Do You Flood or Freeze When Faced With Distressing News? How To Identify Your Social Media Stress Response in Order To Protect Your Mental Health

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When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, writer Ilya Kaminsky's poem "We Lived Happily During the War" went viral. "And when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough," read the first few lines of the poem. Kaminsky's words are a powerful tribute to the fact that in times like these, doing the most we can still feels insubstantial.

If you now find yourself in a cycle of refreshing your social media feed, talking in circles with your friends about how to help Ukraine, and still feeling like you want to have a greater impact, mental health professionals say that identifying your social media stress response can help you navigate the internet right now and make a plan for protecting your emotional well-being while still staying informed. And hey, that's a skill that—unfortunately—we'll all need well into the future.

Experts In This Article

In general, media consumers display two common behaviors in times of strife, says therapist Sarah Daniels, AMFT, of Headspace Health, the first being doomscrolling (aka flooding your brain). "Given the convenience of having news right at our fingertips, some may start binging on negative news and waiting for the next piece of information, which leaves you feeling low and on edge," she says. "It is often a way of trying to exert some control, but what is really changing minute to minute? Ultimately this leaves us more anxious and escalated."

On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who numb out entirely (aka freezing), opting to ignore the news. "Our everyday lives start to feel like they have lost or are losing their meaning—'why wash my face when the world is on fire?' In these instances, it can feel overwhelming and isolating, and in response to this, folks may stop engaging in self care or seeking out joy and connection," says Daniels.

While both responses make complete sense, neither may represent how you want to show up in the world. That's why therapist Shannon Moroney, author of Heal for Real: A Guided Journal to Forgiving Others―and Yourself, is a fan of asking her clients head on how they're dealing with current events so she can figure out whether they're a doomscroller or a numb-er. "What I do in my practice is, when there are major issues going on in the world, I bring those things up, because I like to check in with people—particularly because a lot of people get so overwhelmed that they just numb out or they are preoccupied with it," she says.

This simple check-in often sparks a conversation about how people want to engage with current events, and it's a good question to ask yourself before you dive head first into your news feed or, conversely, delete every social media app.

Ahead, Daniels and Moroney offer a five-step plan for consuming media in a more intentional, impactful way. Before we dive in, though, a quick note: It's always best to work out your complex feelings with a therapist or counselor, if accessible. That said, let's start.

How to create a media consumption plan when the news feels too painful to bear

Step 1: Recognize what's within your control and what isn't

Before we truly make a plan, some level setting is in order. According to Daniels, fear and anxiety comes from trying to overpower things that are simply out of our control when, really, we could make more of a difference by doubling down on our values and the actions within our control. "[This shift] can help you move from a feeling of powerlessness to empowerment," says Daniels. "This may include things like searching for ways to support remotely during difficult times or amplifying voices online to broaden their reach in looking for support. Being clear with yourself about what’s important to you can calm your mind and help you prioritize where to spend your energy."

Once you recognize what's within your control, Daniels says you can stop focusing on the things outside of these boundaries. "For things that are outside of your control (like the actions of politicians or other people’s beliefs), try detaching from them," she says. One way to do this is to start noticing your feelings as house guests rather than permanent roommates she says. "There’s a big difference between 'experiencing' and 'embodying' anger. Once you’ve identified the emotion, and recognize that it is temporary and doesn’t define you, you can then determine what to do with that feeling," she says.

This will place you in a better position to make a difference now, and every time a fight for human rights makes the news.

Step 2: Take time to think about how much media you can consume without compromising your well-being

Moroney has one piece of advice that applies to those who like to flood (doomscrollers) and those who tend to freeze (numb-ers) alike: Make a decision about how much you're going to consume and stick with it. "Either say 'I am making a conscious choice not to consume any of the media,' or 'I'm making a conscious choice to, every day, have a five-minute check-in," she recommends. Simply making this pact with yourself will feel liberating, and will rid you of the "I don't know what I'm doing"-feeling that's so common in times like these. So look back at your values and emotions, and decide how much time you cam dedicate to staying in-the-know without sacrificing your well-being.

To help you find your answer, she recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the amount of media that I'm consuming about this topic empowering me? Or disempowering me?
  • How much information do I personally need to have to keep myself empowered?
  • Is my media consumption distracting me from my loved ones?

Step 3: Make a social just plan that aligns with your values and resources

According to Moroney, there are two major human resources we can offer in times of tragedy. "We only have so much time and so much money—those are our resources. I want to see people feeling confident and reassured that they are living within their own values as they use these resources," she says.

For example: Perhaps you've already allocated all of your charitable funds this year and you won't be able to contribute anything to Ukraine in that way, but your dollars are still making a difference and you feel aligned with that. Or maybe you have no supplementary income to donate, period, but you do feel that you could donate time to humanitarian assistance efforts. "We want to feel that we have purpose, that's really important. So if someone's feeling really helpless, we're going to find one thing that they can really commit to—whatever that is," says Moroney.

There's no right answer; there's just whatever's right for you.

Step 4: Feel empowered to set social boundaries when news comes up in everyday conversation

We've all been part of those circular conversations that end with both people just saying something like, "Yeah, I don't even know what to say except that it's terrible." While these interactions are completely normal, it's okay for you to opt out of them. Moroney recommends gently saying something like, "I've decided not to discuss this topic at length for my own mental well-being, but I'm doing xyz to help in Ukraine." That way, you're gently modeling how to handle crises like these and creating boundaries at the same time.

Step 5: Prioritize your own self care, including seeking help from a mental health professional

As Daniels pointed out earlier, both stress responses come at the cost of our own well-being. So as you create a strategy for tackling the current media landscape, make sure to incorporate your own self care practices. That could be something like turning your phone off at a certain time, moving your body, or practicing mindfulness. "Mindfulness can be a great tool to help people grapple with the overwhelming amounts of emotions and uncertainty they may be facing," says Daniels. "Meditation allows you to make space for yourself when you’re feeling those emotions. It can help you stop 'time traveling'‚or anxiously anticipating the future, since mindfulness calls us into the present moment." 

It also bears repeating that if you find yourself unable to cope with everything going on right now—even with your boundaries in place—seeking professional help is the best form of self care there is.

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