I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been reading the news for our Big Gay News podcast for a while now, just recently transitioning from twice a week to do it for every episode, five days a week. It’s a very interesting exercise, both as a professional and a citizen of our country and world. Linda Raines, my coworker, compiles the stories and I read them into a microphone, sometimes cold, not having seen them before speaking the words. I’m supposed to read the news fairly quickly and without emotion or editorializing with vocal inflection. My job is not to be sassy or judgmental, it is to convey the information. A few times recently, I’ve been caught off guard by both the beauty and the atrocity of the news that I’m reading. Both swells of pride and absolute shock at how ugly our humanity is can cause me to choke up, gather myself, and re-record the segment. I haven’t trained for this; it’s pretty much on-the-job training as I go…and as I teach myself. I’m also teaching myself more about the world every day. Through Big Gay News and via so many other sources, I read so much more than I ever have, like I mentioned at the end of 2016. I am overwhelmed by learning as fast as I can and by processing my emotions on the fly at a rapid-fire pace. And this is taking a toll.
In an issue that’s all about health — restaurants, dealing with the death of a partner, orthodontics, and HIV/AIDS meds — the topic of mental health and how to cope with the barrage of news and social media is appropriate. I know I’m not alone in wondering how to handle our current events. But I also know that I have been training for times like these, psychologically, and am better prepared to cope with them than I was to take over our podcast, which is clipping along swimmingly. So, let me share some of what I’ve learned over the years, most of which has to do with dialectics, when two or more ideas are conflicting and we have to figure out how to operate despite their existence. Sound familiar? On so many levels. And, hey, I already paid the copays and premiums for this information. It’s all yours to do with what you will.
The first idea I have to remember before stepping foot into coping with the conflicting ideas around me is that there are things I can control and things I can’t. This is a foundation for programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and The Serenity Prayer as well as just a plain old way of fact-checking our worlds. Because, when we make sense of our worlds with a one-two punch of thoughts and feelings, we often need to step back and ask, “But is that true?” and “Can I control that?” before proceeding with processing what’s happening. And, we know it’s true that we don’t have control over a great many things, so focusing on what we do have control over is key for our health.
Reading as much as I do is one way of having control over things. If there is something that has happened and I start reacting to it, I know that the more I can learn about it, the better I will feel, even if I can’t do anything about the original situation. My second tip for coping with news is to find reputable sources for the information. I used to look at some of the sources being shared out there, and I’d shake my head that people who don’t share my views would fall victim to such shoddy writing and reporting…but then I realized that many of the sources that fall into my own points of view also manipulate me with wonky ways of presenting information. I have found that the closer I stay to reading the sources that mostly report the happenings instead of editorializing on them, the more peace I have in my mind and heart. Because, when the sources go into opinion and clickbait to get people to read, they are often needlessly sensational and more doomsday than fact-checking would support.
It’s like talking to two people who have different versions of a car crash and not being able to suss out the actual truth of the matter, so I look to the smashed vehicles to tell me the story. Thankfully, there are sources out there that give us simply the information about the crash, the condition of the cars, the situation before the crash, and other context, even including statements from the two drivers. But, when a source leads with the opinion of a driver or an onlooker, and only sticks to that story, is when we all need to look further to supplement that opinion with the actual facts presented. Lord knows, I love an opinion that matches mine and I wouldn’t mind if it were the only side of the story presented. But, we all know that there’s more than one side to every story, and the more we can understand about the situation, the better informed we will be. Then, the better informed we are, the more equipped we’ll be for coping with the bigger picture.
But what happens when we are overwhelmed with information and opinions and stories and news? The third tip I’ll put forth is to reclaim your mindfulness. Mindfulness is being grounded in your present moment, under your current circumstances, thinking and feeling what is happening right now, to you. Not in the future, not in another country, not in the chambers of congress, not in a march. Right now, I am sitting in my green chair and typing this piece. I am putting my thoughts and feelings into my fingers and the keyboard and seeing them appear on the screen. My dog, Grendel, is snoozing on the couch waiting to cuddle, and my coffee is cooling down. I am privileged in my safety and comfort. My apartment is secure, my lap blanket is soft, and my muscles are tense, so I could probably calm down a moment or two. This is my greatest challenge, being mindful. It’s hard to slow myself down and just acknowledge that, though I am worried and angry and reading everything I can get into all the tabs open on my screen, I also need to take the dog for a walk soon. Dialectically, my goals for saving the world have to be balanced with living my life. So, how do I do that?
Mindfulness is a broad, broad topic, and I recommend looking up mindfulness techniques. Some things work for some people but don’t for others. There are times when imagining I’m a leaf on a river, floating along and being in control of nothing works very well, but there are times when I just need to squeeze my fists as hard as I can to remind myself that I have strength and power, but when I unclench my fists I am also reminded that I also need release and rest, and that it can feel good. I am a big fan of finding — and making time for — self-soothing exercises. What do I like to do that will keep me from coping in unhealthy ways? I like curling up with Grendel and binge-watching shows on Netflix, keeping my screens away from me so I’m not distracted by news. I cook and listen to audiobooks because I can’t be preoccupied by news and current events while stories are filling my ears and I’m wielding a sharp knife. Or, something I never knew about until recently but is one of my favorite concepts, I can put the worry aside until later. Because, no, it doesn’t serve me to deny the fact that I’m worrying so much lately, but I can tell myself, “You know what? You’re working right now. Why don’t you worry about this later, after you’ve written this story?” Some people actually set aside some time in their day to go over their worries. I haven’t quite gotten my life structured in such a way as to schedule in the worry, but I think it can be a great way of handling our world today.
Lastly, we are humans who are operating at a high level of activation lately. That means that many of us are toward the top end of our personal zones of what we can tolerate, in terms of our thoughts and emotions. When we know that we are on edge, easily reactionary and upset, or even likely to go the other way and just shut down, we need to disengage for a little while. When we are activated, triggers can be big and little…but they can send us reeling into a space where we might become even more stressed or fall into despair. So, as a fourth bit of advice, I encourage you to look at yourself and try to sense where your window of tolerance is and try to stay within it. Because when we keep doing what we know isn’t doing us any favors by pushing our boundaries, it turns into that we’re literally causing our own struggle to continue.
If you find that you are inundated with what your social media is shouting at you, turn it off for a while. If the TV is becoming too much to pay attention to, limit your viewing. If your personal relationships tend to churn through politics a bit too much, change the subject once in a while. And, as much as I’m giving this advice to you, I’m giving it to myself. I need to balance out bad news with good news. I need to find ways I can help. I need to smile more. Sing more. Cuddle more. Those ideas help me, rather than leave me in a perpetually defensive stance. Let me validate you and that our concerns are real, no matter if we’re talking about the news of the political world or the news of our private lives; your head and your heart are always trying to make sense of things. And the better prepared you are to take care of yourself as you figure things out, the better your outcome will be.
I won’t diminish how things might feel right now to many people. I will say that we have plenty of control over many things, including how we react to what’s happening in our world in big and small ways. No army can fight on an empty stomach, but neither can we stand strong if we are mentally exhausted and psychologically beyond our limits.
As another method of mindfulness, I give thanks. I recognize the beauty in this community. The resilience, the courage, the perspectives, the strength, the solidarity, and all the other aspects that have made this community into what it is: a successful force that will not be silenced.
With you, with love, and with thanks,