If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time consuming the news. You check news sources first thing in the morning, the last thing before bed, and periodically throughout the day. Perhaps you’ve always been inclined to consume news frequently, but 2020 has ramped up your habit.
These days, you may notice that you are living in a nearly constant state of emotional arousal, largely caused by excessive news consumption. Even if you are relatively safe and secure during these turbulent times, you may feel regularly anxious, angry, sad, and judgmental. Often these unpleasant, but manageable emotions are heightened to less manageable fear, fury, grief, and outrage.
You may also notice that you are not only living on an emotional roller coaster but also on an attentional roller coaster. In the morning, you may be attending to politics and the serious threats to democracy. By afternoon, you may be focused on climate change-induced catastrophes such as frequent hurricanes in the South and unprecedented fires in the West. By evening, you may be consumed by thoughts about the spread of COVID-19 and the potential increase in cases as winter approaches. As you lay in bed, perhaps you’re thinking about the killings of unarmed Black people, the emboldening of white nationalists, and the clashes in the streets that feel like the beginnings of another civil war. Then maybe you have nightmares about the recession or growing conspiracy theories that are ensnaring friends or family.
It’s all too much, but you can’t turn away from the news. You’re overwhelmed, but you also feel a responsibility to engage by being active in the political sphere through volunteering; involved in efforts to ensure the rights of BIPOC; generous with donations to the degree you can be; cautious about the coronavirus without feeling panicked or constantly judging others. You’re going non-stop—physically, mentally, and emotionally—and you can’t seem to ground yourself enough to make proactive, positive choices for yourself or the world.
Both for yourself and others, you need equanimity.
Equanimity is defined as mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in difficult situations. We can’t help ourselves, our family, our communities, or the world when we are out of balance and operating in the fight, flight, or freeze mode. Equanimity creates some spaciousness, perspective, and peace in our lives, but it doesn’t just happen on its own, at least not for most of us.
How can you find equanimity when the news bombards you with one crisis after another? How can you ensure that you have the emotional stamina to participate actively as a citizen? How can you best use your time to make a difference while staying mentally healthy and balanced?
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Here are four suggestions:
1. Create and stick to a news diet. If you have become a news junkie, it’s time to break your addiction. Determine the amount of time necessary to acquire the information that will allow you to be a knowledgeable, effective, and relatively upbeat citizen. Remember: If news-overload causes you to sink into despair and/or issue doomsday pronouncements, you will defeat your purpose of creating a better future for yourself and others.
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2. Restore yourself. While the call to take care of oneself can sometimes become an excuse to disengage from active citizenship, if you burn out, you will be of little use to anyone. Determine what most restores you — talking with a friend or relative who understands you, sitting in the sun and soaking up some warmth, reading something inspiring instead of the news, meditating, spending time in nature, exercising, enjoying art, film, or music and/or expressing yourself artistically — and schedule time each week to devote to your restorative practice. Remember: This time is meant to enable you to better take care of yourself and your family and contribute as a citizen; it’s not only an end in itself but also a critical means to being fully alive and participatory.
3. Choose the right forms of citizenship & activism. Determine your focus wisely based on what you consider to be the most pressing and root issues. Then choose your participation wisely as well. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? Choosing the right mode of action can be the difference between feeling energized, enthusiastic, and even joyful as you witness the positive effects of your actions, or feeling burdened by “shoulds” and “musts” that leave you exhausted and frustrated, especially if you are less than effective. Remember: You cannot solve all the problems we are facing right now, but you can make a difference.
4. Envision and plan for a positive future. When faced with one crisis after another, we naturally fall into survival mode, so it’s important to consciously imagine a better future and to keep the big picture in mind. Envision a future in which people and nature are able to thrive. Then ask yourself: What are the keys to building such a future? What systems need to change? Where and how can I participate, using my talents and skills? How can I avoid being simply reactive and instead become a responsive solutionary? Remember: While 2020 has been a year of not just periodic catastrophes or even weekly upheavals but daily shocks, that doesn’t mean 2020 represents our inevitable future, so focus on actively creating the future you want. The good news is that the actions you take to create such a future will help you stay balanced.
Equanimity may seem like a far-fetched goal in such turbulent times, but without equanimity, we are in a boat without a rudder, unable to steer and subject to the ever-changing, often gale-force winds. When we are able to follow these four steps, we not only protect our psyches, we also take some control over our responses to the chaos around us, so that we may lead lives of greater purpose, meaning, and effectiveness.