Coping with Stress in a Chaotic World

Is anxiety our new normal?

Illustration by Alexandra Bye

Those of us who live in New Hampshire are fortunate to enjoy a relatively low rate of violent crime and major natural disasters. Still, bad news and its effects know no borders. Our round-the-clock electronic connections to the outside world bring relentless reports of alarming topics, from global warming to the latest horrifying terrorist attacks. Have we accepted the steady stream of bad news as the new normal, or is the doom and gloom taking its toll on our psyche?

It’s true that some of us make an effort to tune out the barrage of upsetting news that we receive through our phones, computers and other devices. We essentially become desensitized to it — mentally filing it as “just another tornado or terrible thing happening to people around the world,” says Donald Reape, MD, medical director of St. Joseph Hospital physician practices, and board-certified internal medicine physician at St. Joseph Hospital Internal Medicine, Riverside.

But others take the upsetting information to heart. Our media-saturated environment and continuous news cycle of events such as 9/11 “constantly bring back that fear of what’s going on in the world today,” says Steve Arnault, MS, vice president of clinical services, quality and compliance at the Center for Life Management.

The torrent of scary updates and images of happenings such as shootings and airport bombs can also trigger our built-in survival mechanism, the fight-or-flight response, which floods the body with stress hormones and sets off a chain of physiological reactions that prepare us to react to a perceived threat. “That pure fear or anxiety” we feel, Reape says, and the physiological reaction it brings, can interfere with our sleep and everyday functioning. People around us might notice changes in our behavior. A child might sense increased tension in his parent, for example, or notice that a parent has suddenly become more protective, Reape says.

How we handle upsetting headlines is influenced by a variety of factors, Arnault says, including the tragic event’s bearing on our life, our inherent qualities and experiences, our current emotional well-being and our familiarity with the circumstances of the event. For example, a veteran “who was deployed right after 9/11 has a very different sensitivity to watching images of the World Trade Center coming down than someone who wasn’t even born at the time [of the attacks],” he says.

But even those who are not directly or physically affected by a terrorist attack or large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina can experience lasting psychological harm. Our 24-hour news feeds, Reape says, along with the ability to watch horrific events in real time as they unfold, make us feel close to the incident, even if we are hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In some instances, as people listen to the stories again and again, they can develop something called vicarious trauma, in which they experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As these individuals are repeatedly exposed to details of the upsetting event, they feel “heightened emotions” such as deep fear and empathy, Arnault says. Counselors who work with trauma survivors are at particular risk of developing vicarious trauma symptoms, he says, but it can happen to anyone. “Hearing it over and over again, the stuff becomes ingrained. Those reactions become ingrained.”

With the stress and emotional upset come physical consequences. “Stomach disorders, gastric disorders, headaches, lack of sleep — all those can be symptoms of anxiety,” Arnault says. “They’re also signs of depression,” he adds. Also, stress can lead to substance abuse, he says, as some people “turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to kind of dull the senses and escape.”

A better approach: Make a conscious effort to avoid overloading on news. “If you’re a news junkie,” Arnault says, “just watch it for 30 minutes; don’t keep CNN on all day long. [Otherwise], it’s a bombardment.” Remember, whether we choose to pay close attention to distressing news is up to us. Ask yourself if you really want or need to know the lurid details of these events. After all, “the more detail you have,” Arnault says, “the more you have to react to.”

If you find that all the bad news is getting to you, tone down the amount of information that you receive by only scanning headlines once a day, and put some distance between yourself and your news sources. Don’t remain plugged in all day, Reape says. Particularly at night, shut down the television, laptop and smartphone and take time to relax before going to bed. Use exercise, deep and controlled breathing, and meditation to clear your head and stay in tune with your body, Reape says, and “get back to better functioning.”

Also, remember to keep things in perspective. The chance of the average Granite State resident “getting blown up by a terrorist” is very low, Reape says, and “may be akin to winning the lotto in terms of the odds.” If upsetting news is not likely to affect your everyday life, and you have no control over it, he says, “you really shouldn’t be devoting all your energy to it.” 

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