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Taking Care of Yourself and Others When It’s All Bad News (or Seems Like It)

If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression or anxiety, or like you want to harm yourself or others call 911.

You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text MHFA to 741-741 to talk to a Crisis Text Line counselor.

If you’ve ever felt tense or anxious after watching the news, you’re not alone — especially when our news feeds are filled with images of war and disease. Current events can be scary and contentious, and the 24/7 news cycle that’s ingrained in our culture (and our smart phones) brings all of it closer to home.

New York City-based clinical psychologist Julie Feldman, Psy.D., says the news – especially the war in Ukraine – can be traumatizing or even retraumatizing for people of all ages, including those who experienced the Cold War or 9/11. “As much as possible, limit news and social media consumption. Set some rules for yourself about when and how often you check your news feed,” she says.

“Our nervous systems have been high alert for two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she adds. “For me, and a lot of the people I work with, slowing your breathing is very effective to calm your nervous system. And it’s something you can do anywhere – even in a meeting or on the subway.”

Another way to feel better is to connect with family and friends. In fact, Feldman warns against the tendency to worry alone. “It’s important not to hold this stuff in! Talk to a therapist or friends. Getting together with friends is very life-affirming.”

Your self-care routine can also include helping other people, according to Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) National Trainer Ali Gheith, director of the Graduate Emergency Management Program at Metropolitan College of New York. “You may feel better by reaching out to help others. Look for organizations that support children in need or war refugees, for example. Being of use may ease the feelings of helplessness that arise during crises,” he says.

Youth are among the most impacted people during conflicts and war, he notes. “Even young adults need to know they’re protected by an adult, that they have an adult who gives them a sense of security. Distress can impact education, physical health and future mental health.”

Mental Health First Aiders can provide a sense of security to those around them by practicing the 5-Step MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE).

Assess for risks. You may need to move them to a safer place, provide basic needs or to shield them from news if the person has lost a loved one because of the event.

Listening nonjudgmentally is extremely important. Be honest and give them as much of a sense of safety and security as possible. Let them know it’s OK not to be OK.

Give information and reassurance. “Be as honest as possible, whether you’re working with children or older adults. Let them know they’re safe and there are people who care about them,” Gheith said. “Don’t make promises unless you can keep them.”

Encourage appropriate professional help. “They should seek help if needed!” he said. “Young adults can be especially vulnerable if they have preexisting conditions such as depression or anxiety.”

Encourage self-help. Self-help – and self-care – can soothe the person. Encourage them to eat healthfully and to get plenty of sleep and water. Images from warring areas, such as Ukraine, can be graphic and disturbing, so limit news and social media.

Consider sharing your self-care action plan and helping them create one as well. Build the plan around activities they enjoy, keeping these goals in mind:

  1. Take care of physical and psychological health.
  2. Manage and reduce stress.
  3. Recognize emotional and spiritual needs.
  4. Foster and sustain relationships.
  5. Achieve balance in different areas of life.

To learn more about how you can #BeTheDifference to your friends, family, colleagues and neighbors, get trained in MHFA. Visit MHFA.org to find a course near you.

References

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.