Relieving Feelings of Stress Caused by World Events

by Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D

How are the stressful, frightening events of these times affecting you? Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you avoiding food, or munching at will and putting on extra pounds? Do you feel anxious and fearful much of the time? Are your symptoms more severe or harder than usual to manage? Do you have distressing and troubling feelings that you have never had before? Are you constantly losing things, noticing that your memory is poor, that you are more irritable than usual? Perhaps you are feeling tempted by an addictive behavior that has been under control for a very long time? If so, you are not alone. People around the world are feeling the stress of these difficult times and it is showing itself in unexpected ways.You may have had a lot of stress to deal with in your life even before events like September 11, the disaster at Fukushima, the tragedy at Newton, and the recent bombings in Boston. You may have a disability or have a family member with a disability or a long term illness. You may have been grieving for the loss of a loved one, or a valued career. You may have been living in poverty, homeless or have a housing situation that is less than ideal. The list could go on and on. You may have been just managing to get by --keeping yourself well and helping others as needed. And now this! You may feel totally overwhelmed. Again, you are not alone. Most people share your feelings.

While there is no way to make this stress go away, there are things you can do to help yourself. Let me share with you some of the things that people are doing to make life somewhat more bearable. I am sure you have many more of your own.

When you notice a symptom or Early Warning Sign, avoid responding in the way I always used to respond. I would notice the sign and then I would almost go into a panic, telling myself things like, "this is going to get worse and worse", "maybe I will need to be hospitalized", or "suppose I can't do that job I was supposed to do next week". I have now changed my way of responding to early warning signs or symptoms. First, I just notice them. Then I ask myself, "What can I do to help myself feel better?" Perhaps it's a long walk, a talk with a special friend or spending some time working on a sewing project. Maybe it's to take the afternoon away from my work and just relax. Then I do those things, accepting that the feelings may not go away immediately and it is OK if they hang around for a while. This is a big change for me and I am not very good at it yet.

 Try to keep your attention focused on what you are doing. Most of us spend a lot of time in times like these thinking about the awful things that have happened or about horrible things that might happen in the future. This is not helpful and can make you feel much worse. It may send you into the downward spiral of depression or increase your anxiety. Staying in the present if often hard to do and no one is completely successful, so don't give yourself a hard time if you try this and find it to be difficult. I am not very good at it myself and have to keep reminding myself to "stay in the moment". But I suggest you keep working on it like I am. When you find yourself focusing on world events, switch your attention to what is happening or what you are doing at that moment, think about a really good time you had in the past or something pleasant you are looking forward to. You can control your mind, hard as it seems these days.

It's more important than ever to spend a lot of time doing things you enjoy  --things that you "get lost in". Last night I sketched a picture. While I was working on it, I couldn't think of anything else. When I finished I noticed I felt much more relaxed than when I started. You might enjoying building models, sewing projects, knitting, playing a musical instrument -- it's up to you.

Do things that use lots of energy and keep you really busy. Maybe now is the time to give your home that "top to bottom" cleaning you have been thinking about. Clean out the drawers or closets. You may want to tackle some big projects you have been putting off like painting a room or refinishing a piece of furniture. Or you could go for a run or a fast walk.

 Staying closely connected to others and reconnecting with family members and friends you have not been in touch with for a long time is very important now. Spend more time with family and friends -- people you enjoy. Share activities and meals. Sit around and talk. Tell those close to you how much you love them. This might also be a good to time to develop some new connections by joining a support group, a church, a special interest group like the stamp collecting club, taking a class on a subject that interests you or volunteering.

 Every day do all the things you know you need to do to stay well. Eat three healthy meals a day. Drink at least six eight ounce glasses of water. Get at least a half hour of exercise and outdoor light. You can add other daily "must do's" to your list. You might find that relaxation and stress reduction exercises, yoga, meditation, prayer and other spiritual or religious practices will help you to feel more relaxed. I try to find some time for this each day.

Most of us want to be kept up to date on major news developments, especially those that affect us or people we care about. However, knowing every detail is not usually helpful and many people are finding that it is making a difficult situation worse. You may decide you want to limit your exposure to the news. Decide how much you can watch, listen to or read the daily news without having it make you feel badly. You may find you can't watch the news at all but can read a few articles in the newspaper. Or the radio may be easier for you to handle. Then when you've had enough, do something that diverts your attention away from what is going on in the world.

Make a difference in the world. E-mail or call government officials to let them know how you feel about the actions they are taking. Join activist groups that share your views on world events. Assist an organization that is working on relief efforts. Help someone in your community who is having a hard time.

I wish you all peace, and that the peace we hold in our hearts will spread around the world.