I’ve been noticing lately how the news media delivers us tragedy, cruelty, and horror seemingly nonstop. I’ve noticed that the “Breaking News” banner across television newscasts, which used to be reserved for the really “big” stuff, has now become a fixture. It’s all “breaking news” all the time. And the content is beyond our comprehension: pandemic death, mass shootings, climate apocalypse, racism, loss of civil discourse, and threats to our democracy. Yes, it’s bad. Not only is there more suffering and tragedy in the world than there used to be, but our immediate connectivity brings it to our attention instantly. We’re just not designed to cope with this. What can we do?
This is Your Brain on Non-Stop Tragedy
How do we stay centered (and useful in the world) in the face of these 24/7 media crises? How can we respond when we are appalled by a recent event or headline? No one wants to become “numb” or stop caring about the suffering of others. But we can reach a point where we have to take care of our own well-being just to keep functioning. A steady diet of horror and pain is impossible to process and not good for us. On this kind of “diet” it’s impossible to function, much less help others. One thing I try to remember in those moments when the news media is getting me down is that as human beings we have what’s known as a “negativity bias”. This is our natural tendency to focus, fixate, and dwell on the negative (much more so than the positive). Why is this so?
Our negativity bias is a survival mechanism we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. We come pre-wired with it. The primitive part of our brain that constantly scans for “threats” to our survival is known as the “amygdala”. That’s the part that causes us to automatically and instantaneously react to perceived threats. It triggers the physiological “Fight or Flight” response, causes the release of powerful stress hormones, and generates intense emotions like anger and/or fear. The amygdala is concerned with our survival rather than the quality of our life. Consider our prehistoric ancestors. They had to spend a good deal of time thinking about and remembering things in their environment that posed a danger to them. If they didn’t, they didn’t survive. So in this sense the amygdala ensured the survival of the human species. And those that survived passed their DNA on to us. And while we live in a much safer world than did our prehistoric ancestors, the amygdala functions just like it did for our cave-dwelling predecessors. We still have that tendency to focus and fixate on the negative. It’s the root of much of our stress and I can’t help but believe that the news media are tapping into this primitive human tendency that we all have to be drawn to, and captured by, the negative.
How Can We Take Care of Ourselves?
So the question becomes, given that we’re wired to be drawn toward the negative, and the media constantly serves us a steady diet of the world’s unfathomable suffering, what can we do? One of the first things we can do is to come to terms with the fact that most things in the world are not in our control. This is a hard one. Of course each of us does what we can and should, through good works, acts of kindness, volunteerism, activism, and charitable donations to alleviate suffering in the world. But as much as we would like, we can’t eliminate it all, or even most of it. So, do what you can, but don’t think you can do it all.
Watch Your Media Diet
Pay attention to the content of the news and how often it is repeated. Heed the warnings of impending horrific images. Just say no. Protect yourself! Remember, we can always turn off the TV. We should do it more often. Whatever happened to spending quiet evenings with something good to read? And, speaking from my own experience, watch your diet of social media! We are now learning just how really bad these platforms are for our wellbeing. When you first wake up in the morning are you reaching for the Twitter app on your phone with the latest overnight outrage, or are you starting your day off with something nourishing for your mind?
Have a Personal Sanctuary for Quiet Contemplation
It’s up to us to balance our need to know the affairs of the world, doing what we can to help, and protecting our own inner landscape. Have a place in your home where you can go, not only to escape the television (and other assorted beeping, buzzing devices) but also to actively cultivate your own well-being through personal practices like meditation, prayer, and contemplation. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?
The ancient word for this meditation practice is “metta” which can be translated into “unconditional friendliness” or “loving kindness”. We can’t control the world, but with this deeply healing practice we can open our hearts to ourselves and each other. In fact, maybe that’s the most skillful course of action we can take right now.
The more you do this practice, the more available the experience of loving kindness becomes to you in your daily life. This is where positive, healthy change can happen - in your world, and the world at large:
Set aside the time and place for your daily meditation refuge.
Sit comfortably, connect with your breath, and place one or both hands on your heart.
As you feel the rise and fall of your breath, direct your attention to your heart as you think of someone you love and care for, and who has also cared for you (it could be a person, a beloved pet, or even a special teacher or mentor).
Take a few moments to really bring as much detail to mind as you can about this person or being. As you do so, notice the experience in your body, especially in your heart center.
Imagine what you are feeling inside is a white light, filled with warmth, love, kindness, well wishes, and compassion. As you breathe, you might imagine the white light growing brighter with each breath.
Begin to direct that beam of light to yourself. Allow yourself to be filled with the feeling of unconditional love and kindness already inside you.
Begin to say these phrases silently to yourself. Really let yourself feel the meaning of the words as you say them:
May I be safe.
May I be well.
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.
Even if you feel some resistance to this practice of wishing yourself well, see if you can soften around that resistance as you continue feel the warmth of your hand on your heart. Continue to repeat the phrases. You are cultivating a powerful internal experience as you repeat the phrases and feel their meaning, much like blowing on glowing embers to really get a fire going. Give yourself some time.
You can then direct these well wishes toward friends and loved ones using the phrases “May you be safe, well, happy, peaceful, etc.” Then you might include someone you don’t even know well or even at all: the mail carrier, the bank teller, the grocery store cashier. Direct your well wishes toward them, repeating the phrases. You can experiment with sending loving-kindness toward someone who is challenging in your life (someone for whom it may be difficult to feel kindness toward). Finally direct your practice toward all beings in the world, letting loving kindness radiate out from your heart to the entire universe:
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be peaceful and live with ease.
Rx: Repeat often. 💕
Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe. Register for her free webinar Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.
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