There's a memorable moment from a 2019 episode of US news satire show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, when Bill Nye, famous for his science education TV show, goes in an unexpected direction while explaining the urgency of the climate crisis. He takes a blowtorch to a globe on the desk in front of him and says into the camera, "By the end of this century, if emissions keep rising, the average temperature on Earth could go up another four to eight degrees. What I’m saying is, the planet’s on &!*$#@% fire!" It’s a very effective shock tactic. But the planet being on fire is only one of the things we have to worry about these days. There’s the war in Ukraine, inflation, Covid – all these big-ticket items over which we have very little control. So, how do we deal with it all? Psychologist Dr Tony Bates spoke to Brendan O’Connor about coping with the deluge of global events that seem to get more and more relentless with every passing day:
"I find I just turn on the radio now with – I brace myself for the latest shock, you know, what new piece of – what new horror is waiting?"
The reality of all these complex, global issues is difficult to take in all at once and Dr Bates stresses that these things – important as they are – are not the only things happening in the world:
"I think the most important thing is that it’s not the totality of life. It feels like it is, feels like all these things make up our life. They don’t. And the bad news hides the good stuff from us and I think we lose touch with that."
Still, we can’t help but feel overwhelmed by it all and Dr Bates has seen this in people he’s spoken to and it’s something that’s easy to relate to:
"We feel that the rug has been pulled from under us and we have very little control, so I’d say helplessness is the feeling that I hear people talk about most often. And, just, a kind of hopelessness, you know, that it’s too much, so, what can I do? How can I deal with this and how can I make a difference?"
One thing that can happen is that we get addicted to bad news. We allow our attention – that much sought-after thing – to be drawn to the latest news of the latest potential disaster in the world:
"We can get addicted in a funny way to the jolt of shock that we have when we hear about some new horror in Ukraine or wherever. It’s not to say that we’re taking any pleasure in that, but just that we’re kind of waiting for the next jolt. And we can binge on bad news, almost and become somewhat addicted to it. And then we turn off our devices and we go outside and we tell everybody else about the bad news, in case they have missed it."
It’s important, Dr Bates says, that we recognise what all this uncontrollable bad news is doing to us – the helplessness it engenders turns into a huge problem of loss of self-confidence. Part of the solution to this is to identify where we are in the whole process:
"Whatever I’m feeling, that’s what I’m feeling. It’s ok. But I need to know that because if I’m to get grounded, if I get centred, I’ll be in a much better position to deal with this or to know what i can do and what I can’t do."
A very important thing to bear in mind is that we shouldn’t be afraid to turn things off and spend a little time with ourselves and our own thoughts:
"In the face of tragedy, in a funny way, what we need is slack time. We need time where we do very little or nothing, or we do something we love. But doing nothing is, perhaps, the ideal because in that space of doing nothing, you know, deliberately resting, doing nothing, not taking the world on, not taking the problems of the world on our shoulders, just for a moment, just stepping back. I think, in that moment something important comes to us, some insight, some emergent thought. And we really should listen to those thoughts."
What all the crises going on around the world are saying to us, Dr Bates believes, is that we are all deeply connected and dependent on each other. This presents us with a choice:
"We can be responsible for each other and to each other or not. We can say, 'No, I’m going to live in my bubble and it’s just about me.’ Or we can say, ‘Actually, there’s a kind of co-responsibility which is probably the only thing that will right some of these wrongs.’"
As Brendan puts it, rather than getting into a tizzy of anxiety and worry, we should be deciding what small things we can do to affect the situation.
You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Dr Tony Bates by going here.