The Psychiatrist's Role in Navigating a Toxic News Cycle

Gregory Scott Brown, MD


February 25, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I'm Dr Gregory Scott Brown, an Austin-based psychiatrist and an affiliate faculty member at the University of Texas Dell Medical School.

Recently, a patient of mine told me that because of the political environment we find ourselves in, he's avoiding conversations with some of his longtime friends. Because of this, he's feeling even more isolated than before.

We're all coming off the heels of a tough year, and many of us expected that when we entered 2021 we'd quickly turn the page and life would get a whole lot easier. Since the reality is that we're still dealing with deep divisions, social injustices, and the politicization of evidence-based medicine, emotions are naturally running high.

In listening to my patients over the past few weeks, there's definitely a sense of optimism about coronavirus vaccines and getting back to life as usual. But there's also a lingering sense of uncertainty and fear, especially when it comes to the possibility of saying the wrong thing, offending our friends, or just having conversations with people we may disagree with. I'm hearing concerns from my patients that 2020 exposed a dormant hatred that was brewing in the underbelly of our society, in our politics and in our institutions. Patients are telling me that these concerns are making them anxious and some are avoiding interacting with people they may disagree with altogether because they're afraid of the difficult conversations that may follow.

Since, like many of my patients as well as many of you, I follow the news, including stories of COVID-related deaths, economic hardships, peaceful protests gone bad, and political vitriol, I've had to remind myself about the importance of intentional kindness for effective communication and for supporting mental health.

I was reminded of the paper "Hate in the Counter-Transference" by the well-known pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He focuses on how to manage and sort through the strong emotions that may be experienced even during an encounter between a therapist and a patient. Although some of what he has to say doesn't translate well to modern times, his recommendation that we acknowledge and try to normalize some of our feelings does. And this is how I've been starting a conversation with my patients — just by normalizing things a bit.

The past year or so has brought with it a range of intense emotions, including frustration, exhaustion, and some degree of sadness for most of us. When we're self-aware about our feelings, we can make sense of them early on so that they don't evolve into maladaptive ones like unhinged anger or hatred. My patients and I actively discuss how our feelings don't have to get in the way of our ability to live and to interact with each other as we'd like to.

Considering the basic tenets of kindness is a good place to start. I recently spoke with Dr Kelli Harding, a psychiatrist and author of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness. She pointed to research suggesting that kindness can benefit multiple areas of our health, from reducing cardiovascular events to improving mood and anxiety. In her book, she notes that the major contributor to outcomes in health isn't our genetics, as we might think; its other determinants, like our political and social environment.

I tell my patients that we can't always change our environment, but we can definitely change how we respond to it. This doesn't mean it's always an easy process, but there are things we can do. First, we have to acknowledge that some degree of conflict or cordial disagreement is inevitable and it doesn't have to disrupt our mood.

An interesting study on conflict management pointed out that healthy conflict is actually beneficial in some cases. For instance, in the work environment, conflict can help with team development and better group decision-making. But it's rigid personality differences, poor communication, emotional stress, and lack of candor that may contribute to so-called high-tension events, and this is where conflict can go awry. These are the areas that we can all focus on improving, not only for performance benefits but for our overall health and well-being as well.

The authors also recommend an active style of engagement as a technique to manage conflict, but in a way that feels both natural and safe. Other authors agree that so-called engaged coping is associated with a higher sense of control and overall improved psychological well-being. What this means is that avoidance may be necessary in the short term, but over time it may lead to more emotional stress and anxiety.

Overcoming the tendency to avoid requires both motivation and self-awareness. We need to know about patterns in our own behavior and how the behavior of others can push our buttons and spiral a healthy disagreement into a heated argument.

I like to recommend the hunger, angry, lonely, tired (HALT) model, which is often used as a self-care gauge in addiction treatment and to reduce medication errors. But I think it's also a useful way to assess personal readiness for having a difficult conversation. I tell my patients to ask themselves in this moment, "Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?" And if they are, perhaps it's not the best time for the conversation.

Because 2020 brought with it a new set of challenges, it also forced many of us to focus on things that we just didn't pay as much attention to before, including checking in on our feelings and the feelings of those around us. It also taught us to pay attention to the way and manner in which we communicate. I think that kindness is much easier to carry into difficult conversations if we approach them with a sense of curiosity before judgment. Ultimately, kindness is one of the best tools for balancing the intense emotions that many of us are feeling right now.

I'm Dr Gregory Scott Brown, reporting for Medscape.

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