I hereby give you permission to limit or eliminate your social media and news engagement.
Yes, you, social activist of color. Even you.
Many of my recent clients have asked about how to protect themselves from the overwhelming emotions and despair it takes to remain engaged and aware of current events. It’s clearly on our minds. On the one hand, how can we consider burying our heads in the sand, purposefully unaware of what's going on in the world? On the other hand, how do we keep our minds healthy, brains and bodies at a manageable level of stress, and our morale up to continue the work?
We can't hold both.
As a therapist, my perspective is that you need to prioritize your mental health and well-being above absorbing every last bit of the chaos. And I say this because of the way our brains and bodies react to stress. I want to take a minute to talk about the neurology of stress and trauma in what I hope is a simple and accessible way.
The first parts of our brains to "turn on" is the brain stem, down by the base of your neck that connects the spine to your brain. This part takes in information from the outside world through your senses, and controls your involuntary body functions (breathing, blood circulation, digestion, etc.).
The next part of the brain to develop is the mid-brain, which is where we experience feelings and emotions. This part also includes the lymbic system and the amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain.
The last part to come online is the top and front, the thinking part of our brain, including the pre-frontal cortex. This part is not fully developed until we're in our mid-20s.
When all parts of the brain are properly functioning and working together, we can take information in through the outside world through our senses, react with emotions and assess for danger, and reflect with our problem-solving thinking brain. We can synthesize what's coming from the outside, what we know from memories and knowledge on the inside, and make good decisions about how to proceed.
When you introduce outside stress, like everything we take in through social media and through particularly rough news cycles, the stress impacts our bodies and brains.
Visual media is taken in through our phones, computers, and TV. We hear people talking about it, our stomachs churn, our pulse starts to quicken, we get hot, and our breathing gets shallow. Stress emotions begin to come forward - fear, anger, dread. Our involuntary processes produce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which begin to flood our bodies and brains. When our brains are flooded with chemicals, that thinking/problem solving part of our brains becomes disconnected from the mid-brain and brain stem, and we can't think properly. Emotions are high, we're reactive, but we literally don't have access to the parts of our brains that can compare the outsides with the insides and make a more complex assessment and decision about what to do.
Normally it just takes some time and self-soothing to get the chemicals to drain out of our brains and bodies and come back to a relaxed place where our thinking brains reconnect with the emotional and body centers. But people who have been exposed to repeated stress have a harder time getting calm and balanced again.
This is why I say it's ok to take a break and disconnect. To give yourself time for your brain to rest after stress, and come back into alignment.
For me, a helpful social media choice was to get off Facebook and stay informed through Twitter. Because if I'm going to hear all this outrageous, overwhelming stuff, I want to see the perpetrators get dragged in the same breath. Here are some other options:
Choose your sources carefully. Are there particular people, platforms, or sources that are especially triggering? Block them. Maybe for a short time, maybe forever. Are there those which you can trust to share the information you're looking for in a less sensational way? Maybe just follow them for a while. It's ok to curate your input.
Set some boundaries around engagement. Begin to notice... when are the times you're better able to handle the barrage of stories? Is it first thing in the morning? On a break at work where you'll be able to focus on something else right after? Does engaging at night negatively impact your sleep? How much time are you spending in reading/listening to it? Who are you talking to about it, and how do you feel afterward? Some people's perspectives can leave you feeling more powerless, others may focus on calls to action - how does each make you feel? Then find ways that limit what makes you feel worse, while staying close to what makes you feel a bit better and more in control.
Limit engagement to times when you're at your best. If you're already stressed and then you turn to social media to find out what happened today, that's often going to make you more stressed. What if you waited to open it up until after you've had some quiet time and a meal? What if you use the car or bus ride home to relax with music and wind down before you read the news? What if you get into the bathtub with some nice bubbles and essential oils and candles before you engage? There are a number of small ways to make sure you're the most balanced and receptive before you dive in.
Take care of yourself and each other. Acts of care are huge when the world is exploding. You are allowed to step away completely at times, and to guide conversations and engagement with loved ones into a place that prioritizes your own peace.
Think about harm reduction. It's not realistic to disconnect completely, I get it. But if you want to live to fight another day, you need to respect the way your brain and body handle stress, give yourself a break, and be compassionate for yourself and others. This is giving yourself the best possible chance to be effective in resistance.