Now, more than ever before, it seems as though we’re being buried under a relentless torrent of news that paints a pretty miserable picture of a world in which there appears to be precious little cheer.
The litany of bad news is extensive.
The surge in Covid cases that is overwhelming Western Europe and plunging society back into lockdown; the deaths of 27 migrants whose boat sank in the English Channel; an imploding energy market putting utility companies out of business; rocketing fuel prices; the ongoing climate crisis; allegations of Tory sleaze; children murdered on the streets of London and parents murdered in their homes …
The list goes on, and on, and on with no apparent respite – and we haven’t even touched on Brexit and the growing discord between the EU and the UK over Northern Ireland and fishing rights in the English Channel.
The worst of it, as if this isn’t all bad enough, is that this is just today’s headlines. Tomorrow will doubtless bring a whole new picture of misery to our newspapers and television screens.
The cumulative emotional effect of this tsunami of woe should not be underestimated or disregarded. It’s mentally corrosive and erosive, and I think we’ve begun to see this manifest itself as a mass emotional ‘event’ over the last year.
Anxiety and depression have exploded over the last last couple of years, and it’s because you’re dealing not only with ‘your’ stress, but also the stress of the ‘collective unconscious’, also known as allostatic load.
There is, I think, a pervading sense of public gloom that goes far beyond the discontent and fear that has been driven by the Covid pandemic. Across every social media platform, we seem to have become less tolerant, less forgiving, less kind and less empathetic.
What that has bred, in turn, is an unhealthy culture of mistrust in which we are encouraged to see the worst in others before we look for the best in them. It means we are more prone to jump to ill-informed conclusions. And it means we become exponentially more selfish in the way we live our lives.
And what is the net result of that? A culture and climate of fear that is both served and fuelled by a media that seems to have lost faith in the principle that its news coverage should be in the public interest rather than merely interesting to the public.
So, when we’re faced with a global media machine that seems hell-bent on reminding us every day that the world we live in is a horror show, what hope is there that the front pages and news channels of today don’t become tomorrow’s self-fulfilling prophecy.
The old maxim of ‘throw enough mud some of it will stick’ is also a truism. Ditto ‘no smoke without fire’. If someone tells us often enough that something is the truth, eventually we will start to believe it.
The cause and effect of external factors on our beliefs and actions – something known as other-imposed prophecy – has been established over dozens of psychology studies. So, if what we’re told is known to shape the way we think and the way we behave, how can we change the outcome?
The reality is that we can only really influence the outcome for ourselves.
Whilst it would be nice to imagine that we could find a way of silencing or muzzling those sections of the media that seem to revel in saturating the news agenda with highly questionable interpretations of supposed truths, that is a disappointingly unrealistic prospect.
But if we each work to bend and reshape how we deal with the bleak landscape of news that greets us on a daily basis, then it’s not beyond the limits of possibility to imagine that we can collectively dilute the toxicity that has become our social media news feed in the last five years.
So, how do we do that?
Well, here are five things you can do today that will improve your emotional health by strengthening your resilience and controlling the terms on which you engage with the world around you.
1. Stop reading
I don’t mean stop reading everything, of course. But start boycotting the channels that happily fill your head and mind with a worst-case view of what’s going on in the world and, in the process of doing it, make you sad or angry.
Be more proactive on your social media channels. Start hiding the unpleasantness that Facebook’s algorithms put in front of you – if you spend 5 minutes proactively rejecting all of those news stories served up by Facebook and Twitter, you’ll quickly find your news feed becomes a lot brighter and a lot better for your mental health.
If you get your news on television, choose the channels that offer you the most impartial take on the day’s agenda, and maybe just consider uninstalling the news apps on your phone – beginning and ending your day away from the doom scroll will improve your emotional balance.
By doing this (and more) you will find not only that the news you get will be more balanced and more informed, but you will experience the liberating feeling of knowing you’re controlling the terms on which you engage with the global agenda.
2. Opt for trust
I once saw a little saying that a friend had framed and hung in their downstairs loo. It said:
If there are two ways to interpret what I’ve said to you, and one of them makes you sad, I meant the other one.
That’s the basis of a good philosophy for life, I think. Another friend of mine made a New Year Resolution for 2021 that was – and I quote – to be kinder in word, thought and deed than I was in 2020.
Just imagine how that might change the way you live your life in the future. Imagine, when someone says or does something that offends, or you read that someone has done or said something that offends, that you just take a breath and actively think: is there another, better way to interpret this?
If we can break the natural circle of societal mistrust that has grown over the last five years, since Brexit drove its divisive stake through the public’s heart, we can begin to build a circle or cycle of trust in its place.
(But remember, sometimes someone is just being a dick and you need to have the confidence to be able to see that behaviour for what it is when you encounter it. Being kind on principle with a great bullshit detector is a healthy blueprint for life).
3. Don’t catastrophise
At the root of the gloominess that seems to have infected the world is the tendency to believe that things are so bad they can’t get any worse. Catastrophising is an extraordinarily debilitating trait because it is a trigger for anxiety, stress and depression.
What we need at times like these is a good healthy dose of perspective that goes beyond simply reassuring yourself that there are people a lot worse off than you are.
Finding the positives in any situation can dial down the instinct to catastrophise. The media has built an empire on pandering to our appetite for bad news – it’s why golden wedding anniversaries never feature on the front pages – so being able to take an objective view of the ‘truth’ and to see it through a healthy prism of cynicism will help you to keep your emotional boundaries intact.
By not trying to work out your whole life or solve the world’s problems at 4am you’ll give yourself the time and space to live in – and appreciate – the present moment.
4. Strengthen and galvanise your mindset
We all fall down emotionally from time to time. To expect otherwise is to create an unhealthy (and unachievable) expectation.
Focus instead on how you develop the inner strength that helps you to recover from the impact of fear, stress and anxiety more quickly and more efficiently.
Getting back up is always a choice when we’re flattened by bad news. The problem is that without a strong mindset that’s focused on questioning what we’re fed as the truth or reality it takes more effort and more time to raise ourselves and get back in the game.
A healthy mindset starts with understanding that whilst we can’t always control what life throws at us, life doesn’t have to just ‘happen’ to us.
5. Know what you’re in charge of
For good mental health, it’s important to understand what you are in control of, what you have influence over and what you are powerless to do anything about.
The things we worry about tend to fall into 3 categories
Locum of control – what time you get up, what you choose to put into your body, whether you pay your bills on time – this is basically you being in charge of you
Areas of influence – these are the things we can influence, but not directly control. They might include helping someone to quit smoking or persuading a friend not to go back to a toxic ex. Once we have done what we can to influence, we have to be ready to let go regardless of the outcome.
Things we can do nothing about – this covers things like whether an asteroid is going to destroy the Earth in your lifetime. These are the situations that really aren’t worth worrying about, and it’s these things that the media revels in telling you about. In the end, your anxiety and stress just feeds your sense of powerlessness.
If you really feel you can exert enough control and influence over something to make a tangible difference, then do it – the world needs more people like you. But be circumspect enough to be able to recognise when a situation is beyond your mastery.
To paraphrase the serenity prayer, if you can have the serenity to accept the things you can’t change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference then the chances are you can start to turn the tide of anxiety and fear.
And if every one of us can do that, we can play a part in changing our collective cultural mindset and begin to create the world we really want to be a part of.