Tapestry

Feeling overwhelmed with the non-stop news? You're not alone.

Cynthia Wallace asks what today is a pretty universal question: how can you follow the news cycle while protecting your own mental health? She’s an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
Cynthia Wallace with her son, Pilgram and daughter, Miriam. (Submitted by Cynthia Wallace)

Throughout the pandemic, Cynthia Wallace felt overwhelmed every time she heard the news. Despite the urge to just turn off all media, she didn't want to retreat from the world entirely. She struggled with finding the right balance of staying engaged with her community and the greater world, without burning out. 

Wallace is an English professor at St. Thomas More College, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. She spoke to Tapestry's Mary Hynes about the concept of moral distress, and finding respite and beauty in the mundane activities of life.

Here is part of their conversation.

This headline caught my eye the other day. It's from the piece you wrote for Plough magazine. And it says, "When following the news becomes too distressing." What was the moment that brought you to that point? 

It was fall, I think – two years ago [this] fall. And there was just a day when I woke up and the Covid news was too much, and the global news was too much. I took stock of where I was at, looking at the news and where my friends were at … And I found myself needing to reflect on that a little bit. And I reflect on things by writing about them. So that's what I did. 

Cynthia Wallace is an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. (Submitted by Cynthia Wallace)

What did that writing reveal to you when you reflected and gave it a little bit of thought? 

Yeah, it made me realize that what I was going through was not unique to me. I felt so overwhelmed, and I felt like … what is the chance that I'm going to continue engaging if I don't address this? I realized that if I didn't really stop, and start to take stock of what all of the global news was doing to me – in addition to the pandemic news – I was probably just going to start to go a little numb. And I didn't want to go numb. 

I remember interviewing Dr. Andrew Weil once and his solution— this was many, many years before the moment that we're in now. But his remedy was a "news fast." You just turn it off. You just don't read about it. You just don't watch it. You just don't listen to it. Did that feel like a solution to you at any point? 

I feel like that's a solution in a kind of short term. For example, in January of this year, I found myself with acute appendicitis and I had to seek medical care. In Saskatchewan's hospitals, which are pretty overrun by COVID right now, our wave came a little late. And I have not kept up with the province's COVID numbers during this season as a kind of way of disentangling myself from the anxiety around that. But in the longer term, I want to be a citizen who is engaged. I want to know what's happening in my community and in my country and in the world because I believe I have a role in responding to that.

Cynthia with her children, Pilgram and Miriam. (Submitted by Cynthia Wallace)

In your writing, you've referred to a specific kind of weariness that seems to be quite common these days. This kind of exhaustion, really dispirited. And you've used the term "moral distress." What's moral distress in your view? 

I learned that moral distress is a term that was coined in the 1980s, specifically to describe the experiences of health care workers and nurses, which feels very apropos for our moment as well. Just to describe this feeling of exhaustion or concern or fatigue, or even anxiety and depression that manifests when a person sees something wrong but doesn't have the power to fix it. And maybe even they have a sense of what would fix the problem, but they're not the one with the authority to make that happen. 

And as you mentioned, this is a term that's often used in disaster relief or for frontline health care workers. How has that feeling - this moral distress spread well beyond those communities and into just plain people during the pandemic? 

On the one hand, I think it's important for us to recognize that people at the front lines are probably experiencing a more acute degree of moral distress or even moral injury. But I think all of us are familiar with this experience of looking up at the world around us right now and saying so much is wrong, and … I don't have the power to fix it. But I see things that could make it better, and the people who do have the power aren't doing it. And that leaves us in this place of feeling a kind of powerlessness, that takes a toll on our minds and on our bodies. 

Cynthia and her family. (Submitted by Cynthia Wallace)

You've suggested that it can be a real healing balm for the soul to make something beautiful or to do something just for the sake of sheer beauty. Can you tell me about something you've done to make room for beauty or just to invite beauty in? 

Yes, I am a person who is tied to my to-do list and my productivity – to an unhealthy extent at points. But when I came home from hospital last month, I ordered some embroidery kits. And they won't make anything useful. But in the evenings, I've been cuddling with my kids on the couch and just stitching images of flowers on cloth. And that activity has been so soothing – both the activity of making something and the activity of making something that's only purpose is to be lovely. I don't know. There's something about it. My husband is making sourdough bread. He's a devoted bread maker – and that feeds us, but is also very beautiful. So, yeah, I do find healing in those [kinds] of acts of creation and making. 

How do you think we can stay engaged with the world without becoming overwhelmed right now? 

Sometimes … I think we'll be overwhelmed because the world is overwhelming. It's not a function of us, it's a function of the way things are. There's just too much right now. And historically, we're not evolved to have access to this much global information. We haven't caught up yet with our technology. But in terms of strategies, man, I'm glad I have a therapist. I find that very helpful. And I'm learning more in my approaching middle age. I'm learning more about the importance of bodily healing and the way that we can heal that mind-body divide. I think sometimes we do have to take a break and then re-engage. I think we need each other. I think we need spaces where we can tell each other the truth and trust each other. I think we need to work together to build communities where we know that if we need help, we can access it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview produced by Kent Hoffman. Written by Rosie Fernandez.

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