Surviving the News When You Have a Sticky Mind

Are you crazed by the headlines? Climate change? Impeachment? Terrorism?

Posted Oct 23, 2019

 Pete Linforth/Pixabay
Source: Pete Linforth/Pixabay

If you have a sticky mind, it feels all the worse. We previously defined stickiness of the mind as repetitive looping thinking, a sense of getting mired in worry, a talent for imaginative flights into catastrophic images and thoughts, and a tendency for junk channels of the mind to get loud and insistent instead of simply flowing by.

A sticky mind is like flypaper: Thoughts get stuck and repeat over and over again, and remain stuck as you fight to get free of them. And, as with flypaper, you are likely to get hopelessly tangled in your rush to get away.

People with sticky minds may have a difficult time managing current events:

  • How can we believe the scientific evidence that the earth will be profoundly affected by climate change, displacing millions of people, destroying habitat for huge numbers of species and leading to food and water shortages—and still have a normal life and feeling of well-being? 
  • How can we follow escalating negative national and international political and economic current developments and deal with feeling helpless? 
  • How can we know about mass shootings and everyday gun violence and still go about our lives?

So we ask ourselves, “How much action is enough?" “How much denial is healthy?” and, “Are there things I should avoid out of reasonable caution?”

All of us need a capacity to remove ourselves from some of the hard realities of life, to compartmentalize or dissociate—put things on the side—so that we can wholeheartedly live our life despite the turmoil of the times. 

But this capacity to compartmentalize is often impaired in people with sticky minds. While many people have the natural capacity to switch between channels of consciousness, people with anxiety disorders have a remarkably difficult time with precisely this task. 

We also know there is an increased sense of responsibility and excesses of empathy in those with anxiety disorders. Even neutral or ambiguous stimuli tend to be experienced as threatening or negative. And sticky minds tend also to be hypervigilant for danger cues.

So the questions we have to answer are “How much is too much?” and “How much is enough?” How much is the proper amount of time to spend watching/listening/internally debating/worrying about and obsessively following the news feeds? And if you ignore or neglect the news, are you being irresponsible or selfish?

While there are no “rules” for handling the news, some guidelines derived from what we know about stickiness might be helpful.

As strange as this may seem, the most effective way to live with a sticky mind is not to struggle with it, but to change your relationship with it. This means taking a broader view, a step back, an attitude of curiosity and humor instead of judgment, alarm, and urgency. Despite how urgent and demanding they feel, most sticky thoughts are not emergencies, warnings, or signals. Sticky thoughts taken too seriously create a reluctance to take any risks at all, and to avoid triggering worries or anxious experiences, leading to limitations in living and feelings of danger, frailty, disability, and profound distress.

But what if your thoughts are true alarms? When your best guess is that things really are objectively awful? When the terrors of climate change, mass violence, and domestic and foreign terrorism are judged to be real and imminent? How can you keep from getting overwhelmed?

There are two different places to intervene: one is in terms of how much time and energy you devote to receiving information, research, and constant updates; the second is what you actually do about what you are learning—the action plan or plans in which you involve yourself.

Regarding the first intervention, setting limits on news consumption is not easy. The news comes at us, often unbidden, on our phones, computers, radios, and TVs. People are engaged in political talk, controversial topics and fearful rhetoric everywhere we turn.

The idea of “news-free zones” can be helpful—consciously declaring mealtimes, an hour before bed, during exercise, music instead of news in the car, babysitting time or any other respite time that makes sense in your life—and sticking to it. There will arise passing thoughts about “missing out” or “not knowing” or “being irresponsible” and these will need to be handled like any other sticky thoughts. Going “off the grid” for hours or even days can have a huge healing effect on an over-sensitized nervous system. Asking others to respect your news-free boundaries may also be a challenge, but can serve as a positive model for those around you.

What about avoiding activities like attending events with crowds or using public transportation that now “feel” riskier than they used to? Our advice is to think about Londoners during World War II, who insisted on carrying on their normal activities so that their enemies did not score a victory by crushing British culture through fear. Yes, the stakes are high indeed but the odds remain low, even now.

With regard to action plans, there are many options to choose from—simple and quick things like signing an e-petition, sending a contribution to a cause, recycling instead of trashing, foregoing plastic bags and soda bottles, writing your congressman. There are also larger activities like organizing and marching and campaigning. Taking action even when the issue seems overwhelming and hopeless will bring you closer to like-minded others, stop you from feeling like a passive isolated bystander, and channel energy towards the present moment of engagement.

Knowing how much action is enough will be the next challenge, but remember that feeling certain that you have done enough may not be an achievable goal. The work will always seem unfinished and not enough—and those are sticky, automatic thoughts that are best allowed and left alone.