It was a parallel universe on my Facebook timeline. "I've been in a daze all day," one post read. "I. AM. TIRED," read another. "I feel helpless," shared a friend. "I don't know how I'm going to deal with my coworkers' indifferent comments," lamented the last post I read before shutting off my phone.
It was the day after Alton Sterling was fatally shot at point-blank range outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His death had been caught on cell phone video. I was sitting under my hooded dryer and scrolling through cute family posts and lively political banter when the video entered my world. It was shortly before bedtime, and not knowing the gravity of what we were about to witness, I called my husband over to view the footage with me.
My reaction was visceral: My stomach turned. My heart beat faster and louder. Hot tears began streaming down my face, and I felt a burning lump in my throat as I tried to control the overwhelming emotion that washed over me. I was stunned. Like millions of others in a matter of hours, I had just watched a man's violent death.
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And now it was time to go to sleep. But I was too wound up. I tried talking it out with my husband and doing deep-breathing exercises. We prayed. And eventually I fell asleep only to have my husband shake me awake from a nightmare. In my dream I was outside with my hands up and a gun pointed at my head.
My response was not isolated. The disturbing incidents of recent years—from police brutality and terrorism in the headlines to the most contentious presidential race of our lifetime and the election of Donald Trump as President—have left many of us more stressed than ever. According to the American Psychological Association, more than half of Americans say that the past election has been a "very or somewhat significant source of stress." And according to the Association for Psychological Science, research shows that repeated exposure to vivid traumatic images from media could lead to long-lasting negative consequences for mental and physical health. The effects are similar to those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. For one thing, such exposure can increase anxiety and fear.
Compounding that apprehension is often the belief that it isn't always safe to talk about what you're feeling—especially on the job or in your community.
The impact on your psyche is real, but you can limit the results by taking some intentional action. Here's your self-care plan to protect you from the nerve-racking effects of things beyond your control. You can reduce your angst and reclaim your joy this year.
STEP 1: ASSESS YOUR STRESS
Tension shows up differently for each of us. What bothers one woman may not upset another as dramatically. See how many of the following signals have appeared in your life in the last year:
- The news dominates your conversation with friends and family. You talk about it daily and feel frustrated, anxious or excited by it.
- You've argued with family members or good friends about current events, and even ended friendships or unfriended people because their viewpoints were so offensive.
- You've worried about dying, losing money or facing a catastrophe based on something you've heard or read in the news.
- You've lost sleep over issues related to world events, politics and social justice.
- You find yourself silently angry with people at work or in your community who don't share your perspective, or pondering what others' views might be.
- All of these are signs that current events are elevating your stress level. If any of these describe you, take the next steps to lower your anxiety and take charge of your emotional health.
STEP 2: TAKE NOTE OF YOUR MEDIA HABITS
After you've completed the first phase, evaluate how you consume media. How do you get your news? And more important, how often? Staying informed is wise, but saturating your mind with all the data can take a toll.
Think back to a recent detailed example of when you became particularly anxious about an event. How did you learn about it? When did you become most agitated about it? What made the problem worse? By asking yourself questions, you can begin to pinpoint the habits that are not serving you well. Pay attention.
While most people still get their news from television, about four in ten Americans now get theirs online, and 66 percent of Facebook users get theirs on the site, which equates to 44 percent of the general population, according to the Pew Research Center. Like my tip-off to the Alton Sterling case while relaxing under a hair dryer, reports today can reach us in unexpected moments. That is a decidedly different dynamic than even ten years ago, and if you don't manage it, you can't manage your stress.
The challenge with social media is that you are at the mercy of what your friends want to share or even rant about. The source might be biased. And their friends may post unsettling and upsetting comments that suck you into a discussion that, just 60 seconds earlier, had not even crossed your mind.
Perhaps social media is not your issue. Instead it's cable news running nonstop in the background at home or at the office, or news radio during your commute. A good self-care regimen means intentionally choosing your media sources and just how much you want to be tuned in to them on a daily basis.
If you spend a lot of time keeping up on the news, whether via 24-hour cable networks or by clicking from one article to the next on your social media feed, it may be time to shift your habits.
STEP 3: CLEAR YOUR MIND
A media fast, even for one day, can refocus your attention inward and on the world immediately around you—family, friends and coworkers. Anxiety typically indicates that we believe there is impending or potential danger. So if you've been feeling nervous and overwhelmed by current events, hit the reset button.
Instead of continuing to tune in, intentionally tune out. Replace the time with activities that feed your spirit: Go for a walk, catch up with a friend, play with your kids, take a nap. Do something that keeps your mind on important relationships, exercise or rest. All three can do wonders for you physically and mentally, and help you put into perspective the issues that make you anxious. If you don't have a lot of time, but feel yourself tensing up, simply breathe. Place your hand on your tummy and close your eyes.
Take a deep breath and focus your attention on the sensation of air moving through your mouth and into your lungs. Breathe in as much air as you can and then hold your breath for a few seconds before releasing.
STEP 4: SET NEW RULES
If you're stressed, then the rules you're playing by right now simply are not working. It's time to develop new ones. Here are a few to get you started:
- Choose a news source that delivers the facts and allows you to draw your own conclusions. Avoid outlets that are sensational, one-sided or contentious.
- Limit your consumption to a specific time. Keep it short by checking a summary on your smartphone app. Or perhaps you can catch the evening news before dinner or do it the old-fashioned way—read a newspaper at breakfast.
- Refuse to leave the news on as background while you work, cook or do chores around the house. Instead play uplifting music or turn to a channel that feeds your spirit.
- When a graphic viral video surfaces, you don't have to watch just because everyone seems to be doing so. You can read about it. Know that viewing real-life violence and trauma can have a long-term negative effect on your mental state.
- Seek out good news: At the end of each day, ask yourself, What was the best thing that happened today? And what am I looking forward to tomorrow?
STEP 5: FIND A HEALTHY SUPPORT GROUP
Isolation increases stress, especially if you have a tendency to "catastrophize." Catastrophizing is a psychological term meaning you imagine worst-case, irrational scenarios of everything that might go awry. And it's easier to do when you keep your strain to yourself.
Research suggests that the most resilient women reach out in trying times. Being strong means not going it alone. Identify a couple of friends you can talk to about what's bothering you. There's a good chance they have had some trials of their own. So chat. And vent. And remind each other of the importance of rest. Rather than rehash frustrations, ask, "What's within our control? What's not?" Change what's in your control and learn to surrender what is not.
Self-care is what keeps you healthy and whole, especially when the world around you seems uncertain and even dangerous. Practice it intentionally.
Valorie Burton is the founder of the Coaching and Positive Psychology (CaPP) Institute and author of Successful Women Speak Differently: 9 Habits That Build Confidence, Courage, and Influence (Harvest House Publishers). Get more life solutions at valorieburton.com.
This feature was originally published in the January 2017 Issue of ESSENCE.