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Feeling overwhelmed by world events? Treat yourself the way you would a friend | Georgie Harman

We can survive almost anything if we know it has an endpoint.

Struggles that seem to stretch limitlessly into the distance hit harder. Ceaseless uncertainty can chip away at resilience.

For some, the distressing events in Ukraine – coupled with devastating floods at home in Australia and an alarming new international climate report – may strain a nervous system already overloaded by the ongoing instability of a global pandemic.

If it seems like a lot to process, that’s because it is. Feeling overwhelmed with current events – big or small – is a natural reaction to the traumatic times we’re living through.

For two years we’ve had to constantly recalibrate our lives and minds to accommodate an ever-changing “new normal”. This prolonged state of hypervigilance can be exhausting.

If you’re feeling foggy in the head and even simple tasks have become challenging, know that you’re far from alone.

You might even be grappling with what Harvard researchers have dubbed “pandemic brain” – a phenomenon observed in some people after lockdown, where stress-induced neuroinflammation can cause fatigue, loss of concentration and other mood changes.

I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve felt it too. I get tired more often than I used to, lose focus more easily, and sometimes lack motivation.

As contacts to Beyond Blue’s support services have shown over the past two years, few have been left untouched by the challenges we’ve faced, but of course, some have struggled more than others.

People living in poverty, people in insecure work and housing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQ+ people, small business owners, young people, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and those living with disabilities or pre-existing mental health conditions have carried a disproportionate psychological burden.

As we navigate our way through a world that looks markedly different to “before Covid”, any additional stress, whether in our personal lives or in the wider world, can feel like a heavy weight to bear.

At a system level, it’s time for action. We’ve had multiple reviews into how the system needs to change. We have the recommendations so let’s get on and deliver them.

At an individual level, there are things we can all do to achieve our best possible mental health, manage our sense of overwhelm and support others.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise the difference between a natural reaction to events like floods, war or the pandemic, and something that requires more attention. If your sense of distress and overwhelm is intrusive and ongoing, please reach out for support at the first sign of struggle. This can stop things getting worse.

It can take time for the full impact of traumatic events to emerge so monitor your mood in the weeks and months that follow and don’t wait for things to deteriorate before you seek help – the earlier the better.

Limiting news and social media consumption and only getting your information from reliable sources can also be a protective factor. Our brains have a natural negativity bias – a primal survival mechanism that scans the environment for threats – so we’re predisposed to fixate in on the bad stuff while filtering out the good.

That means the more time we spend doom-scrolling, the worse we feel. Limiting your exposure to bad news and turning off notifications doesn’t mean you don’t care about people’s suffering. In fact, taking time away from screens to do something restorative like spending time in nature, talking to a friend or playing with a pet, can be a vital act of self-replenishment that gives you the energy to be of service to others.

If you’re in a position to offer assistance, connecting to your community’s volunteer network or donating to the relief effort can make you feel more hopeful and ease the sense of helplessness.

The basic foundations for good mental health may sound simple, even trite, but they’re grounded in evidence, they work and they’re more important than ever when the world feels overwhelming: try to eat well, get enough sleep, stick to a routine, stay connected to others, move your body in a way that feels nourishing for you, limit your alcohol consumption and practice deep breathing or meditation to calm your nervous system.

Self-compassion is also crucial. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not as productive as you once were. Treat yourself the way you would a friend – be kind, patient and forgiving and acknowledge that you’re doing your best in challenging circumstances.

These are exceptional times and it’s a lot to process but it can be comforting to remember that what you’re feeling is an experience shared by many. Reach out to those you trust and tell them how you feel – there’s a good chance they’re feeling it too.

Georgie Harman is the chief executive officer of Beyond Blue