Wellness

How To Protect Your Mental Health When The News Is Overwhelming

Two psychologists share their strategies for coping with difficult situations and long-term anxieties.

Nighttime scene of Asian woman sitting on the floor looking at her phone

(Photo: iStock)

With so much going on globally—on top of a pandemic that has been raging for more than two years—it can be difficult to keep mentally healthy. Sometimes, it feels like no matter where you turn, there’s something going wrong.

Amy Sheffield, the psychologist at Sheffield Psychological Solutions in Calgary, says that it’s normal to feel upset and saddened by global crises—even when we’re not directly connected to them. She says that although we should definitely recognize our security and privilege, and use those to support others, it’s also natural to mourn what’s happening to other people. “That connectedness to each other and that empathy is actually a beautiful thing,” she says.

Joyce Achtnig, psychologist and director of Alberta Counselling Centre in Calgary, says the long-term stress of the past few years is taking a toll on her clients. “People aren’t really built to experience this kind of anxiety and uncertainty, and be on high alert and hyper-vigilant for long periods of time,” she says.

Sheffield says she often uses the analogy of a bank account to illustrate our mental health resources. “Every time we look at another difficult world event, health care crisis or a war, it depletes from our reserves and it’s like a withdrawal from our bank account,” she says.

So when everything seems to be going to hell, how do we keep ourselves mentally healthy? Achtnig and Sheffield share five strategies for coping with stressful circumstances and protecting our mental health.

1. Take care of yourself

It may seem basic, but Sheffield says small actions can have a big impact on our mental bank account. “Things like getting a good night’s sleep, exercising, eating good food, minimizing our use of substances—all those things put deposits back into that same account,” she says. “It makes us more resilient to the ongoing stressors around us.”

Achtnig suggests getting frequent exercise—if you’re not big on hitting the gym, this can even look like 20 to 30 minutes of walking every day. She recommends building good sleep habits, like sticking to a sleep schedule—maybe even breaking out an old-fashioned alarm clock and leaving your phone outside your room to limit exposure from your screen. She also suggests trying wellness apps and activities, like Mineshift CBT or Headspace, and blocking off dedicated relaxation or mindfulness times in your calendar. “Scheduling time for these things is really important—because if we don’t, they won’t happen,” she says.

2. Practice gratitude

Research has shown that intentionally finding things to be grateful for is strongly correlated with improvements in mental health. Sheffield points to research that shows how people who intentionally identify even three good things a day tend to be happier than people who don’t, “despite their life circumstances, or what’s going on around them,” she says. Achtnig says some of her clients have started gratitude journals, or—even easier—dedicated a section in their regular journal to identifying specific things they’re grateful for that day.

3. Look for heroes and be the hero

Sheffield says it can help our mental health to focus on the bright spots in a crisis when people step up to help one another. “We can see those health care workers, or those soldiers or politicians who are trying their hardest to keep people safe or to help others,” she says. “Seeing those little pockets of hope and help can sometimes get us through difficult times.”

In crises, we can also step up to be the heroes that others look to. Achtnig suggests checking in with your friends, neighbours and colleagues during difficult times, asking them if they need any help. “That just gives people a sense of not being alone,” she says. “Things don’t seem so overwhelming and hopeless.” She points to research that shows that when we act in kindness, it improves our own well-being as well.

“It’s often that feeling of helplessness and lack of control that makes these things particularly difficult,” Sheffield says. “Those contributions help us feel like we’re doing something, despite the tough things going on around us.”

4. Step away from social media

Social media makes it so easy to tap into the news feed 24/7, which is great for staying informed on current events. But Achtnig says it’s also important to know when to take a step back, especially when the news is overwhelmingly negative. “It’s important to be informed, but constantly checking news updates and reading sensationalized stories can really take its toll on our mental health,” she says. She suggests scheduling social media breaks, and developing a list of reputable sources that you can visit for sound facts instead of falling down the social media rabbit hole.

Sheffield says physical tension and social isolation can be good indicators that it’s time to step away from your news feeds. Increased anxiety, an elevated heart rate, sleep disruption and nightmares, restlessness, muscle tightness and headaches are some symptoms that might indicate that you’re over-exposing yourself to the news. If your conversations are dominated by discussion of current events, or if you’re staying inside surrounded by media instead of interacting with others, those are also indications that you might need to step away.

5. Know when to ask for help

If you’re finding that you’re feeling overwhelmed, especially to the point where you can’t function day-to-day, Sheffield suggests seeking help from a professional. “If you’re having trouble getting out of bed, doing things around the house—if we’ve noticed our work performance isn’t where it used to be, that we’re withdrawing socially—those are all signs that it’s definitely time to seek support,” she says.

Achtnig suggests setting up a monthly appointment with a therapist to maintain your mental health, especially if you have pre-existing trauma or mental health conditions, and using your social connections as a support network (which can include friends and family). You can also access free mental health support through services like Wellness Together Canada and Together All. The Canadian Mental Health Association also offers free programs like BounceBack, which is designed to help Canadians build skills to improve mental health. Databases like Affordable Therapy Network and eMentalHealth.ca can help you find therapists that offer low-cost or even free sessions.

Achtnig also recommends keeping in touch with your family doctor because they can suggest treatments too, and knowing what resources you can access if you’re in distress. You can find a list of select resources below.

Hope for Wellness: A helpline for Indigenous people in distress, available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

Kids Help Phone: A helpline for youth, available via phone or text.

Canada Suicide Prevention: For people considering suicide, or people who are worried about a loved one.

eMentalHealth.ca: A comprehensive database of Canadian mental health programs, easily filterable by location, fees, ages, etc.

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