Every so often, a study crops up to tell us that reading the news can be bad for our mental health. Our constant media monitoring makes us anxious, fearful and worried about the state of the world and our place in it. Research has shown that this dip in mood can exacerbate our own personal worries – even if they have nothing to do with what’s being reported. It’s only natural, then, that when faced with an onslaught of horrifying news like we’ve experienced in recent weeks, some people retreat, close off from the scary outside world with all the negative headlines and make their own world slightly smaller.
It’s a completely normal reaction to stories that feel unfathomable, inhumane and too far away to help with. I was a news editor until recently and even I found that the near-constant deluge of terrible news headlines made me instinctively want to shut the door to my flat at the end of the day and ignore the outside world if at all possible. And it’s not just the terrible headlines we see that can make us feel hopeless – much of what happens in our day-to-day lives can be enough to make us turn inwards and refuse to look towards what’s going on in the rest of the world. Life is often frantic, expensive, difficult and exhausting. But while it’s a natural instinct to be overwhelmed and feel a desire to hide away, it’s also bad for you in the long run. Sure, one day spent dismayed at the state of the world is allowed, but the more that fear makes you retreat, the more you find yourself locked in a prison of your own making.
Having lived with anxiety since I was a very small child, my first and strongest coping mechanism when something scared me (and nearly everything scared me) was to make my world a bit smaller – to say no to an event or an experience, and to resist anything that might be new and involve risk. I thought that, by doing this, I would keep myself safe and calm, even if the rest of the world was a mad and uncertain place.
More has changed for me in this one year than in the past decade. The world still seems scary and overwhelming a lot of the time, but I try to do practical things to help other people instead of wringing my hands
I kept on with this approach for nigh on 16 years of my life. But I eventually realised that I’d only made myself even more anxious. By reinforcing my initial fears that the world was a dangerous and hostile place, I’d only cemented them. My brain told me that I should be scared of new experiences, new places, new people and my body reacted with the typical physical symptoms of anxiety – sweat, shakes, shortness of breath and adrenaline. A vicious loop was formed and it’s one that is incredibly hard to break.
But there is a way out of it. And that is to throw the doors open and let the light in. In less vague terms, you have to stop saying no and start saying yes. When I realised I’d boxed myself in with my fears and only ended up more terrified of the world, I decided that I’d confront them head on instead and see what that did.
I began to say yes to invites and new experiences. In an amateur attempt at exposure therapy, I started to do things I’d shied away from – going on the Tube, walking through crowds, visiting new places alone. And, as I got out into the world again, I found that my fears were never justified. They’d been hiding behind a curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, amplified by a megaphone I’d handed them. Once I knew this, they didn’t loom so large and the world didn’t seem so dark, so harsh, so unwelcoming.
In the past year, since I decided to stop looking for reasons NOT to do something, I’ve found out just how much I’d been missing. I ended up moving in with my boyfriend, travelling all over, quitting my big job, writing a book, selling my flat and buying a new place with said boyfriend, along with deciding to get married (I didn’t get to say yes to that one since I proposed), and it’s all been scary, but more importantly, brilliant. More has changed for me in this one year than in the past decade. The world still seems scary and overwhelming a lot of the time, but I try to do practical things to help other people instead of wringing my hands and imagining that I can’t make a difference. Because fear serves to disconnect us from other people, and difficult and negative news often makes us passive when instead we should see it as a kick up the backside – to be more involved, not less.
The decision to just start saying yes instead of no has been the most freeing and positive one of my life. I don’t want to feel helpless and out of control. I want to be engaged, to embrace experiences and also able to offer tangible help when I can. Retreating only shuts us all away, when what we need to do most right now is turn toward each other.
Sali Hughes is away