Ease up on exposure to negative events
Bad news is everywhere. But don’t let it get you down, writes Linda Blair
Despite numerous studies and speculations, scientists are still not clear exactly how stress affects us physically and psychologically.
Some stress is actually a good thing, creating a state of readiness and motivating us to act. But when levels are excessive and unpleasant, they inhibit our ability to perform well or think clearly.
Work by Gary Evans and colleagues at Cornell University have shown that when individuals are continually exposed to unpleasant environmental stressors such as loud noises, overcrowding, air pollution and traffic congestion, they show increased levels of cortisol, increased blood pressure, elevated levels of anxiety and an increased vulnerability to depression.
Our reaction to negative stressors is even more intense when we believe we have no control over either their intensity or their frequency.
Studies on animals have shown that when exposed to unpredictable stressors, the animal will soon stop trying to escape and will instead appear to “freeze” and give up.
However, there’s another source of negative stress that’s been largely overlooked.
Every day we hear about terrible events happening, not to us, but to others — terrorist attacks, car crashes, hurricanes and earthquakes.
These events, even though they haven’t damaged us directly, make us feel anxious, distracted and most of all, helpless. We think about the individuals caught up in the tragedy, even though we don’t know them.
What can you do, for yourself and for others, in the face of so much distressing information?
Take control of your exposure to negative information. Rather than turning on the news on waking and staying tuned in all day, decide the night before when you’ll pay attention to broadcasts and for how long. These decisions alone will help you feel less helpless.
Listen to the news when you’re likely to feel most rested and positive — and, paradoxically, when you can pay full attention. If you’re focused rather than distracted, you’re more likely to react calmly and logically.
Avoid personalising. Imagining the pain others are feeling won’t help them. Instead, think about what you might do to alleviate their suffering, however small — by making a donation to a relevant charity, for example.
Finally, resolve to make a positive difference to something or someone every day. Small kindnesses such as taking time to talk to a lonely neighbour or thanking someone who has helped you guarantees you’ll make the world a better place, for at least one other person.
Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist
The sight of police on terror alert can be distressing.