In the days leading up to the 9-11 attacks, east coast residents lived in a state of fear, but it wasn’t terrorism that caused us angst.
During the summer of 2001, a handful of shark attacks turned beachgoing into a life-risking adventure, according to mass media, even though such attacks caused only five fatalities the entire year.
The circus coverage dominated the headlines for months. It even warranted its own name: Summer of the Shark.
With a dearth of newsworthy stories that summer, the media latched onto anything sensational. The shark attack drama was all they could muster.
Man, I miss those days.
The news was so boring, so uneventful that mass media had to sensationalize shark attacks to draw eyeballs, the equivalent to a carnival barker wooing patrons by hyping up three-breasted women and half man, half dog attractions. You just have to take a peek, right?
When the 9-11 attacks happened, shark attack coverage disappeared. For weeks, we glued ourselves to the news, living in fear, allowing the anxiety to spike and crash with every rumor or theory spouted by every pundit.
In retrospect, our mental health would have been better served had we just shut off the news entirely and curled up into a cocoon for two weeks.
Today, each glance at your news feed turns up headlines about the pandemic, election chaos, or some other crazy shit that makes you want to lock yourself in a bunker until the hysteria passes. Just wake me up when it’s all over, you want to scream.
Detach and ignore the chaos. That’s what conventional wisdom tells us to do. But that’s like saying if you want to become a billionaire, start a new tech business. The odds of succeeding are vanishingly small.
Fortunately, you can keep your sanity without relying on the god-like willpower of detaching from the world.
The POW technique
Headlines are designed to trigger an angst-inducing urge by hinting at a crisis and creating a sense of uncertainty. When done well, it’s nearly impossible to resist.
Just a taste, you tell yourself, to see what it’s all about. But it’s no different than a taste of a chocolate cake. Once the sweetness touches your brain, you’re no match for its seductive powers. You’re compelled to devour it all.
Don’t fight yourself; it requires too much willpower. Instead, allow yourself to engage and then follow the POW technique:
I’ve found the process helpful in bringing calm to tense feelings triggered by the crisis news cycle.
Let’s suppose you take a peek at your phone and swipe over to the news. There’s a headline that entices you, strikes a bit of fear and unease, so you click.
Oh my god. I can’t believe this crap.
Before you down that shot of whiskey to calm yourself, take a deep breath, and ask yourself this question:
Do I need to participate in whatever’s being reported on to protect my interests? If so, how?
Much of the time, the news might sound scary, but it has no bearing on your life, like the shark attack drama that played out in 2001. Still, it can cause anxiety because of the uncertainty attached to it.
If it does potentially impact you, what actions can you reasonably take to prevent that adverse outcome? Even if it’s small, find a way to participate that could head off those adverse outcomes.
In politics, you can contact Congressional representatives or donate to organizations supporting your position. For seemingly pointless angst like the shark attack frenzy, educating yourself is often the most useful form of participation.
Even small steps help bring some relief to the anxiety. Regardless of your participation level, it’s best to devise a mitigation plan should your worst fears come to fruition.
If the potential outcome would be adverse to your interests, what can you do to protect yourself?
Once you decide on a course of action, you’ll feel a sense of control, which helps dial down the overwhelm.
Participation alone will rarely relieve you of news-crisis related stress, but I’ve found that detaching yourself, becoming a disinterested witness, allows you to metaphorically step outside of yourself to relieve the tension. I’ve adapted this process from the yoga practice, witnessing consciousness.
- Imagine separating from your body. Picture yourself as a manifestation of your consciousness, hovering five feet behind your body. Imagine your consciousness as a cloud if it helps you visualize.
- Witness your physical presence react to the overwhelm.
- Get curious about what it’s doing to your body, particularly the physical sensations it’s causing. Observe and take mental notes like you’re a scientist in a white lab coat scribbling on a clipboard.
The witnessing technique takes practice, but it’s surprisingly effective at curbing the anxiety that accompanies the constant barrage of crises.
It’s nearly impossible to pull yourself away from the news with regularity. The open-loop of uncertainty plus crisis makes that near impossible. Until we curb the fear and uncertainty, we remain at the mercy of whoever feeds us this crap.
But once you’ve participated and observed, you’ll feel a greater sense of control and diminished anxiety. The fear will have dissipated, allowing you to withdraw without the constant dread that you’re missing out on life-shattering news. Getting to this point is a process, but not a difficult one.
Putting it all together
The news, whether it leans left or right, wants you engaged no matter the effects on your mental health. They do it, whether they realize it or not, by creating an open-loop of uncertainty that stirs up angst and gives you a reason to come back for more.
The POW process gives you a tool to defend yourself, and it’s far more effective than relying on the willpower to stay away.