In a deeply divided country, it can be difficult to find consensus about anything other than the fact that we are living in a stressful time. While chaos and upheaval are nothing new, the way we find out about the world has changed. Instead of struggling to gather information, we are inundated with a ceaseless flow of news, social media and questionable facts.
For many of us, generating and managing this information has become a full-time job, leaving little time for real-life, real-time interactions. The irony is that the human brain, which enabled us to create this technological world, still uses a convoluted, ancient operating system to process information.
The human brain, which enabled us to create this technological world, still uses a convoluted, ancient operating system to process information.
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Consequently, while the cortex dreams up new, abstract ways to alter the world, structures deep in the brain monitor and regulate our body, scan the environment for danger and trigger physical fight-or-flight responses regardless of the source of the stress. Unfortunately, running away from a deadline, or punching your boss isn't a particularly helpful response in modern life.
In addition, we are frequently overwhelmed by too much stimulation, and too many choices instead of too few. As a result, we find ourselves looking for patterns, trying to simplify issues and giving precedence to opinions that reinforce what we already believe to be true.
It doesn't help that our brains are programmed to pay attention to rapidly changing stimuli. This predilection, which was crucial when survival depended on constantly monitoring the environment, makes it hard for us to ignore 140-character Twitter streams, television shows, social media updates from our friends and families, and even advertising. Who among us hasn't found it hard to break away from something on television, or turned to Facebook, Twitter or a newsfeed when we didn't want to do the work in front of us?
As a brief respite, this may not be a problem. However, when disasters occur, when we don't agree with the politicians in power, or when we become concerned with a pending threat like global warming or economic collapse, scanning, checking, and obsessing online can interfere with our mood, and our ability to function.
Scanning, checking, and obsessing online can interfere with our mood, and our ability to function.
Psychological research suggests that the brain is also predisposed to attend to negative information. When media content makes us feel angry, scared or sad, we orient towardsthe disturbing story to make sure we know how to protect ourselves (It's that fight-or-flight response again). The problem occurs when the threat is far removed from us, amplified by the media and out of our control, all of which can make us feel helpless or hopeless.
In response, some people try to avoid the news or social media entirely, while others try in vain to follow it constantly. Of course neither option solves the problem, since ignorance is not always bliss, and too much information — particularly from single or biased sources — can distort our worldview.
So how can we, as individuals, satisfy our need to know what is going on in the world without being swamped by the ceaseless chatter or distracted by extraneous input?
Perhaps we need to think about our media consumption the way we would any other behavior, as a habit that can be changed if we truly want to. To make lasting changes, people have to consciously create and maintain a plan of action, and may have to pick up new skills along the way. You have only to think of your last New Year's resolution to assess whether you already know how to make systematic behavior changes. If you have already failed to meet your 2017 goals, there are some simple techniques you can try.
The first step is to carefully identify the thoughts and feelings you find uncomfortable, or the behaviors you want to change. For example, if you feel that you are spending too much time online, you could try keeping a log of your behavior for a few days. The key is to note specific details, including when, where and why the behavior occurred. For example, when do you feel the urge to hop online, how much time are you actually spending in a day, and what are you thinking or feeling when you get the urge to click in? Are you catastrophizing about what will happen if you don't check in, seeking social attention or approval, or worrying about whether the world is running the way you think it should? Are you anxious that you are missing something important, seeking a little bit of excitement, avoiding an unfamiliar task or feeling lonely? How do you feel after you spend time online? Like eating or smoking, turning to the internet to try to get temporary relief from negative emotions can backfire in the long run.
Once you have a better sense of your media-viewing cues, you have the opportunity to respond in a different way. Think about the thoughts and feelings that are triggering your behavior, and try to find a way to address those underlying needs. Although people often find that media exposure makes them feel angry, sad or anxious, they will also use social media to try to avoid the same sorts of feelings. Colleagues and I have joked that it all comes down to what makes you feel Mad, Bad, Sad or Glad.
If you find that your media viewing is associated with anger, maybe you need to reassess your news sources.
So, if you find that your media viewing is associated with anger, maybe you need to reassess your news sources. Why do you continue to look at Facebook posts that infuriate you, or to watch news show that make you agitated? Maybe it would be better to find a more neutral news source, or to set limits on how you consume social media. Or set yourself the task of studying the people you disagree with, to see if you can better understand why they think or behave the way they do. This can actually be a fun way to wile away a boring meeting, as well.
If media exposure makes you feel that the world is coming to an end, maybe you need to change your perspective. Find a good historical novel or movie and remind yourself that life has always been challenging, but people persevere. When you start feeling overwhelmed by other people's opinions, try spending a few hours without electronic input. Talking to older people who have successfully lived through wars, depressions and tragedies can also help you cope. Or run an experiment to see whether exercising, spending time outside or getting more sleep makes you feel better about the state of the world.
When watching the tragedies and injustices of the world makes you depressed, figure out how to limit your exposure. Could you get your news updates from the radio or brief summaries of the day's events so you don't have to see pictures that give you nightmares? Can you find a local way to take action? You can't fix global warning alone, but you can clean up a park. Helping others actually activates brain circuits that promote attachment and comfort, so we all benefit. If you are using the media to feel connected to others, try to make some real-world connections. Take a walk around the office and talk to people, call someone in real time, or look for a way to meet people who like to do the same things you do (sports, books, cooking ...).
And finally, even if you do succeed in changing your media-viewing behavior, remember that we all relapse from time to time. The key is to get back on track after a binge, not to blame yourself and give up on your efforts to find balance. The paradox of the modern world is that the same technology that has made our lives so much easier physically has also created new mental challenges. I choose to believe that our brains are up to the task of figuring out how to cope.
Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). She conducts research on stress and coping, has published in a variety of academic journals, and is the author of the book "Mind The Gap: Managing Stress in the Modern World." She is a recipient the University of Texas Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award and a fellow of the University of Texas System's Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Reach her at Mary.McNaughtonCassill@utsa.edu.
—By Mary E. McNaughton-Cassill, Recode.net.
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