7 Mindfulness-Based Strategies to Stop Spiraling into Despair
Following nonstop news in an era of gun violence, war, and political divide, can become overwhelming. And amid our many ongoing challenges — the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty — it’s understandable to feel sad, angry and anxious.
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in giving people the tools to cope with intense emotions, I know how difficult it can be to remain positive — or simply balanced — while caring deeply about our world. Some of my clients say they can’t stop doomscrolling, others engage in unhealthy behaviors to tune it out and many bounce between the two extremes.
But it is possible to anchor yourself if it feels as though you’re slipping into despair about the state of the world. I rely on these seven mindfulness-based strategies for myself and my clients to stay grounded.
1. Label your feelings.
If you can precisely label the emotion you’re experiencing in the moment, you can reduce its power in your body and brain. Name whatever emotion you are feeling, whether it is sadness, fear, anger, disgust or guilt — and how intensely you’re experiencing it. Say it aloud, use a mood tracking app such as Daylio, Reflectly or Moodnotes or write your feelings down in a journal.
Try not to wait until your feelings have peaked, though. Make it a habit to name your emotions as they come. Tracking their intensity offers you a chance to slow down before you reach a boiling point and lose yourself in worrying or ruminating, snap at someone or reach for a substance mindlessly.
2. Allow yourself to feel emotions too.
If you try to avoid your feelings, they will get more intense, said Melanie Harned, a psychologist with the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and the author of “Treating Trauma in Dialectical Behavior Therapy.” When you’re emotionally affected by a news story, take a moment to notice what you’re thinking, doing and feeling in your body. Choose what would be most helpful in the moment — whether that’s creating a window to feel your emotions for a few minutes, without trying to change them, or, if you’re in the middle of a pressing task, plan to revisit painful news at a time you can grieve.
One way to improve your ability to sit with emotions is to remember that they can quickly fluctuate. An exercise that helps my clients to stop worrying about getting stuck in their feelings is to watch several brief, emotional scenes in succession — the deathbed scene from the film “The Champ” followed by a snippet of the music video for Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” If you try this, you may find yourself tearing up at one moment, then dancing or smiling in your chair the next. The goal is to understand how that same transience can apply to the variety of emotions you experience when you remain present throughout your day.
Understandably, in the aftermath of a tragedy, it can also feel tempting to shrink the scope of your life to avoid painful emotions. For example, after learning of mass violence at a supermarket, as we did in the horrific Boulder and Buffalo shootings, it’s natural to feel uneasy about going grocery shopping. Keep in mind that allowing yourself to experience your emotions, including fear, as you return to a routine will ultimately improve your anxiety, Dr. Harned said.
3. Practice different types of empathy.
You can feel driven to make a difference and help without overly identifying with another person’s pain. “We are taught that the way to help others is through empathy, but that can be a trap,” said George Everly Jr., a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who specializes in crisis intervention and resilience.
In his work to reduce burnout among humanitarian aid workers, Dr. Everly encourages perspective taking, or trying to understand the world from another’s point of view in the moment, instead of absorbing yourself in their emotions, blurring the line between what they are experiencing and your experience.
“There’s a difference between being aware and getting immersed and enveloped,” said Sharon Salzberg, a leading mindfulness teacher and the author of “Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World.”
One study of more than 7,500 physicians found that understanding and acknowledging patients emotions reduced burnout, while overly identifying with their patients’ experiences predicted emotional exhaustion among doctors. It takes practice, but if you observe yourself feeling engrossed, try taking a few breaths and then shifting into a more cognitive form of concern, as opposed to fully participating in suffering.
4. Take action.
By considering ways to help others, you’ll take back some control in a world that can feel overwhelming while improving your own well-being. Purposefully and repeatedly doing work like donating, volunteering or engaging politically has been shown to reduce a person’s risk of slipping into depression and boosts happiness.
“When we mobilize and rise up with a positive, tangible action, it is almost impossible to fall into despair,” said Shelly Tygielski, an activist and the author of “Sit Down to Rise Up.”
Invest some time thinking about ways you want to contribute around causes that are meaningful to you. While working toward improving injustices in the world, “we need to balance compassion and our effort with the wisdom that things can take time. They can take a long time, but sometimes our efforts are planting a seed,” Ms. Salzberg said.
5. Rethink your words.
It can feel natural to use dramatic statements like “I’m broken” when something terrible happens in the world. That is especially true on social media, where extreme language might be validated by other people’s “likes” or comments. But our words and interpretations have a powerful impact on how we feel and behave.
While it’s helpful to allow ourselves to honor our feelings, our emotions escalate in intensity when we overstate circumstances that are already painful. Catastrophic thinking can either trigger or exacerbate negative emotions in many people. So consider replacing thoughts or phrases like, “The world is falling apart,” with “I need to do something to improve X.”
6. Invest in a joy practice.
Resilience, the ability to function after a stressful event, often hinges on adding positive emotions and actions to your day to improve your ability to cope with challenges. Connect with people who inspire you and schedule hobbies that may excite you. Protecting your mental health isn’t selfish; it enables you to be the best version of you, not the burned-out version, said Dr. Everly, who carves out time to exercise even when he’s on disaster relief missions.
Beyond adding activities that foster happiness, practice attending to the moments when positive emotions naturally arise in your day, whether that’s your morning coffee or spending time with someone you love.
“When the news cycle is so dominated by horrific things, we can lose sight of the good in the world and in our own lives,” Dr. Harned said.
But if you are struggling to find moments of peace and find yourself experiencing sadness or anxiety that is impacting your ability to function, reach out to a therapist who can offer you evidence-based tools to improve your well-being.
7. Honor your limits without losing sight of the problems and the pain.
Think about specific times of day, say morning and midafternoon, when you want to keep up with the news, rather than endlessly scrolling or keeping it on in the background. Taking a break doesn’t mean you don’t care; it’s about hitting pause so you can return to facing challenges in the world and trying to make a real difference.
It’s also important to stay attuned to the causes that matter to us in times of relative quiet. “We feel pain acutely, then we forget,” said Ms. Salzberg. She suggests finding ways to attend to causes that matter to us, even when they’re not at the top of our news feed.
Give yourself permission to feel pain and joy, without getting stuck. That is how to let your emotions contribute to real healing. Dr. Harned reminded me of an analogy that Marsha Linehan, a psychologist and pioneer in mindfulness-based behavioral therapy, teaches: You can visit a cemetery without building a house there.
Jenny Taitz is an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of several books, including a forthcoming one on stress.