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Illustration by Callum Abbott

How to navigate distressing content on social media

The news and social media feeds are currently filled with violence, extreme suffering and death. We asked experts for advice on staying informed while also taking care of ourselves

If you have found yourself crying more than usual over the last month, you are not alone. For many of us, tears have come in response to seeing violence inflicted on children, or while watching a press conference surrounded by dead bodies piled up outside of a hospital. Many of us have felt overwhelmed and anxious to a debilitating level; all-consumed by the constant stream of violence playing in the background of our comparatively safe, privileged lives. We are simply not equipped to handle the sheer volume of violence and suffering we are seeing through our phones, and the majority of us don’t know how to respond to this kind of trauma.

Of course war, violence and death are nothing new, but what is new is the 24/7 access to live, up-close footage of conflicts; the technology that feeds us videos of extreme suffering and then, three seconds later, photos of people’s brunches and OOTDs. The juxtaposition of our everyday lives happening as normal, as we see constant videos of injured bodies and dead children is an experience unique to today and it’s important we try to find ways to cope. How do we stay engaged, keep informed and speak up, while also protecting our wellbeing? It can feel selfish to prioritise and protect your own mental health in the context of what is happening to others, but it’s important to look after ourselves. We spoke to some experts to get some advice on how best to do this.


“So many of us are watching the terrifying things happening in Israel and Palestine, and we may be left feeling incredibly triggered and fearful. This might impact our sleep, our mood, our eating habits and our sense of hopefulness, especially when we have witnessed so much of the terror happening via the news or conversations,” says Tasha Bailey, author, content creator and psychotherapist.

“The first thing to do when you feel triggered is to take a moment to pause and reconnect with your body. When we are triggered or traumatised, it often means that our nervous system has been set off to be in fight or flight (anger or avoidance), or in a state of numbness,” Bailey says. “We have become so overwhelmed by what we’ve seen that we go into these survival modes, which aren’t good for us in the long term. So find a way to connect with your body, either through stretching, physical exercise or safe touch.”


Dr Lara Wolfers, an expert whose research focuses on how people use media to cope with stress, says it’s important to limit exposure where possible. “Constantly looking for updates on global issues is likely not good for your mental health. Thus, one can limit exposure to certain times of the day – maybe in the evening before dinner or in the morning before going to work can be good times to focus on what is happening in the world. There should, however, also be news-free times of the day in which one can focus on other things and is able to disengage.”

Echoing this, Bailey explains that “sometimes overwhelming guilt might keep us glued to news content, but it can be detrimental to our mental health in the long run. If you are consuming content, ensure that you’re doing it for the right reasons – guilt is not one of them.”


One thing I have personally been struggling with is the apathy in other people; how footage coming out of Gaza is juxtaposed with people’s regular posts. “Our fight or flight response can often have us being angry at friends, family members or even influencers who are not advocating the way that we expect them to,” says Bailey. “You can not take control or responsibility for how other people advocate for what is happening in the world. And in fact letting go of that responsibility on how other people respond will save you a lot of burnout and rage in the long term. Channel your energy on what you can do to help what is happening in Israel and Palestine, as well as how to nurture yourself through such a traumatic time.”


Directing anger and sadness into action is helpful and will make you feel less hopeless – from attending protests to writing to your MP. “A terrible part of such exposure is the feeling you cannot do anything about it,” says Arash Javanbakht, MD, a psychiatrist and author, who serves as the director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University. “Anxiety and stress stir a lot of energy. Sadness, anxiety, anger and frustration can be channelled into actions such as contributing to fundraising activities, volunteering to help the victims and activism to persuade politicians to do what is right.”


“Take time to reflect on your emotions, and do not ignore them,” Javanbakht advises. “Remember that the negative emotions of sadness, fear, and frustration are normal human reactions to such terrible adversities. Then take respite in activities that can fully absorb your attention and take you away from the sad stories. Do not feel guilty to have fun, it is OK even if others are suffering. Your sadness will not help them either. Do not stop your routine life activities that keep you sane,” he says.


“If you saw it once, no need to continue scrolling, avoid disaster voyeurism, and disaster pornography that has become today’s media standard,” Javanbakht warns. “Do not get too obsessed with non-stop scrolling of the images and the sad news. This does not mean being ignorant. Know what you need to know, then move on. There is a lot going on in the world of art and science and sports.” 

Javanbakht encourages us to talk to others, “but if that does not help and you feel too stressed or unable to function, seek professional help”.