War in Ukraine, the spiralling cost of living and the climate crisis are putting a strain on people’s mental heath. We spoke to experts about how to cope with bad news, this is what they said
The quintessentially British response of ‘putting the kettle on’ in troubled times might seem like a quaint notion, but the naturally calming effects of tea – which is shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol – makes it a sage place to start.
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The temptation to doomscroll through social media or watch rolling news may be strong in times of crisis, but is best avoided. The link between such behaviour and poor mental health has been proven by studies.
That’s not to say don’t engage – it’s important to know what’s going on – but limiting news consumption, rather than gorging on it all day, is advisable.
Offsetting the doom with uplifting stories is also vital. The World Health Organization recommended that people do this during the pandemic, but the advice applies to any crisis.
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In the face of bad news – and there’s a lot of it about – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.
Harley Street trauma expert Olivia James suggests focusing on positive action you could take to break out of stasis. “Even if it’s just a small thing,” she says. “Do something rather than just taking in all the bad news and feeling more and more immobilised by it all.”
Cognitive behaviour therapist Navit Schechter agrees. “Worrying is a thought process which can quickly spin out of control. Focus on the moment – think about what you can do to offer support.”
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Taking a deep breath is another classic bit of bad news advice, but – much like tea drinking – there’s some science behind it.
Neuro-linguisting programming trainer Andy Coley says a fight-or-flight response in stressful situations is great for rapid response to an emergency – but not so great if your gas bill sends you into a tailspin.
“Deep and slow belly breathing triggers part of the nervous system, which lowers cortisol and adrenaline, and raises oxytocin and dopamine,” explains Coley. “Oxytocin is the ‘chemical of love’ – it floods your body with good feelings. And while you might not fall in love with that gas bill, you will at least be able to think more clearly, with some perspective.”
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Marilyn Devonish overcame suicidal depression to become a certified coach and therapist, and has 21 years’ experience working in the trauma field. “Continual bad news almost tipped me over the edge,” she says.
Devonish is another advocate of pausing for breath. “If you don’t oxygenate your brain, it will shut down to some extent, and that often means you are – quite literally – not thinking straight.”
She says activating the brain to move past bad news and towards a solution, or positive response, is key. “Sometimes that next step is to just sit with it and feel whatever you’re feeling,” she explains. “But if you tell your brain what you want, it will do what it can to help you. Out of the blue you’ll come up with one of those ‘aha’ moments.”
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In similar vein, former NHS GP Nicola Harker says we’re hardwired to read the worst into bad news, and often leap to unhelpful assumptions.
“We’re wired for survival rather than happiness,” says Harker, who is now working as a coach with a focus on mindful self-compassion.
“Notice how your brain goes to worse case scenarios and notice the narrative that is running in your mind. The brain loves to go to ‘all or nothing’, but the reality is usually somewhere in between. You can find comfort, connection, even joy in difficult times. With a growth mindset, you can come through terrible situations.”
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Grim news can often precipitate rash decision making, turning your bad tidings into catastrophe. Clinical psychotherapist Tania Taylor recommends taking time out.
“It’s easy to jump into taking action that you’ll later regret,” she says. “If you can, sleep on it. When we sleep, our memories from the day are processed and moved from our emotional to our narrative mind. We can then think about them and make decisions using the intelligent part of our brain rather than our ‘fight or flight’ limbic system.”
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Sylvia Tillmann is a provider of Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises. She says our innate bodily reaction of shaking or trembling in immediate response to trauma and bad news should be encouraged rather than suppressed.
“We’ve been socialised out of it,” she laments. “We perceive tremors as weakness, something embarrassing, or even as illness.
“Shaking after a stressful or traumatic event is good for us as tremors enable a disrupted nervous system to bring body and mind back into balance, finalising the stress response. It’s an innate and very natural reaction. We should trust our body wisdom.”
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Conversely, our response to bad news may not always be as instant, or as visible, as a case of the shakes. Geraldine Joaquim, a clinical hypnotherapist, advises being prepared for a delayed reaction.
“It might seem that you take it all in in the moment, but afterwards is when maybe the tears or emotion come because it just takes a little while to filter through,” she says. “Recognise that you don’t always have to keep soldiering on, and allow yourself some self-compassion.”
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Finally, psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers advises reaching out to friends and family for support, or finding professional help.
“It’s easy to internalise things and fall into your own unhealthy coping mechanisms,” he says. “Recognise the value of positive social support when you’ve had bad news – expressing the negative emotions that come with it enables us to take ownership of them, and begins the process of being more self compassionate and kind to ourselves.”
Image: Priscilla du Preez
Main image: Roman Kraft