories cause the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of this hormone then bring on a cascade of negative impacts in the body because they deregulate your immune system and inhibit the release of growth hormones. Over time, the outcomes can include impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections.

Compassion fatigue: Inundated with screaming headlines and graphic images of human trauma in the 24-hour news cycle, you can experience such saturation that it eventually leads to a profound emotional and physical exhaustion. This burnout – or “compassion fatigue” as it has come to be called – happens because, over time, you start to assume that this is “just how the world is”, that only bad things happen, and that you’re powerless to do anything about it. You find yourself caring less and less about the human misery being projected by the media.

This gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others — our empathy, our hopes, and of course our compassion— can eventually cross over into your personal life, draining you of your capacity to be moved by others’ difficulties and pain. You are no longer a shoulder that others can cry on. You may experience a fundamental shift in your world view, to one that is pessimistic, de-sensitized, cynical and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. Unsurprisingly, this may also lead to depression.

What’s a better response to bad news?

In an age of unfettered access to the seamy side of human nature, we have to act as our own gate-keepers if we want to stay sane.

Keep your perspective: Bad news isn’t the whole picture. Or even half of it. There is a lot of good news out there, but overall it tends to get much less media attention. But it isn’t fair to blame the media for the steady stream of tragedy and turmoil that it churns out. The fact is that bad news gets higher ratings: it’s what viewers, listeners and readers want. There’s a human tendency to gravitate towards negative information, and there’s a reason for this so-called “negativity bias”. Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman explains it in his best-seller, Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.” In other words, it was more important for our ancestors to be able to avoid a threat quickly than to gain a reward. If they missed a reward (say, a tasty rabbit), it wasn't too big a deal; there would always be more rabbits. But if they weren't able to avoid a threat, they might end up dead. Natural selection has shaped us to be hyper-aware of anything that might cause us harm. In other words, to be drawn more towards bad news than towards good tidings.

Try re-labeling: For those who do have inappropriate news-related phobias or anxieties, a technique used by therapists may help. Called “re-labeling”, it involves challenging irrational beliefs that give rise to the phobia. For instance, those who become nervous about flying in the wake of a plane crash are helped by focusing on all the planes that land and take off successfully each day. Becoming aware of the statistical odds helps in the re-labeling process. For instance, the fact that the odds of a plane crashing are 1 in every 1.2 million flights; and that 95.7 percent passengers do survive a plane crash, anyway. Compared to these numbers, 1 person dies every 4 minutes in a road accident in India, according to official statistics.

Be a choosy news consumer: As with food, so with the news. You can binge, starve or regulate your intake. While ignoring the world isn’t necessary (or ideal), it’s okay to take a step back if you feel you’re being overwhelmed by the blood and gore. When every news channel is covering the same tragedy, ask yourself, “What do I need to know?” Unless you’re in the vicinity of ground zero or otherwise face danger, you probably don’t need to keep switching channels to hear the same news or some more eye-witness accounts, or to subject yourself to anchors spinning speculation about something nobody really knows anything about yet.

Digital detox is talked about a lot, preached about, but how many actually bootstrap themselves into doing something about the overload? Here are some things to try:

» Unsubscribe from breaking news emails.

» If social media is the place from where the worst stuff seems to spring at you, un-follow breaking news accounts on Twitter or Facebook, or block out the worst content: life-hack sites show you how.

» If you can get yourself up to doing it, take a break from social networks and certain websites – if only for a while.

» If you’re used to getting the news in the car on your way to work, switch off after a while and listen instead to music or to an informative or entertaining podcast. Better yet, enjoy the silence and do a little pre-work mental prep.

How well do you handle the bad news? A handful of online publications are already providing the gloom-and-doom-weary public with openly optimistic alternatives. Photo: Getty images

You are not irresponsible with your reputation or money. Why give away your peace of mind?

Let in some good news, too: It’s hardly realistic to shut out all the bad news, but you can try to temper the torrent by consciously mixing in some positive news sources with your normal misery magnets. A handful of online publications are already providing the gloom-and-doom-weary public with openly optimistic alternatives. These include Positive News, Upworthy, The Better India, the Washington Post’s newsletter, The Optimist, and The New York Times’ weekly column, Fixes. A few Indian publications also have 'good news' sections on their websites. Sometimes just seeing that there are good things being reported can be enough to keep a positive perspective.

Get involved if you can: Bad news can sometimes have a positive spin-off. Ask yourself, first, whether you have any control at all over the situation, whether you can involve yourself in any way that can make a difference. If the answer is ‘no’, it’s important to recognize that this is one aspect of the world that you are not a factor or participant in, and which will roll along without your involvement.

But if there is any way you can get involved – a monetary contribution, volunteer work, signing a petition, writing a letter, donating blood – you will yourself feel a little more in control by doing so. You owe it to your mental health to do that. Engaging with the community is far more positive than sinking deeper into the couch, lamenting the coming of Apocalypse.

A viral quote that was often repeated in his public career by the late kids’ show host, Fred Rogers, is worth another repeat: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping’.”

Volunteering is a great way to take on an active role in making the world a better place to live in, and it’s worth finding some time in your schedule to volunteer. You’ll feel better about the world, and yourself, in no time at all. You’ll know that good things still happen because you’re one of the countless people out there helping to make them happen.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counseling therapist)

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