Coping with stressful times.

1.       Why is it so important to take time out when there is lots of negative social media and news updates. What kind of harm and damage can they do to our emotional health?

There is no doubt that we are in an unprecedented time right now. Never before has the entire world been focused on an all encompassing anxiety-provoking global event such as the Covid-19 (Corona Virus) – with the exception of other plagues and world wars.  However, we are in a unique experience in all of humankind’s history because of the unparalleled speed and sometimes highly invasive nature of our online world – especially social media and instant messaging. We are now seeing the impact of a truly global and highly connected village! At the speed of thought we are able to instantly transmit ideas across the world  – whether they are good or bad, images and information  – whether they are true or false and imagery  – whether it is helpful or very harmful. 

Now more than ever, we need to be vigilant about how much time we spend focusing on what is happening with regards to negative social media as well as news updates. As a psychologist, I am already seeing how quickly spending too much time online as well as reading newspapers or watching the news is affecting people’s mental health. Some clients as well as friends and colleagues have commented how they have never been someone to worry or have any anxiety before until now. 

This does not bode well for others who already struggle with anxiety or depression – especially when you add into the mix potential loss of income and social and physical confinement. 

When our brains go into a state of physiological arousal due to a sense of danger or perceived threat to our well being we begin to experience the mental, physical and emotional impacts. We may begin to struggle with a range of potentially unhelpful thoughts and emotions which, if left unchecked, can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety and even depression. 

The reason that anxiety and depression are so connected is because anxiety – if left unchecked – causes ongoing increases in cortisol and adrenalin in our bodies that hampers our ability to produce serotonin. This is a vital neurotransmitter that we need to help us stay calm and provides with an overall sense of well-being. If our serotonin levels continue to lower, our levels of anxiety increase and eventually we are at risk of falling into depression. 

2.       How do negative news stories have an impact on us? And how do they directly affect our energy (i.e. if emotions are downtrodden it saps our energy levels)?

Negative news stories and social media can have a very strong impact on our mental and emotional health. A really interesting take on why this is the case can be found in an intriguing book written by Richard Brodie called “Virus of the Mind” which builds on the work of Richard Dawkins (a British evolutionary biologist). In his book, Richard Brodie explains that whilst we understand the physical virus and how it can infect us and spread from person to person by duplicating itself – we are just as much at risk of getting a “mind virus” when we are exposed to strong and repetitive negative thoughts, beliefs and information. Essentially, we are at risk of taking on a personal belief system thatis not of our own choosing and certainly not to our own benefit or well-being. 

There is also no doubt that negative mental and emotional stressors and events are more likely to zap our energy than any kind of physical strain. Anyone who has been through a traumatic experience or who has spent an entire day cramming for an exam will know how tiring mental expenditure of energy can be. Everything is energyand right now – conserving our energy for what is really important is key. We also need to know how to generate energy in our minds and bodies and there are specific strategies for this in terms of our diet, physical exercise and mental activity that can be very helpful. 

3.       What strategies do you recommend putting in place to preserve physical and emotional energy and reduce toxic news habits?

The very first strategy that I would recommend to people is to cut down significantly on the social media and watching every single news briefing as it is released. It is generally not a good night to watch or engage with something that could be distressing in the evening. There would be obvious impacts on our ability to sleep. My recommendation is to watch the news in the morning and possibly check in during the afternoon but to avoid watching the news during the evening when we should all be unwinding and engaging with our loved ones or taking time for some self-care if we live on our own. 

Make a decision to check social media only for limited periods and mostly, once again, during the day. Even though platforms such as Instagram can have a much more supportive and positive aspect to them – it is almost impossible to not see negative information and fear mongering. Personally, I avoid Facebook unless I am engaging with family or writing content for my Fox Psychology page. My aim is to use any social media platform to inspire, educate and help people struggling with mental health issues of any kind. 

Electricity can preserve life and makes all of our lives infinitely better – but it can also kill you if not used properly. Social media – like so many other things in life – has the capacity to help you or harm you as well. 

My advice then is to protect your mental and emotional environment. I personally don’t listen to the radio in my car. When I am driving, I listen to my music and inspirational or informative podcasts or YouTube audio clips. At home, I read or watch something entertaining on Stan or Netflix. If something is important enough for me to know, someone will tell me! I also recommend getting the summary of important breaking news from online news channels. 

4.       How can caring for someone else (or investing energy into serving others) be a good way to boost mood and positive energy?

One of the best ways to change your state or moodis to get out of your own mind. No, not like “I’m going out of my mind!” but to engage with someone else who may be struggling at this time. If you feel you have the resources for it, being mindfully present with and providing comfort and reassurance to others can be very helpful for your own sense of well-being. This follows the principle of mindfulness where we focus our full selves on engaging with any activity we are undertaking and not allowing our minds to wander too far. 

5.       Is there any science backed studies that show how caring or helping others can boost our energy and general wellbeing.

The late Dr. Wayne Dyer often mentioned during his speeches that he had come across an interesting study where researchers had measured the impact on people’s serotonin levels when they witness an act of kindness such as someone helping others or giving to charity. They were amazed that not only did those who gave show increased levels of serotonin but those who observed it experienced a similar increase! This is powerful evidence to show that how we treat each other out in public as well as – and especially – in our own homes, can have very positive impacts on our mental and emotional well-being.  

Acts of kindness can release hormones (oxytocin)that contribute to your mood and overall well-being. The practice is so effective it’s being formally incorporated into some types of psychotherapy.

6.       What are 3 ways you recommend to clients that they can help others?

In general, I am not usually counselling clients on how to help others as they are often having enough trouble helping themselves!

However, given the current situation that we all find ourselves in and looking at the research around providing ongoing acts of kindness, I recommend people get involved in some form of meaningful helping. This can be incredibly individualistic and of course with the current limits on person-to-person distance, the kinds of caring and kindness we can best show is by how we communicate with and support each other at home and when we do venture out. A trip to the shops is an opportunity to spread some kindness and selflessness. Given some of the recent events which has been shown heavily in the media with people attacking each other for toilet paper, we really do all need to take a step back and realise that we are all very much connected.  

The second recommendation is to be fully presentwhen you are with others. Practice mindful conversations where you are not anxiously elsewhere or preparing a response to what someone is telling you. Look into people’s eyes and connect with them. Provide empathy and don’t minimise or as Brene Brown says “silver-line” anyone else’s anguish, especially your children. For example, if someone says to you that they are worried about losing their jobs, don’t say: “At least you have a job”. Sometimes the best thing you can say to someone who is struggling and sharing with you is: “I’m really sorry you’re going through this”,  “That sounds really hard”, or simply “I am here and we will get through this together”. 

Finally, what I have often done with clients who are struggling with fatigue, stress, anxiety and depression is to get them to answer the question: What or who is most important to you in your life? I will usually get a list that goes something like: My children, my partner, my family, my work, my financial stability, my dog, my cat etc.

I will then ask them: “So where exactly is your own mental and physical health on that list?” They will often stop for a second, and then sometimes I will see a small smile or frown. I explain that if they were to keel over tomorrow from a heart attack from being so stressed or they ended up incapacitated by depression, how would they be able to help everyone else they are so deeply about? Self-care is critical not only to our own well-being but also to the well-being of all those we love. The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of your own happiness and well-being. It is not selfish to look after yourself, it is critical.

Written by 

David Fox is an author, speaker and registered psychologist with a masters degree in psychology. He believes that overcoming issues like anxiety and depression are best tackled on multiple fronts such as exercise, supplements, working with your thoughts and beliefs, watching your diet and talking to someone who can provide empathy and support while you figure things out. His goal is teach people individually and within organisations in how to help themselves thrive. In addition, David supports patients who would like to eventually reduce or potentially stop taking anti-depressant medication if they are finding major negative side effects from remaining on the medications and looking for alternative routes to a better quality of life. This is not for everyone, and yes some people may need to remain on some amount of medication – especially those with bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. However, for those whose issues began as anxiety and/or depression, there may certainly be another way to healing other than medication. David is the author of the book Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.

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