Lertzman added that focusing on regular life and the present can itself cause anguish, especially if someone is exceptionally concerned about the news. It’s upsetting, she said, to be scared about the world and yet to be “seeing more people get drawn into distraction, whether it’s reality TV or celebrity culture or focusing more on their family and children.”
Ultimately, worriers may need to come to some level of acceptance.
“There are times in our life where we all need to accept things that we would very much choose to be otherwise. When we can genuinely accept ‘I don’t like this, but I can live with it," that can reduce people’s level of distress,” Holland told me.
I pushed—what if an outcome is horrifying to them, what if they could never condone it? Holland said that we only ever need to accept things that we could not condone.
Acceptance, he told me, is saying, “I wouldn’t choose this, but life goes on. Or it doesn’t, and that’s something I need to accept—but that’s another story.”
But acceptance doesn’t mean surrender or laying down. Holland, Leahy, and Lertzman all recommended that people let their worry push them to take action.
“It’s often very helpful for people to go, okay, I can actually take steps here. I can get involved with other people who feel as I do. I can be writing things in the media. I can be making donations,” said Holland.
The importance of taking action is critical to Lertzman’s approach. She said that it’s crucial to say that even if any one person can only have a small effect, it’s not futile to do so.
“We’re designed neurologically and cognitively to have efficacy—to have an effect,” she said. “When we’re learning and exposed to issues, particularly through the media, it’s very natural to just assume there’s nothing I can do, it’s out of my control. And then we just withdraw and disengage.”
But just because we’ve disengaged doesn’t mean we’ve ultimately stopped caring, she said. (Lertzman’s book, Environmental Melancholia, is a study of the tension between engagement and efficacy.)
And that’s why she stressed that it’s important to see action itself as valuable and worthwhile, no matter how limited the outcome.
“When I read accounts of people who are really engaged, who have really stepped up and are doing amazing things, that’s the thread that seems to run through it,” Lertzman told me. They see their own actions as inherently worthwhile, even if they’re aware of the limits of their own actions.
“You’re not denying the pain of recognizing the limits of what we can do. But you’re also not minimizing, not devaluing, the importance of what we can do,” she said. To this end, she encouraged people not to compare themselves to their heroes or to people who seem especially effective, but to focus on how much action they themselves can take.