If you’ve begun to feel that turning on the nightly news is an exercise in personal fortitude, you’re not alone. Recent weeks have seen the headlines dominated by both man-made and natural tragedies, from terrorist attacks to twisters to escalating racial unrest. And let’s not even get started on politics.
Jump online to escape with a couple of mindless videos, and you’ll soon find yourself wading through even more bad news. Friends and family use social media to weigh in on the day’s events and you quickly learn just how different their opinions can be—and how cutting the arguments become.
Frankly, it makes it hard to find your happy place.
Our innate negativity bias doesn’t help, either. While we are naturally drawn to events that are more dangerous or tragic, we also pay an emotional toll for that attraction to darkness.
Studies have shown that continued exposure to negative news can lead to anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Neurologically, when we’re exposed to negative programming for a prolonged period, we begin to interpret the world as less safe. We become more aware of negative events, which then creates a vicious downward spiral for our brains.
Now for the good news: While you can’t change the headlines, you can change how they affect you.
“A lot of it depends on how we listen to the news and how we balance it out,” says Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D., author of Body Intelligence: Harness Your Body’s Energy for Your Best Life.
Joseph says it begins with listening with compassion, which requires us to let go of our preconceived notions and judgments. This takes practice, he admits, but it is key to developing an understanding of why things are happening to individuals and to entire populations.
Use empathy, practice kindness
“Once we better understand why bad things are happening, we can mindfully turn our attention toward little things we can do to reverse negative things,” he says.
That might mean offering a smile or hug to someone who is upset or feeling down. It could be doing something nice for a co-worker. Send a thank-you note to a police officer you’ve never met; buy coffee for a stranger. You won’t just make them feel better, you’ll feel better, too.
“When we do things like this, we balance the interplay between feel-good hormones in our bloodstream, like serotonin and dopamine, so you feel good, virtuous, rewarded and happy,” Joseph explains.
“Those changes in blood chemistry and mindset facilitate a preference for continued higher-level thinking and problem-solving. This is a win-win situation, because we are simultaneously making ourselves feel happy, but contributing to the greater good by creating a loop of energy that is humane, healing and sparkling.”
In other words, what goes around really does come around. And practicing positive or compassionate acts, even in the midst of trying times, will have a genuine impact on your physical and emotional well-being.
“In philosophy, this is the power of the human spirit,” he explains. “It is powerful enough to establish pathways for new procedures in the brain and, hence, new circuits in your brain to help flow into states of happiness and health.”
Easier said than done?
If the solution sounds too simple, try putting it into daily practice and you may be surprised how much work it takes. Again, that built-in negativity bias will try redirecting our attention, but Joseph suggests the following techniques for cultivating some feel-good energy.
- Start and end your day with mindful physical exercise. Jogging or a morning walk while paying attention to the beauty of nature around you is a healthy way to wake up and can put you in the right frame of mind. Likewise, gentle mindful stretching or yoga is a good way to shake off the news of the day.
- Take a break from negativity—and know when you’ll allow yourself to be exposed to it. Sure, you want to stay informed, but taking in negative news before you have to do something important, like going to a meeting or greeting a loved one, can alter the energy of that event. Choose your timing carefully.
- Know what lifts your spirit. We all have certain colors, scents and songs that we respond favorably to; create your own positivity first-aid kit and use it when you start feeling drained or sad.
Of course, we all strive to maintain that balance between staying informed and becoming overwhelmed. If you feel powerless, try taking action where you can—such as giving blood or volunteering with a cause you believe in. Doing so will give you a positive sense of engagement in the face of all that negativity.
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.