A cup of fresh-brewed coffee in hand, you open the laptop to begin your day, but as soon as you see the headline, your heart sinks. Something horrible has happened — again.
Click the picture. Skim for details. It’s too early to know much.
Google it, look at three more news reports.
Your stomach flip-flops. The few available details get stuck in your throat.
You say a prayer for those involved, and for their loved ones.
As you try to work, your mind floats back to the story. How did this happen? How many are affected?
Along with the rest of the world, you spend the next several weeks embroiled in the tragedy. It invades your sleep. And the what-ifs make you shudder at everyday moments with loved ones
This is how I’ve reacted to horrific events in the past, as well. Terrorist attacks. Natural disasters. Tragic accidents.
We feel compelled to be present for each news report, each discovery, each memorial broadcast, because these are our neighbors and we care about them, no matter how far away they live (Luke 10:25-37).
It’s our duty to be upset, to live this crisis with the victims, their families, and their friends.
The problem with caring
Life continues as normal in your household, because kids and work and laundry happen regardless of the latest disaster. But the horror and sadness of it lurk in the ordinary moments.
And whether we realize it or not, it’s taking a toll on us.
You see, our bodies are wonderfully made to react automatically in dangerous situations (Psalm 139:14).
When we see a bear, we don’t have to ponder what we should do. Our bodies instantaneously prepare for our next steps: either fight off the bear or escape.
Among other things, this fight-or-flight response releases stress hormones, which supply the energy to act quickly.
It’s a perfect design!
But the world has changed.
The 24-Hour News Cycle
Before the advent of mass communication, the only dangers we faced were imminent threats to our own personal safety: the tiger lurking outside the cave, the fire on the horizon.
Now an abundance of frightening images of events we were never designed to experience bombard our nervous systems.
A deadly accident a thousand miles away is no less tragic than one that occurs in your own town. But it becomes too much for our nervous systems to handle. (And if you’re one of the 15 to 20% of individuals considered a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), the trauma to your body is even worse.)
Like you, I want to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), and I want to lend assistance where I can. But news reports leave me emotionally exhausted. Nightmares interrupted my sleep. Consequently, my loved ones experience a less joyful and more anxious wife, mother, and friend, whose body is filled with stress hormones.
When I’m consumed by catastrophe, I don’t have the emotional capacity to care for the people God put directly in my path. And I certainly don’t have reserves to help the victims of the tragedy.
How To Help Others Without Harming Ourselves
So, how do we buffer ourselves from these events without feeling like we’re bad Christians? How can we learn to provide help, but still protect our health?
1. Recognize your restrictions
In a long-distance tragedy, stress hormones course through your system. Your body gears up, but there’s nothing to fight and nowhere to flee. You’re left with a sense of danger, but no real means of combating it.
Being aware of your body’s limitations is the first step in both caring for yourself and more effectively caring for others.
2. Decrease the details
Watching the continuous news coverage hoping to glean a new piece of information increases the severity of your body’s fight-or-flight stress response.
So turn off the news channels, avoid headlines, and avert your eyes when information scrolls across your Facebook feed. If there is information you need to know, you will be informed. It’s impossible not to be in this day and age.
3. Control the conversation
When we’re frightened about world events, we have a biological desire to connect with others, which is often expressed by sharing information and commiserating about the tragedy, which sends a fresh batch of stress hormones coursing through our bodies.
But there’s another way to connect. Ephesians 4:29 tells us to “let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Guiding the conversation away from fears and toward blessings strengthens others as much as it rejuvenates us.
4. Lean on the LORD
Our Heavenly Father, Jehovah, promises that He will keep in perfect peace all whose thoughts are fixed on Him (Isaiah 26:3). How do we keep our thoughts fixed on Him? By prayerfully presenting our concerns to God and praising Him for all He’s already doing (Philippians 4:6).
Fortunately, we need to know very few details to pray on behalf of the victims, because the Holy Spirit helps us (Romans 8:26).
A Different Response
Since I’ve been applying these tips, I have a different reaction to world events. Let me show you:
A cup of fresh-brewed tea in hand, I open my laptop to begin the day. But as soon as I see the headline, my heart sinks.
What happened? My hand hovers over the photo but stops before pressing the key.
I say a prayer for those involved, and for their loved ones. I return to preparing tomorrow’s psychology lecture.
A full hour passes before I glimpse a headline highlighting the details of the event. I log out of my browser and gather a load of dirty laundry.
I still don’t know the details.
I can’t help but notice headlines when I access my Yahoo account. My Facebook feed fills up with posts and hashtag-prayfors. Without reading any of the articles, I am aware of the basic situation: terrible tragedy, many dead or injured. I pray as requested.
I don’t know all of the specifics. Chances are, I never will.
But knowing the details doesn’t uplift others, it just undermines my own well-being.
Over the next few days, the news footage plays continuously, but I’ll see little of it.
Likewise, I’ll avoid blog posts and Facebook notices that feature the event. I may even unfollow a few friends temporarily. (I’m sure you’ll understand.)
It feels strange sometimes. Something big and horrible has happened — may still be happening — and I don’t know all the details.
But I am so much calmer and more peaceful when I keep in mind how God made me, and trust in Him alone.