THE BLOG
10/07/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2016

Learning to Cope With Bad News

Thousands buried under rubble after an earthquake, countless migrants drowning in the Mediterranean trying to get away from wars to a safer shore, hordes of people in refugee camps with food and water in short supply, children used in the sex trade, police shootings, fires and floods, polar bears drowning from lack of ice flows, and worsening drought in California...and we are assured that these things will only get worse.

Not all the news is really bad, but people are more likely to watch TV or read about some catastrophe somewhere in the world or a robbery in our town than a hopeful story. In the Massachusetts General Hospital's May 2015 newsletter, Mind, Mood & Memory, Dr. Amy Farabaugh writes: "Modern news coverage sometimes focuses on violent, shocking, or disturbing content that is intended to attract attention and generate an emotional reaction in the audience." So the media follows the dictate: "If it bleeds, it leads," and spins even neutral stories negatively. All of this may attract readers and viewers, but it is not an accurate picture of the state of our world if it only deals with the negatives.

Bad news has so much power because we have a visceral reaction when we hear or see it, we are literally hit in our gut. Many people get really anxious or depressed when exposed to so much suffering and turmoil. Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, had a special newspaper printed for him with only good news. Pessimistic people may actually look for depressing or anxiety producing stories to reinforce their views of the world. Even I, though tending to be optimistic, get upset and have a heartache about the suffering, starving, displaced, frightened children in the newspaper photos.

A friend, Marian Preble, told me the story of two little girls playing in a rose garden, one came running to her mother terribly upset about all the thorns that could prick her fingers, but the other came back all excited about the beautiful roses growing everywhere.... Dr. Richard A. Friedman, clinical psychiatry professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, has found a genetic variation in the brain that makes some people able to cope better with bad news, forgetting bad experiences, while others tend to remember every detail of negative events and perceive them all as having equal weight, so that the loss of a good parking spot seems as terrible as the loss of an heirloom.

I asked some of the residents and staff of my retirement community, the White Sands La Jolla, to share information about their own coping mechanisms. Meditation is used by many as an antidote to the constant stimuli battering their brains. Going for a walk, being in nature, and looking at trees were also frequently mentioned. Being part of a support group where problems can be shared is helpful to some. One idea I found particularly interesting is making a rule that for the next meal the conversation cannot touch on medical or family problems nor politics. The topics suggested are books one is reading, worthwhile journal articles, and the positive actions one is taking--in other words, talking about ideas, intellectual pursuits, and all the fun stuff we do.

The way I deal with my own sadness of the coming demise of the polar bears is by remembering how evolution works: species come and species go. The polar bears may become extinct, however, some have begun mating with brown bears, so I am looking forward to a whole new species of speckled or striped bears. I cannot do anything about suffering multitudes, but if I turn to the problems of children in my city, I have some leverage by either funding a program or speaking up on behalf of some organization that is making a difference.

So focus on what you can control: Discuss the troublesome news with others to try to get a different perspective; pay attention to upbeat stories, heroes are everywhere; look for news of new research; look at innovations in technology, medicine, design, art, or architecture; meditate; list five things you were grateful for today; take a walk; talk to a friend; listen to music; and, especially, smile.