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Q&A Dr. Markus Kemmelmeier

It’s been suggested America is suffering a mass anxiety attack—between the natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, threats of nuclear war and infighting between our national leaders. So this month, Sierra Living’s Matthew Bieker sought out some expert advice from a social psychology professor at his alma mater, UNR. What he found out may surprise you.

Story and Photography by Matthew Bieker

Dr. Kemmelmeier, it seems lately there’s an abundance of negative news—whether it’s proximately connected to us or not. What does this kind of 24-hour news cycle do to viewers who feel like they want to stay informed? Well, in many ways you cannot escape it because if something really bad happens, you may hear about it from somebody at the supermarket, but on the other hand, (if you’re watching) you have the same images being flashed at you over and over again. It ensures that these things really stay on your mind. For example, (take) the Vegas shooting—you hear of the event itself, you see the images, but then you’ll hear the follow up. Especially in a town like Reno, in the same state.

You (also) have this famous ‘tipping point,’ and it’s extremely hard to predict when this tipping point might come. You’ve seen so many women coming out about (sexual misconduct or harassment) events…and that encourages many more women to come forward and that may indeed produce a chain reaction. They talk about these things that were swept under the rug and receive this signal that there’s no more need to suffer in silence—and before you know it, you really have a sea-change.

Diagnosable emotional problems, like generalized anxiety disorder and depression, are reported to be on the rise lately—do you think that consuming this kind of negative media can amplify these problems? I can tell you the critical word you mentioned is ‘can.’ Can it? Yes. But the other question: does it? The (more common) reaction may be rather transitory. So in one sense, yes, it can really invoke anxiety among viewers. It can also, for some people, induce symptoms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is definitely possible. But many times, you have more tools in your mind to put this in context. You could turn away, you could turn to your friend or your spouse or whoever is right next to you, and receive some affirmation that will protect you from any negative consequences.

So it sounds like what you’re saying is that understanding how you respond emotionally to these stimuli can do a lot to help you cope with these messages coming at you. Absolutely. One element that comes from sociology is that communities with lots of ties to each other, where people interact with each other, can actually protect you against a lot of negative stuff when it comes to mental health. To have affirming interactions—people helping you, protecting you; the little thing that happens when somebody smiles at you—isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it can help make people feel less lonely. I’ll give you an example: In highly anxiety-producing events like earthquakes, there’s an entire community that experiences the same thing. Yes, it is scary, but people also turn to the next person and they have experienced the exact same thing. So the very moment that you turn to them and talk about your fears and anxiety, you’re also experiencing a moment of communion. You have a sort of mutual support built in (to the event) that is affirming to the extent that maybe your way of functioning or living your life is not inherently disrupted.

And if I may just distill that into something practical we can give our readers: Something as simple as communicating your anxieties can help to assuage them. Oh, absolutely. The feeling of being connected to others often, in terms of bad news, clearly helps. Even some Trump opponents can feel like they’re beating up on Trump (together). Or you have the Trump supporters connect with each other over how awful the media is, ‘see how biased they are,’ and so forth. Yes, (a bad event) may really affirm the evil in the world, but at the same time it connects you to a place in the world. The human connection, and essentially the sharing of these feelings associated with it, is definitely something that guards against evil consequences.

Do you think there are some strategies that people can employ to remain well-informed but not be overwhelmed by what they’re consuming? Well, clicking the off button is always the most important thing (laughs). It becomes a game where you think you’re missing something, but just turn it off and you will see that the world will continue without you, and many of the negative events whose emotional brunt you thought you need to experience will still be there when you come back a day later. Alternatively, focus on activities that really are meaningful to you, your family and maybe your community.

Connecting with others, affirming and engaging in meaningful relationships relative to others—that is one of the best predictors of good mental health, and by the way, good regular health, physical health.

What is the role that social media can play in all of this? It can connect you to a larger community of people that you choose—your friends. That’s a network you chose on Facebook, on Twitter, that can affirm a lot of your identity. And that gives people the sense that they feel the same way about what’s going on. Even when it turns out to be a big bitch-fest, so to speak, you can really feel, ‘at least we’re experiencing this together.’

And could we relate that to the political spectrum as well? Yes, but in the political spectrum, people differ very much in the extent of how concrete these things are. If you’re looking at terrorism, you have a very concrete attack, you see there are lives lost, and you may see, ‘I am not living in the Twin Towers but I have a building like that in my city.’ So that might refer to a much more concrete sense of threat. At the same time, it’s much easier for you to disconnect in a place like Reno, (which) is not that kind of large-population, spectacular target hub. So from this point of view, you say, ‘yes, this is really terrible,’ and then you turn around and look at beautiful Lake Tahoe or the Sierra.

I think a lot of people feel as though they would be better served parlaying their anxiety into some sort of activism: ‘I have to make a change, I have to change this.’ …You may find in your analysis of the event, that this was terrible, but somebody did it…and that prompts anger. And anger tends to be much more related to actual activism than anxiety. That’s why many people, when they have an anxiety-inspiring event, reframe it. ‘I know this is bad, what about this can be changed?’ That is often the hypothetical that allows you to see there are real places where you can sink your hooks into and say, ‘I don’t have to feel that way, I can help protect others, I can help protect myself; I can do something.’

And that would help create effective change rather than just allowing a generalized anxiety to evolve into generalized anger? Yes. Think about the idea of when something really happens. Of course there is fear, but also there’s the realization that you can do something after an earthquake. Everyone wants to retrofit their buildings to make them more earthquake-safe. This sense of, ‘I can do something’ really…allows you to exercise self-efficacy (the belief you can succeed in a set of circumstances). Ultimately that is an antidote to anxiety.

Excellent. Thanks for your time, Doctor.

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