Headline Stress Disorder and the Holidays

Headline Stress Disorder is a new term that’s catching on with mental health professionals. Find out what it is and how to avoid it during the holidays.

With Remembrance Day (and Don Cherry) behind us, most of us will start focusing on the festive season, or as my American friends tend to call it, “the holidays.”  

A lot of family celebrations in a range of cultures come up around the winter solstice. Starting with American Thanksgiving next week, we then have Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwaanza, Makara Sankranti, Yalda Night, Yule, Dongshi, Santa Lucia, Sanghamitta Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and lots of others. You could go to a party every day from now until the end of the year. No wonder not much work gets done this time of year.

It ‘s supposed to be a fun time with family and friends, but this year, over and over, people are telling me they’re dreading it. They can’t face a dinner table with their relatives. My stateside friends are the most anxious. Lots of them seem to be worried about that loud-mouthed, opinionated uncle who wants to argue politics with them.

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New condition: Headline Stress Disorder.

It’s part of a new anxiety condition. Mental health professionals call it Headline Stress Disorder. The first to coin the term was Dr. Steven Stosny. He started out calling it Election Stress Disorder during the 2016 campaign. Since it hasn’t gone away, he has broadened it to include feeling distressed about the news as a whole since then.

It seems to me that Greg Keelor from the band Blue Rodeo was prophetic when he summed it up as well as anyone back in 2006 in his song No Man’s Land.

“In these hard and troubled days
You feel lost and betrayed
You’re surrounded by fear,
Sorrow and pain
Feels like this whole world’s going insane.”

Couples therapist on anger and resentment

Dr. Stosny has been a couples therapist dealing mainly with anger and resentment in relationships for the last three decades. In an article in Psychology Today, he explains that many people experienced shock and fury with the results of the 2016 presidential election in the US. When we don’t express them, shock and anger tend to devolve into anxiety and depression. I’ve certainly learned that the hard way.

He has found that this experience manifests differently between the men and the women who come to him for advice. Women are more vulnerable to headline stress disorder than men. As he puts it, “Many feel personally devalued, rejected, unseen, unheard, and unsafe. They report a sense of foreboding and mistrust about the future.”

Men can also be overwhelmed by the news these days, but they respond differently. The gender differences can lead to tension in intimate relationships because the males aren’t good at sharing the emotional burden. Dr. Stosny points us to the work of Dr. Shelley Taylor at UCLA.

paper called Tend and Befriend Theory

Dr. Taylor wrote an influential paper called Tend and Befriend Theory. We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight Response.” The idea is that stress comes from our instinct to either defend ourselves or escape when we feel threatened. Fight or flight raises our blood pressure, gets us breathing faster and generally prepares us to get physical.

Tend and Befriend Theory looks at things differently. As a social species with very vulnerable young, humans evolved with instincts to protect the weak and join together in times of crisis. The Tend and Befriend Response isn’t unique to humans. Biologists observe it in other primates and more distantly related animals as well.

Which idea is right, Fight or Flight or Tend and Befriend? The answer is both. We all have some of both instincts hard-wired into us. Which one dominates seems to depend on our gender.  

Males experience Fight or Flight Response

Males tend to experience more of the Fight or Flight Response, which leads to aggressive behaviour when stressed. Females, on the other hand, tend to bond together with their circle of female friends. Maybe men were the hunter-gatherers, while women focused on child-rearing together back in the village. Who knows?  

Anyway, in our modern society, this has meant that women are healthier than men and that they live longer. For example, during the 90s in the former Soviet Union, the social network fell apart. Women tended to respond by joining together in support groups (remember Pussy Riot?).

Men, on the other hand, turned to drinking, smoking and fighting. As a result, male life expectancy fell by an unprecedented seven years over a disastrous five year period. Most of the untimely deaths involved single men.

“connect, affiliate, show compassion”

Leaving gender roles aside, Dr. Stosny applies the findings of Tend and Befriend Theory to Headline Stress Disorder. The way to cope with the surge of infuriating news these days is to “reach out, connect, affiliate, and show compassion for those similarly affected.”  

In the chorus of the song I mentioned, Greg Keelor writes, “And we’ll all go together, through the no man’s land.”

Dr. Stosny also encourages us to do this in person. Emails or texts don’t cut it. We need to share our frustrations face to face. What better time is there to put our Tend and Befriend instincts to work than over the holidays?  

Focus on tending and befriending

So, as we put up our holiday lights and our trees and bounce from one get together to the next, let’s focus on tending and befriending those with whom we come in contact. That annoying uncle is more to be pitied than feared. He hasn’t learned how to cope with stress combined with isolation. He’s just being a guy.

Remember the words of Ambrose Bierce, “Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Or, as Rwandan author Bangambiki Habyarimana wrote, “An angry enemy is a conquered enemy.” Once they’ve made you mad, you’ve lost.

Let’s all focus on finding ways to forget Fight or Flight and nurture our tending and befriending side this holiday season.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Overcoming Headline Stress Disorder
Tend and Befriend Theory 
No Man’s Land
Don Cherry, Poppies and Cancel Culture
The Climate Crisis: Why Do We Fight About It?
Climate Wars in Australia are a Microcosm

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