Hopelessness: How to climb out of the pit of bad news


Leta Lohrmeyer

An illustration of a person who is trying to hide from a giant cell phone above them.
“You’re getting hit with this bad news over and over again. The scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, then that leads to the pessimism and distress…” Illustration by Mars Nevada.

One evening I was huddled up in bed scrolling through my Twitter feed. As I was scrolling, I kept running into one human tragedy after another. I found pictures of the Amazon forest being burned, testimonies of children being separated from their families at the border, along with all the mass shootings and the ongoing crisis of climate change.

Suddenly, I felt like I was in a deep, dark pit. I am so small and insignificant compared to the whole world of problems. How could I make any difference? Would things ever change? I was, in a word, hopeless.

“If you think about the large scale it just becomes overwhelming,” said Wayne Harrison, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “You’re getting hit with this bad news over and over again. The scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, then that leads to the pessimism and distress because you can’t really change the news.”

This sensation of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless is not a new concept when it comes to getting a large amount of bad news. What has changed is how we get our news.

A Pew Research Center study found that people in the 18-29 age range received the majority of their news from social media. While older generations turn on the TV, the younger generations turn to their phones.

The other shift is the sheer amount of news available. Physical newspapers and TV programs are limited in how many stories they can cover. Social media and the internet don’t share those restrictions—with a 24-hour news cycle, a person can scroll through as many articles or videos as they want.

Americans care about staying informed, but like me, they get stressed about the news, according to a 2017 American Psychological Association report, “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation.” One in five Americans self-reported that they check their social media “constantly” for news. More than half of those surveyed said that while they want to stay informed about the news, doing so causes them stress.

“Some of this news that leads to hopelessness, like with the Amazon forest and climate change, is that they’re social dilemmas,” Harrison said. “Social dilemma is defined as a kind of a conflict between what’s in your own and short-term interest, versus what’s in the group or long-term interest.”

How then do we tackle these social dilemmas? Here are some strategies that we can practice to help ourselves in the long-term.

It’s hard to look at a giant problem, for instance climate change, and come up with solutions. What we have to do is find the areas where we can manage, then recognize that even if your impact is small, the combined impact might be great.

“One of the things that counteracts hopelessness is perceived control,” Harrison said. “If you believe that there’s something you can do, and if there are enough other people thinking like you do, when everyone does their small part, then we’ve got a chance.”

How can I practice perceived control when it comes to climate change? I decided to buy reusable bags to take to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags. When eating out, I try my best to avoid single use plastics, and at home I recycle as many products as I can. These actions may seem like a drop in the bucket, but I can change small aspects of my life to make a collective difference.

Political Action
Some people are intimidated when it comes to being politically involved. UNO political science associate professor and department chair, Jody Neathery-Castro, Ph.D., explained that you can be involved within your own comfort zone and still be making a difference.

“Find your comfort level, find a place that you feel you can get involved—whatever that is,” Neathery-Castro said. “Figure out how to have a voice and maybe have an impact on the kinds of things that you want to be done. It’s a good way to feel less overwhelmed.”

One political contribution suggestion could be calling your representatives. Personally, I found it intimidating to call my senator, however, I wrote a script of what I wanted to say and called anyway. After my phone call, I felt that surge of instant gratification. If you don’t want to call, you can always turn to social media, such as Twitter. Several political officials have platforms on these types of sites where you connect and share your thoughts.

Another contribution is voting, so be sure to register to vote. The Vote 411 website has all the information you need to know about how to register, the different polling stations in your area and a voter guide to help you become more informed on who is running for office and what their stances are. This year Millennials are going to surpass the Baby Boomers as the largest generation to vote. We have already seen an increase of voting on college campuses.

“Students in general, voting rates increased,” Neathery-Castro said. “In 2018, it was about 40%, which is double what it was the last midterm election. That’s really high.”

Your vote can help elect someone who cares about the same issues you do. Don’t waste it.

Neathery-Castro said an example of political agency and how one person can make a difference is Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old environmental activist. Thunberg spoke to Congress about the current climate crisis and how there is not enough action being taken. She also helped lead the largest climate strike in history on Sept. 20, which took place across 185 countries with millions of people participating, according to a Forbes article. You can join protests or find other ways to get involved and make your voice heard.

Take a Break
Another strategy to help decrease your news-induced stress is to take a step back and force yourself to stop. Put down your phone, close out of your social media app, take a breath and simply walk away for a minute.

“Social media can become sort of like a never-ending echo chamber,” Neathery-Castro said. “It’s important to say that it’s okay to exit that for a while, especially if you’re really involved within a heavy political information site like on Twitter.”

This can be more of a challenge that it sounds, because using our phones and going on social media is enjoyable. Harrison suggested that we practice self-regulation, where we can “override immediate gratification with willpower and habits.”

You can also find ways to minimize your distractions, for example I took a week off social media to take some time away from all the headlines and stressors. Now, I put timers on my phone, so my apps shut off after I spend the allotted amount of time on them.

The aforementioned American Psychological Association report stated that more than half of Americans exercise or take part in physical activity to cope with stress. The second highest coping method is listening to music, followed by praying. Figure out what helps you calm down and do it.

However, Neathery-Castro cautioned that we shouldn’t take a break for too long.

“Take those breaks, but don’t take it forever,” Neathery-Castro said. “Because we need young people to be paying attention. I worry about what happens if we live in a society where we have whole generations of people who are disengaged.”

I’m no longer feeling hopeless. Just by adopting a few of these strategies, I improved my overall outlook on life. There may not be sweeping solutions that fix all the problems in the world, but if we continue to do our part, we can dig ourselves out of that deep, dark pit.