At a time when sharing and receiving bad news is the new normal, mental health experts tell you how to navigate these situations with ease
In late March, actor John Karasinski (Jim from The Office) launched a YouTube series titled Some Good News (SGN) from his home wearing a suit jacket, tie, dress shirt and shorts. Since then the show has amassed a following of 2.5 million subscribers, hosted a virtual prom and officiated a wedding on Zoom. In the midst of staring at bell curves, infection rates and possibilities of a vaccine, SGN doesn't come across like a breath of fresh air but more like a reassuring supply of oxygen when you're running out of it.
According to recent data from Google Trends, the search for the term 'good news' reached an all-time high, with searches nearing over half a million per month. Bad news is everywhere: extended lockdowns, rising positive cases, deaths, unemployment — the list is a long, long one. Sometimes, it makes its way as a flash on your TV screen and sometimes a phone call or text. We've been compelled to do so much in so little time that there's also a tendency to equate all news with
Swati Deepak, a psychotherapist based in Kandivali, likens an information overload — good or bad — to overeating. "When you overeat, the healthiest of food won't be good for your digestive system. The mental system functions the same way. That's why, I recommend watching no more than two hours of news," she says. Yet, digesting facts is crucial during a pandemic. So, there's no escaping bad news but you can certainly deal with it better, irrespective of if you have to deliver it or receive it.
When bad news hits you, the impact on self-control is immediate, explains Shweta Srinivasan, mental health practitioner and founder of TheMindClan.com. "In today's destabilising situation people are already doing little and big things to regain feelings of control, safety and familiarity. The worry is that when such news arrives, these feelings they were trying to successfully cope with may return and increase substantially," she says. Vikram Kirtikar, psychologist and outreach associate at Mpower–The Foundation, states that because the situation is new and sudden, the brain is more alert than usual and thus, reactions to bad news fall on two ends of a spectrum — from denial to panic; "It is important to be in the middle. Don't ignore it but don't be perturbed either," he says.
Sharing and caring
Last week, Uber fired over 3,500 employees via a three-minute Zoom call, raising questions about their communication strategy as a company. While Airbnb, too, resorted to downsizing 25 per cent of its workforce, CEO Brian Chesky ensured that he thanked his employees and assured them that the company has "looked across severance, equity, healthcare and job support" for those who are leaving. When breaking bad news, tone and language matters the most, experts say.
Two kinds of bad: Deepak suggests bifurcating bad news — lay-offs and break-ups fall in one category and health- and government-related decisions (like lockdowns) fall in another. "When doctors and policemen are conveying such news, the intention is to convey information. There is no emotional aspect. Thus, it needs to be delivered in a steady but humane tone," she explains. In case of a death, avoid telling people that they need to be mature and get over it during a pandemic.
Word it right: Rather than looking at the problem through a lens of sympathy, Kirtikar advises being empathetic. First, communicate the facts and then back that up with support information. "Don't say 'I'm sorry to say this'. Tell them, 'I understand what you're going through or, I don't have the capacity to understand what you might be going through but if you need someone to listen, then I am here'," he elaborates.
Be transparent: Srinivasan reckons that a sense of being in the dark can be scarier than knowing what is actually happening; employees need to know what has been happening from Day 1. "Give the news without beating around the bush or sugar-coating it. It implies that you are treating people with dignity," she states, adding that employees could also be invited to share their concerns and feelings. "It helps to not communicate bad news via an email. A video message could humanise
Receive with resilience
The first step, Kirtikar and Srinivasan say, is to acknowledge what you are feeling and that the feelings are valid. "Give yourself time to process it and this time is not specific. Speak to friends and family or seek professional help; it's perfectly legitimate to do so
Make peace with anxiety: Deepak informs that people should permit themselves an anxiety period of seven to 10 days. Don't start a job search or get down to hurling abuses immediately. "If you wish to communicate in writing, re-write it four to five times and check your choice of words," she mentions.
Reflect on emotions: Srinivasan states that different emotions communicate something unique: anger could communicate injustice, sadness could mean loss, and calmness could convey optimism. Express and vent this safely through writing, art or talking to a therapist.
Be kind to yourself: Self-blame is a common response and Srinivasan advises to "remind yourself of the circumstances that led to this scenario, and the things you did to respond to it to know that you're not at fault for what happened."
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