TALKING THERAPY
01/04/2019 5:31 PM IST | Updated 30/09/2019 7:49 PM IST

Are You Triggered By The News? We Asked Therapists How To Cope

Experts help us understand how to deal with the 24-hour news cycle.

Hi, has the world stopped burning? No? Okay, I’ll be under my blanket, curled up in my bed, thank you very much.

Breaking news!

Important events are happening, you say?

☝🏽This is not an uncommon feeling anymore. As our screens and browser tabs multiply with links to news website, social media pages and channels flashing dire headlines, there seems to be no escape from the news, never mind negative stories.

It would not be unusual to feel overwhelmed, sad or distressed.

Not all news acts as a trigger. But for some of us, consuming certain kinds of news can feel debilitating.

It’s not easy to escape news either. Therapists say they witnessed a surge of clients as the #MeToo movement raged in India.

So, how does one wade through a world overflowing with news? Can you protect your mind? Should you stop reading news? We asked experts for some answers.

Identifying a trigger

Counselling psychologist Ishita Gupta describes a trigger as “some event or thought that sets off a cascade of overwhelming negative emotion”.

“Dysfunctional emotions are of various kinds — anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, jealousy. Anything which induces that kind of feeling, that feels unpleasant is a trigger,” Gupta says.

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Triggers are of various kinds and various intensities. “It could trigger you for days, months or years, or induce a panic attack for just three minutes,” she says.

How a person reacts to this depends on how the body has assimilated and responds to stress, says psychotherapist Dr Rizwana Nulwala. “If as a child I have responded to stress by crying, as an adult that may come easier to me than other things. Only then I will think of other options,” she says.

Questions to ask yourself

Experts suggest checking in with yourself about your response to the trigger.

1. Does this bring up anything unresolved in me or from my past?

2. Does this discomfort that I am experiencing come from my life or my experience?

3. Has this feeling persisted beyond a day or two?

4. How am I doing emotionally? Am I tired, feeling like — “I’m done”?

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What are the signs?

While experts agree that everyone responds differently to stress and triggers, there are a few signs you can look out for.

  1. Feeling anxious or keyed up
  2. A general sense of tension looming over moods
  3. Depression — an overwhelming sadness, feeling like life is not worth living and there is nothing to look forward to.
  4. Feeling overwhelmed, defeated
  5. Body pains like headache
  6. Not feeling hungry
  7. Not being able to sleep
  8. Not being able to concentrate — Earlier, if you could read a book and now you can’t even read two pages. Lack of concentration comes up immediately when you are disturbed.
  9. If you can’t do something you use to enjoy
  10. Feeling like running away from home
  11. Feeling suicidal 

In case you feel suicidal, you must definitely seek help. We may not always be able to help ourselves. “In fact, family or people around must make sure they go see a therapist,” says Nulwala.

8 things you can do

 It’s tricky to give general advice for triggers by news, says Gupta. “A hundred people reading the same article are not going to be triggered the exact same way.”

1. HALT

Nulwala suggests a technique called the HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired.

“If you’re hungry, eat something. If you’re angry, find ways to calm down, perhaps meditation.  If you’re lonely, call a friend or go out. If you’re tired, take rest.”

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2. Get off social media

One of the sustainable things is to recognise the need for a break and take time off social media, says counselling psychologist Sneha Janaki.

“It feels good and it’s OKAY. We’re not built to be overstimulated. In the world we are in right now, we are constantly stimulated with information — personal, political, every kind.

Our brains are not built for that kind of stimulation. Then we feel overwhelmed because news is so fast, we are not able to keep up, which is why we need the downtime” she says.

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3. Connect

Reaching out and connecting with close friends and people you trust helps in recognising there is hope and goodness in the world, says Janaki.

Janaki also recommends activities like volunteering. “It makes me believe that the world is not such a terrible place. That there is possibility of joy, there is the possibility of genuine connection, whatever it is that we seek.”

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4. Move

Therapists recommend physical movement to relieve the tension you feel in the body. It could be as simple as taking a walk or doing some breathing exercises or yoga. Different people may find different things therapeutic, says Janaki, but the idea is to do anything that helps you connect with your body.

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5. Pre-empt the feeling

Ask yourself – is it important enough or worth it to read this piece of news? “If you say yes, then you will need to preempt the anxiety or anger you feel,” advises Gupta.

“Make sure to do a bunch of other things that will, if not overshadow at least compete with the horrible you see. It’s not like — ‘Oh, I had a good day and then I read this and my whole day is ruined.’ If you know it’s going to be bad, you need to have a safety net in terms of self care.

Fill your day or the time before and after reading news with things that will please you, make you feel relaxed and happy.”

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6. Look for other kinds of news

 In the face of triggering news, Janaki suggests looking for other kinds of news. “I will reach for other positive stories also. Or I’ll read something that does not affect me this much. I’ll look at alternative media. Once I feel better, stocked up on, then I will take this as I can.”

7. Work towards building self-awareness

 A long-term goal must be to build self-awareness. This reflective practice helps in knowing the difference in how you feel normally versus when you are triggered, says Janaki.

“For example, ‘This movie made me feel happy. This is how I feel in my heart. My stomach feels good. I’m eating properly.’ 

But if I see something bothersome, there’s a pit in my stomach, I don’t want to connect with the world, I want to withdraw, I don’t want to cope, I want to escape from it in ways that not be healthy in the long run, like substance abuse.”

Gupta say it is important to identify the step in the middle — the reason behind the emotion. “Why do you feel the way you feel and how can we work on that?”

8. Be mindful

As friends or family of an affected person, we must take care not to trivialise the issue or minimise the mental health concern.  “We need to be mindful about suggestions when a person is disturbed,” says Nulwala.

Can you still read the news?

We don’t live in times when one can afford to avoid the news completely. Often, it may be critical for us to remain informed about what is going on around us.

“If I’m going to avoid every bit of negative news, I’m not going to be well informed,” says Gupta.

Nulwala, who has worked with those affected in the 26/11 attack and the 13/7 Zaveri Bazaar blast, says, “You can read news (about it) with the therapist in a safe environment, but you can’t be reading it first thing in the morning when you open the paper with your breakfast.”

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So, how do we find a balance?

One of the ways they work in therapy is not to read anymore news, Nulwala says. “It (a news item) may be a very important dialogue to have (in public discourse) but am I ready to have it? This is an important conversation to have,” she says.

“Something we say about trauma is — retelling is re-traumatising,” says Janaki.

Going back to #MeToo, she says, “After a point even I couldn’t look at the news, because all that I was consuming in therapy sessions was only that and even in the news was only that.”

Is it, however, possible to cut yourself off from news events that feel like pivotal moments in time, or even in history?

In Janaki’s view, participation and the work towards social justice is important, but she stresses on looking at the fatigue caused by this — whether it is from active involvement or vicarious.

“We’re bearing the cost of these stories. Whether they are our stories or not, they impact us — as therapists or as ordinary people. It reminds of what humanity can be and its worst side, the  really dark side. It’s very difficult to reconcile that with how we want to see the world. All of us want to see a brighter world in whatever vision we have.”

As we consume news daily, the question to ask becomes — what is the impact of this on me?

Janaki says we must ask this from a stance of reflection and curiosity, not judgement. 

“If I’m depleted as a clinician or as a person, then I can’t contribute to any movement in my true potential. And the more I take away from my potential because of how overwhelmed I’m feeling, I’m also going to judge myself harsher. That’s not really self serving in any way.”

This is not to be confused with escapism, she says. “Take some time off and build up resources.” 

I’ll round this off with something writer Anthony Oliviera tweets every day:

The way you feel is important. Take care of yourself.

If you or someone you know needs help, mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).