I became glued to my phone as news of the Israel-Hamas war began to unfold on October 7 and stayed fixated as innocent lives were lost across borders. I read story after story and I wept, mostly for the mothers. As a new mom myself, every kidnapped or killed person I read about was someone’s child, and the constant updates — so many kidnapped and killed children of mothers — began to feel unbearable. 

And unfortunately, this unbearable heaviness isn’t an irregular feeling for me. Whether it’s a school shooting, natural disaster, war, or any other number of heartbreaking moments in our shared human experience, going deep into almost any given news cycle leaves me overwhelmed with dread, anxiety, and grief. 

“In times of tragedy, what is the balance between bearing witness and self-preservation?”

A part of me knew I needed to stop reading, stop scrolling, and yet I was torn. I understand that algorithms are built to keep me reading, watching, and absorbing content. I know I can set a timer on my devices to give myself only a certain amount of minutes to scroll through social media and news apps each day. But my question was more one of mindfulness, one of morality, even. In times of tragedy, what is the balance between bearing witness and self-preservation?

I turned to clinical psychologist and expert in self-compassion, Thekla Brumder Ross, PsyD, who goes by Dr. Thekla, to help me make sense of my conflicting emotions and heightened news intake. 

Understanding collective trauma and grief

In order to work with and through the complex emotions — sadness, horror, grief, fear, judgment, and anxiety, to name a few — the current news cycle (and, frankly, most news cycles) evokes, Dr. Thekla discusses the importance of understanding collective trauma. It is, she explains, “deeply rooted in the human experience. We’re watching it unfold in our backyards and across the world every moment. As events past and present unfold and ripple out into our communities, they will leave a lasting imprint on us and our future generations.” 

“As events past and present unfold and ripple out into our communities, they will leave a lasting imprint on us and our future generations.”

– Thekla Brumder Ross, PsyD

The result of this collective trauma, both in response to this war and so many other tragic events we read about and experience, is grief. The grief many of us feel while reading news stories is “grief for all of the trauma and pain and suffering in our world. This grief looks different in different people, and very few of us received training in school for how to deal with it.” 

It feels obvious — I am grieving — and yet self-centered, maybe even unwarranted. If my family or friends are not currently directly impacted, who am I to grieve? To this question, Dr. Thekla reminds me not to compare suffering. “Step out of the comparison and be a witness,” she says. There lies a tension in feeling like I’m “making something about me” and the reality that it’s natural, even a good thing, to identify with and feel empathy for our fellow humans. How could I not, when reading about the kidnapped children, grieve for their mothers? How could I not stop to imagine the agony of not knowing where my children are? Just because it isn’t my direct lived experience at this moment doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel deeply for the people I read about, and those feelings can be intense. 

Bringing awareness into our media consumption

Acting as a witness is one of the ways responding to the news can manifest when we bring insight and awareness into our media consumption. Dr. Thekla explains that “insight and awareness are two of the four pillars of well-being. We need them to consciously participate in our own lives, rather than being in a default mode network, which is linked to thoughts and judgments.” Dr. Thekla is clear that she won’t tell me or anyone else to stop reading the news, but that she can offer strategies for bringing awareness to how we consume media. 

The first step in bringing awareness into reading or watching the news is to pause. Here are some questions Dr. Thekla recommends asking yourself before you read your next piece of media: 

  • Did you just open your eyes to begin a new day?
  • Are you just closing your eyes to rest your body and mind?
  • Are you stressed in the middle of the workday and reading the news? 
  • Is your physical body tense or uncomfortable? 

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it may not be the best time to learn more about a difficult topic. She also recommends asking yourself a simple question: Did you know you are grieving? “If not, acknowledge it. Offer some loving kindness to yourself as a friend would in this moment. Say to yourself, ‘I am suffering, so are many people in the world and this is part of the human experience. I am not alone.’” That is an act of self-compassion in action.

On pausing and suffering

While I love the idea of pausing to check in, I can’t help but wonder if taking a break from the news makes me complacent. To this, Dr. Thekla says, “One misunderstanding is that acceptance and compassion amount to condoning or complacency. Compassion both for self and others, is bringing awareness, kindness, and love to exactly what we are feeling in this moment, without judgment.”

It’s important to note that for many, pausing is not an option. For those who are currently living out centuries of oppression, injustice, and active violence, the news cycle reveals a personal threat. When we are in danger, it is harder or impossible to open up to our emotional life with a compassionate presence. On a separate note, if pausing brings awareness to a closed heart, Dr. Thekla says there is room for that too. “The practice is to be a compassionate witness to our own suffering so we are not stuck inside the anxiety, fear, and grief, but rather bearing witness to it.”

Dr. Thekla advises: “Next time you are in a swirl of overwhelm, grief, sadness, or rage over the news, pause and become a compassionate observer to those thoughts. Say, there is that pain, note how it feels in your body, and remind yourself you are not alone and this too will change.” She compares trying to control our emotions to trying to control the weather — it’s impossible, all we can do is observe it and work with the current reality. “Reconnecting with our compassionate witness is more validating than trying to control, numb, stuff, or deny our experience. Awareness is within each one of us, we just need to pause to access it.” 

Simple strategies for mindfulness

When you’re working your way through complex emotions and a difficult news cycle, remember to try and bring awareness to what, where, when, how, and why you’re consuming the media. Take a pause before clicking the next article or video, and consider some of Dr. Thekla’s other suggestions for mindfully moving forward: 

  • Ask yourself if you have the capacity at this moment to absorb more suffering. If your cup is full, ask how you can acknowledge your own suffering, how you can offer yourself kindness, and how you can connect with your fellow humanity in this moment.
  • Bring your hands to your heart while reading a difficult story, to acknowledge the somatic experience inside your own body and the unconscious collective trauma within you.  
  • Pause to take a grounding breath and allow for greater awareness of our collective grief.
  • Rest if you’re able. Remember that we have to nourish ourselves before we can be present for the suffering of others. 

Dr. Thekla says, “I too am susceptible to all of this; I am imperfect, it is part of our shared human experience living this life in 2023. It’s not my place to tell someone to read or not read the news. It’s about the process of when and how you digest news personally and within your community.”

By taking a pause and bringing awareness to our media consumption, we can begin to regain control over how we react to the overwhelm. Something as simple as taking a deep breath and asking myself if I’m ready to consume the news before I open a morning newsletter in bed has led me to realize that, more often than not, the answer is no. I still read the newsletter and stay up to date, I now just have more consciousness around when and how I do so. I’m also more gentle with myself after speaking with Dr. Thekla. I acknowledge that I can feel things deeply even if they’re not happening directly to me — and that it makes sense and is normal and OK.

Unfortunately, we know that horrific news stories aren’t going anywhere soon. But we can be more conscientious about how we consume them — and, in the end, that makes us better able to show up for ourselves and our fellow humans.

Megan Lierley is a writer and editor based in Northern California. She currently leads content for Cora, the women’s wellness company. On any given day, there’s a good chance she’s talking tampons, practicing yoga, writing her weekly culture and current events newsletter, reading a historical fiction novel, or eating a burrito in Dolores Park.