6 Habits That’ll Protect Your Mental Health If You Can’t Log Off from the Internet, According to a Political Reporter
2020 is an impossible year to Log Off: between a pandemic and most of the country sheltering at home, it’s understandable why people turn to the internet to feel a sense of connection, or just to keep up with everything happening. The advice to log off and forget the digital world when you get overwhelmed means well, but is easier said than done—especially for those whose jobs depend on staying up to date.
Everyone says journalism is stressful, but I didn’t fully understand the ways in which reporting on a pandemic, an extremely charged presidential election, and a country finally coming to terms with racism and other inequities, all while being confined to my house, would drastically affect my mental health. I found that constantly reporting on widespread pain, anger, and despair meant that I was internalizing those feelings myself. While other people’s self-care practices may include shutting off the news and ignoring reality for a few days, it’s my job to pay attention, and synthesize that news.
As much of a blessing as it is to be able to do your job from anywhere, many people are also re-examining what it means to take care of your mental health in a 24/7 news cycle filled with progressively worsening headlines. I can’t log off for an extended period of time, but I can adjust my habits to protect myself as I work. Here are some methods that have helped me manage my time online:
Schedule a “no phone” break
Before 2020, Twitter was the first thing I checked when I woke up, shortly followed by emails and texts, meaning I’d start each and every day with an influx of news. When most of the country went into lockdown, the first thing I saw was often the rise in coronavirus-related deaths. This severely affected my depression and anxiety and with the help of my therapist (a privilege in itself), I set off to start my morning on a less plugged-in note.
Now, I usually wake up around 7 a.m., but I don’t look at my phone until 8:30. To fill that hour-and-a-half, I started biking. Over the summer, I got a bike that I could ride through my hilly neighborhood, forcing myself to be hands-free. My rides are usually 45 minutes, which is just enough time to clear my head, get some fresh air, and mentally prepare myself to start the day on a less aggravating note.
Set hard boundaries with friends and family
It can feel nearly impossible to have a conversation these days without COVID-19 or politics coming into play. But as I explained to my friends and family, I spend my entire day analyzing the news, and as a result, I do not have the emotional or mental bandwidth to unpack the pandemic or Trump during my time off. These were tough conversations, but I was lucky that my loved ones understood that I needed to be able to virtually socialize without thinking about work. While politics does creep into our conversations naturally, my circle understands why I may remove myself from the conversation.
Therapists and other professionals are also setting boundaries between work and social worlds for the sake of their own well-being. As Dr. JaNaè Taylor, PhD, told Cosmopolitan, doing so helps her process her own feelings, particularly when it comes to navigating anti-Black racism. “We’re kind of managing the pain and trauma of [our clients], but now we’re talking about pain and trauma that we’re also experiencing, that we’re not immune from what’s happening in real time,” she said.
Communicate with my coworkers—in my case, those are my editors
I am extremely fortunate to have coworkers who understand and respect my space. As a freelancer, it can be difficult to have close relationships with the people who hire you, but I’ve been able to conference regularly with my editors, and these conversations serve as a good check-in about my health and their bandwidth.
If there’s one skill I learned as a journalist in 2020, it’s the importance of saying “no” to stories that I know I’m not the right person to tell, or when I know my bandwidth is filled and knowing that one assignment will not make or break my career. I’m also able to communicate what projects I’m having the most trouble with—that’s how I learned to voice the way that reporting on hate crimes targeting the Asian-American and Pacific Islander-American community were taking a toll on my health. Having someone to share my burdens with is extremely comforting.
If you feel comfortable doing so, it can help talking to your supervisor about ways they can support you, whether that’s agreeing on a weekly check-in or seeing if your company’s human resources department provides sponsored mental health programs. Make your needs known to your employer because having the right workplace support is essential.
Invest in WFH gear
I had to make some major adjustments to my work space when my work-from-home situation changed in mid-March. I invested in an ergonomic chair and a desk that’s reserved solely for work (as opposed to a dining table). I also ordered a lap desk, and I love my Ramona & Ruth notepad that helps me organize my daily tasks, and scented candles that create a cozier environment.
But the most important thing about working from home is that I clean often. Mess throws off my focus, so before I do anything else, I make my bed and make sure that my work area is clutter free. Even if I can’t log off completely, I can have an environment that supports me and my needs, thereby making my on-time more pleasant overall.
Be mindful of social media activity
I am guilty of scrolling through Twitter in between my tasks, and know firsthand how it only takes one tweet to ruin your day. Due to my occupation, I mostly follow other political journalists and news outlets; I’ve found the constant doomscrolling to cause my anxiety to spike worse. I know that I’m never going to be able to turn off Twitter altogether, but I have made it a habit to recognize truth from panic. Whenever I see a particularly anxiety-inducing tweet, I ask myself: Is this fact or speculation? If the latter, I try to remind myself that there are a lot of very smart people like historians, scientists, and analysts who can provide important context and it’s better to listen to them than take a 280-character statement to heart.
Use social media to set your own boundaries
I’ve started to filter words like racial slurs on Instagram and Twitter. Studies have shown that women of color face online harassment at higher volumes than anyone else and I’ve experienced that firsthand, particularly when my stories reference charged issues like racism or the presidency. Filtering the words that I suspect trolls will try to weaponize against me has helped increase the quality of content I see daily, which helps my peace of mind immensely.
I also unfollow accounts that I notice were particularly stressful, whether because the owners were flaunting COVID-19 guidelines or because they were sharing content that I found distressing. Curating my feed to be smaller and less harmful has gone a long way in reducing what kind of posts were going to upset me. And while I can’t stop trolls from coming, I can severely limit my exposure to them and frankly, that’s better than nothing.