When it feels like the world is becoming a scarier place, it’s easy to retreat into our shells, to want to lock the door and not come out. But combating despair at shocking events has to be an active choice which might require some magical outside-the-box thinking.
Experts have dubbed the pandemic a mental-health crisis for its role in amplifying anxiety. We were just steadying ourselves in a world post-Covid when war in Ukraine broke out, with its daily horrors flooding our social media feeds. When the unspeakable events in Uvalde unfolded, many of us were left struggling to cope with overwhelming feelings that the world is indeed becoming a more violent and dangerous place.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened at Robb Elementary School in Texas. I read every news report as events happened. By the time morning came and it was time to get the kids out to school, I crawled into bed beside my 10-year-old son and wrapped my arms around him, not able to shake the thought that there were parents in Texas who would never hold their child again, never take them to school or hear their voice again.
Life can change in an instant – we know that – but horrific events, like mass shootings, shake us to our core. It’s very hard not to wonder what all this awfulness is doing to our brains and our hearts. Does each horrific event leave us inured to future acts of violence or do we take comfort from the fact that we live in a relatively safe society?
There came a point when I had to switch off and stop scrolling. I know how to deal with my own anxiety. I’ve read about it, interviewed numerous experts on coping mechanisms and yet here I was flailing. The last decade has seen an explosion in the number of books and podcasts about minding your mental health as well as self-care articles, but in the grip of anxiety, many of us forget these things.
Just because normal life has resumed, it doesn’t mean that the residual effects of Covid-19 are not still being felt. I believe many of us have absorbed the low-level thrum of pandemic anxiety into our muscles and are still lugging it around with us. Constant busyness and not taking the time to slow down is ratcheting up these feelings of things being a bit out of our control.
Senior counselling psychologist, Dr Damien Lowry, says the deluge of bad news over the past few months means people need to have a sense of how much they are being affected by it and consider limiting their exposure to news content instead of doom-scrolling incessantly.
He suggests that people engage in some positive activities or to connect with what we have in our lives to be grateful for.
“We have to be careful about ruminating and to what end. If worry yields solutions to problems, that’s constructive. Worry that yields nothing but unhelpful distress only hijacks your happiness,” Dr Lowry warns.
Thinking about how we can refill our cup when life drains it is one way of actively combating the creeping dread and despair we sometimes feel. Knowing what replenishes us when we are emptied by a constant drip feed of negativity has never been more important.
Most of us know innately what to do to calm ourselves down. We have places we go or people we call on when life overwhelms us. It might be a cup of coffee with a friend, a night out or a walk in the woods – it looks different for all of us.
The best way I know how to make myself feel better is to go to the ocean and swim. As May gave way to June earlier this week, the azure of the Atlantic was like an invitation to take the plunge. For whatever reason, my own insignificance in a giant ocean is an instant mood changer. Problems seem smaller in the vastness all around.
The ebb and flow of the tide, the heat of the sun and the promise of summer are gifts I feel immensely grateful for in a topsy-turvy world. This week, as the water temperature flicked a switch from spirit-shocking to pleasant, I was reminded that being in this open space is its own liquid therapy for the soul.
In the ancient poem Summer, translated by Seamus Heaney, we’re reminded how glorious nature is at this time of year: “Early summer, loveliest season, World is being coloured in.”
It’s a simple thing but by stepping outside, perhaps we can let the light back in and scare off the dark.