SRU professors offer coping measures to manage news anxiety

man with anxiety sits in front of laptop

July 25, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Civil unrest. Terrorism. Economic and political upheaval. No matter where you turn, it seems as though bad news is washing over us in waves and with that, growing fears and unease.

While we can't control the violence or the factors that lead to such outbursts, Slippery Rock University psychology and counseling professors say coping strategies can help many of us manage the anxiety created by the news of the day.

Christopher Niebauer

   NIEBAUER

"There are many things a person can due to reduce the stress created by the days events," said Christopher Niebauer, associate professor of psychology. "Limiting exposure to media coverage of tragedies, practicing meditation, exercising and trying not to categorize people in an 'us and them' manner because doing that only fuels the potential for conflict and anxiety."

Niebauer said people should also work on accepting that anxiety is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing from a psychological perspective. Accepting that anxiety is normal diminishes the severity of it, while ruminating on fears only makes them worse, like an insomniac who worries about going to sleep.

"Most things in the mind are paradoxical," Niebauer said. "If you keep thinking, 'I need to do something to relax,' that can create more anxiety. The better approach is to practice mental acceptance and follow it up with something that takes your mind off of your fears."

Recent shooting deaths of police officers in Baltimore, Dallas and Louisiana along with gun violence against black citizens by white officers has raised concerns across the nation and become a hot topic along the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

Don Strano, professor of counseling and development, said those situations have made a lot of people uneasy, especially those with a connection to law enforcement. "Knowing people who have police officers in their families, they're really kind of scared and anxious for their loved ones. Not knowing what can happen on any given day is unnerving."

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 47 percent of Americans are somewhat or very concerned that they or someone in their family will be victim of violence, up from 33 percent in 2014. Two out of three Americans consider mass shootings a critical issue of concern, while another 27 percent consider it an important concern.

"We all have elevated levels of anxiety compared to a couple generations ago," Niebauer said.

Even though fear is an innate human trait, it is worsened by spending too much time monitoring television and social media coverage of such incidents, which can lead to negative thoughts, Niebauer said.

If you begin your day with a cup of coffee, social media and TV news, that will escalate your nervous system and trigger the so-called "fight-or-flight response" that is hardwired in the human brain as part of the survival instinct, said Niebauer.

"The fight-or-flight brain hasn't changed in 100,000 years," he said. "In the not-so- distant past, we fought or ran. Now you're just sitting in a chair and it's a tough way to deal with cultural changes."

Meditation is one way people can help themselves achieve tranquility. "Research has shown eight weeks of meditation practice can help people greatly reduce stress and anxiety," said Niebauer who practices Tia Chi, a form of movement meditation. Other effective activities in getting the flight-or-flight chemicals out of the system include yoga, walks through the woods, running, reading or a hobby that enables you to focus on the task in the moment.

Still, Niebauer said, it is important not to turn to these activities only when you feel stressed out. "That is the wrong approach," he said. "Instead, people should incorporate them as a permanent lifestyle change that will help promote serenity.

"For 15 years, I did meditation in the 'wrong' way. I would feel anxious and I thought I needed to fix my anxiety with meditation. Our culture is on this massive quest for self-improvement and the more we try to better ourselves with a quick fix, the more it backfires."

Niebauer said it can be a struggle for humans to accept people and cultures they don't understand. "Our culture tends to emphasize left-brain thinking, which wants to categorize everything," he said.

The left side of your brain controls creativity, the right side is where you get consciousness. "The left side of your brain uses language and emphasizes differences in the world, where the right side, because it does not use categories, focuses on connections," he said.

Niebauer said meditation brings a different sort of consciousness to the world rather than left-brain thinking and the hope that people can live in greater harmony.

"The Dalai Lama once said 'If every 8 year old is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation,'" Niebauer said.

Renee Bateman, health promotion coordinator at SRU's Student Health Center, said straightforward tips for anxiety management include deep breathing meditation, mindfulness practice and implementing a plan for relaxation time.

Don Strano

   STRANO

Strano said anxiety sufferers should learn breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to quell attacks and work on long-term education for preventing future flare ups. Alcohol and overeating do not provide answers because the person often feels even worse after indulging, he said.

"If you feel anxious, think about what kind of things you do when you feel calm and relaxed," he said. "In terms of imagery, think pleasant thoughts. Think about playing with the dog, hiking in the woods or a favorite fishing spot."

Strano said suffers should not wait until an anxiety emergency to seek professional help, he said nervousness to the point that it disrupts your ability to keep up with day-to-day tasks indicates a clinical problem.

"It doesn't need to be so severe that you're hiding in the basement," he said. "If you start to see that anxiety is interfering with your social life, your family relationships and your ability to keep up with daily task such as grocery shopping, it would be useful to go and see a counselor."

An analogy for recognizing clinical anxiety is like someone who is terrified of flying. Nervous flyers imagine the plane going down or some other calamity happening in flight. While it's normal to feel anxiety when mass shootings occur, it's a problem if people convince themselves a tragedy will happen to them any day.

"It makes perfect sense when you see news of some horrible event to think, 'That's terrible and I hope it never happens to me or someone in my family,'" Strano said. "That's a normal response. But if I get so nervous and scared that physical symptoms develop and it starts to affect my performance of life tasks, that is going beyond what is reasonable."

MEDIA CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine | 724.738.4854 | gordon.ovenshine@sru.edu