Managing Current Event Stress

North Seattle College Counseling Department
Emiko Minatoya-Shields, M.Ed.

Informed by NSC Counselor authored resources well-being and productivity time COVID and locate resources manage stressful situations available online
North Seattle Counseling Department recognizes that current events happening on local, national, and global scales may trigger severe sudden stress that impact well-being and mental health.

A severe sudden stress response may be due to events like disasters, accidents, crimes, acts of hatred, endangerment, or violence on an individual, legislative, or national scale. These events may directly happen to us or may also occur when we learn of these events impacting the lives and safety of people we care about or with whom we identify. In addition, these current events may remind us of our own past, including recent deaths of loved ones, our ancestral histories, and our collective community past. Increased consumption of news of national and global disasters, violence, and tragedies increase stress, and activities such as watching violent imagery and reading about violent events can oversaturate us with stress signals and trigger a severe sudden stress response.

There are many ways in which we are connected, and many ways current events may provoke a severe sudden stress response. However, a positive fact is that humans have evolved to be highly resilient, to recover from hardship, and to use challenge and loss to rededicate themselves to greater kindness and appreciation of life.

Reactions to Stress Events- What Happens, and How it Affects Us
When we are inundated by stress signals our bodies and brains automatically trigger biochemical reactions needed to assess danger, prepare for escape or protection, and prevent harm. Because our brains are prioritizing survival, people may find that they have less recall, greater “brain fog,” and less ability to complete more every-day expectations and tasks.

It takes time for our brains to absorb the experience and relax from survival reactions of anger, fear and immobility (fight/flight/freeze/appease). Our bodies recognize we are in distress and may not send the ordinary cues around things like hunger, or sleep—it may take time for these systems to regulate, and this recovery process can take considerable energy.

Reactions common to the first couple of weeks following severe sudden stress—such as irritability, worry/anxiety, difficulty “getting moving” and efficiently completing tasks—are not symptoms that “something is wrong with you” but rather are evidence of the recovery process and your phasing-down from conditions of danger.

Suggestions for Care During a Severe Sudden Stress Response
Be mindful of your own capacity and create routines that match where your energy is actually at, rather than where you feel it should be—this is a time to plan to take care of yourself. Events which may trigger a severe sudden stress response often feel unpredictable and intense, so it can be helpful to create routine to help restore a personal rhythm and predictability to manage stress. Additionally, when we are in duress, we often de-prioritize caring for ourselves as we may no longer be getting those physical cues, which has a negative impact on our overall ability to cope and do well, so planning in time to meet our basic needs can also be beneficial.

  • Stay well hydrated and nourish your body. Meals can also be a time to practice some mindfulness; attempt to slow down and savor at least the first few bites to return your thoughts and attention to the present moment and away from what might be distracting or distressing you.
  • Prioritize accumulating 7-8 hours of sleep; and try to sleep at the same times in the day. It can be helpful to plan some time to unwind before sleep by limiting screentime and media/news intake, taking some slow deep breaths, and reminding yourself that your brain and body need rest as sleep is an essential part of how learning becomes memory, and our bodies recover.
  • Moving your body or exercising as you are able in ways you enjoy or that feel good is a way to relax and can help with tension held in the body. This can be as short as taking a 5-minute walk or doing a gentle stretch.
  • Take multiple breaks- in times of high stress we often mentally, emotionally, and physically fatigue more quickly. Even taking a 1–2-minute break just to focus on taking slow, relaxing breaths can help us feel more refreshed and will help signal to our bodies that we are not getting ready to face immediate big stressors or danger, so it is ok to relax. Take 3 or 4 deep breaths slowly through the nose. Recall, in detail, a favorite calm place or happy experience. Deliberately relax the muscles in your shoulders, neck, cheeks, and jaw.
  • Making meaningful moments in times of duress can be a way to deal with some of the emotional impacts of stressful events. Take a moment to experience gratitude for the good things in yourself and your life. Acts of thoughtfulness to others is another way to make you feel good and create positive actions going forward.
  • Manage media intake. Exposure to distressing news cycles, whether that be stories, audio, or graphic images can elevate stress responses and impact our ability to re-regulate. It may be helpful to set limits on media consumption to one hour a day, or a once or twice-a-day brief check of headlines. Consider taking turns with your social supports who aren’t experiencing a stress response to distill key points in the news for you to minimize your exposure. You can also create post-care plans to de-escalate your stress afterwards by using the strategies provided in this article.
  • Encourage yourself. Focus on positives, reassure yourself ("I am doing the best I can.”, "This will get done."). Remember what is within your sphere of influence and your own capacity, and check in with yourself like you would if you were checking on someone you cared about going through something similar (“How did that go?”, “What else do I need?”, “How will I educate or advocate for myself to the people around me for support?”)
  • Connect to Others. Seek support from trusted friends, family members, colleagues, or college staff who are here to help you thrive. This can help you feel unburdened knowing your immediate community care for and support you

Here are some further resources related to mental health and well-being when navigating sudden severe stress events.

North Seattle College Counseling Department
Students who wish to discuss concerns such as discrimination, crisis, sadness, worry or other concerns related to current event stressors can schedule individual appointments with counseling faculty for short term, goal-focused help. North’s counseling style features mutual collaboration so that students may consider ways—including referral--to reach their goals. Please note Counseling faculty do not assess or treat medical conditions such as mental disorders/psychiatric conditions.

Let’s Talk Drop-In
Students can also meet for consultation with a Counselor during the Let’s Talk Program. You don't need to make an appointment or fill out any paperwork for Let’s Talk. Just drop-in on a first-come basis to be connected to resources and get help with problem-solving. All consultations are confidential. For more information about the Let's Talk program (including Frequently Asked Questions), please visit the North Seattle Counseling Let's Talk webpage.

Further Resources/Referral to Locate Self-help

  • Access 24-hour crisis intervention through: King County Crisis Clinic 206-461-3222, Text line 741741, TTY 206 461-3219
  • Washington Listens: 1.833.681.0211
  • Phone Washington State Information Network 2-1-1, or TTY (206) 461-3610 for health and human services referral resources.
  • American Psychological Association provides information about building resilience—the ability to bounce back from hardship.
  • This site provides interesting and useful information about mindful resilience from a research/practitioner associated with UC Berkeley’s Science for the Greater Good Center
  • Learn about mental health topics by visiting the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Web or by taking a brief, descriptive mental health self-assessment survey online.

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