March 7, 2017
If you felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of information before the election, now you’re likely suffering from whiplash. The headlines are coming at us so quickly, and at such a constant rate that it’s nearly impossible to take it all in, let alone metabolize the news before the next series of alerts blink on our phones. This information comes from the left and the right, too, and it’s no longer relegated just to TV news channels; 62% of U.S. adults get their news on social media, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report—as well as in our entertainment, even advertising, and those early morning Trumpian rage-tweet storms. Like it or not, Trump is “omnipresent” as writer Farhad Manjoo states in an op-ed for the New York Times, in which he attempted to find “Trump-free” zones of media with little success. According to his findings, Trump is actually getting more coverage than not only any other president, but possibly any other person in history due to his antagonistic antics. Manjoo cites data from mediaQuant, a firm that measures earned media, all coverage that isn’t officially paid advertising. They calculate these earned media dollars by counting every mention of a personality or brand in any outlet, then estimating how much those mentions would cost if someone paid for them as advertising.
“In January, Mr. Trump broke mediaQuant’s records,” Manjoo writes. “In a single month, he received $817 million in coverage, higher than any single person has ever received in the four years that mediaQuant has been analyzing the media.
While those numbers likely swell Trump’s already bursting orange head, it appears to be creating a climate of information overload for the average person, which is taking a toll on people’s health, ability to focus, and feel positive about the future.
Samantha White, a writer in California, reports feeling “overloaded daily by streams of information about the latest disgusting assault on our waning democracy.”
This has taken a significant toll on her mental and physical health. Shortly after the election, she became sick with a respiratory infection for two months—which is unlike her—and has lost her desire to work on her novel, which is seven years in progress, and, not surprisingly, is struggling with depression. “I am paralyzed with sorrow and everywhere I turn, there is some factoid that deepens the feeling of hopeless despair,” she says.
Others feel that they can no longer enjoy social media. Or they opt to get their news primarily from comedy shows such as The Daily Show or Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show to temper the news with a humorous spin. “My Facebook algorithm right now is almost exclusively political stories. It makes Facebook really overwhelming and anxiety-inducing,” says Chelsea Biondolillo, a regulatory affairs analyst and blue voter living in the red state of Arizona. She finds herself longing for news sources “that [offer] messages of progress and hope and beauty,” she says. Not because she wants to tune out, but she needs “something that reminds me what we’re fighting for and all the little ways the fight is helping.”
The fact is, not everyone has the ability to process information in the same way, particularly if it strikes a “strong emotional cord,” says Virginia-based psychologist Jessica Hunter. “The more emotionally loaded something is, the more overwhelming and triggering it seems to be,” she adds. In psychological literature, information processing issues stem from executive function problems, located in your brain’s frontal lobe. “So you may see someone who struggles with organization, planning or affect [emotion] management, also struggles with their ability to manage information overload,” she points out. If you meet this criteria, you may need help building better coping skills such as tuning into the signs of anxiety or overwhelm, and limiting exposure to news or information you know might be triggering.
Trump might as well be one big trigger warning, after all. To start, there are the many allegations that he's committed sexual assault, and of course, there's his infamous pussy-grabbing comment. His Muslim ban disguised as a travel ban has sent tremors of terror through immigrant communities of all kinds. His rollback of protections for transgender students to use the bathrooms they prefer feels like an assault on some of the most vulnerable among us. And let’s not forget the waves of hate crimes that have risen since his election.
Who can be blamed for feeling emotional and overwhelmed by news reporting on his latest gambits? Hunter points out that some people are more prone to “distorted thinking” and “catastrophizing,” terms that stem from a form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to help people identify irrational thinking and challenge those thoughts for new patterns of behavior.
Social Media Onslaught
However, our feeling of being overwhelmed could just as easily come from the constancy of information. Benjamin Dowd-Arrow, a Florida-based expert in political sociology, social movements, and race, suggests it’s important to determine if your overload is just a simple case of social media fatigue. “Research says that the average person spends at least six hours per week on Facebook,” he says. That’s about 50 minutes per day. On Facebook, people don’t just read news, either, they engage with one another, for better and worse. “There’s a lot of emotional labor,” he explains. “They may have to get into discussions which can lead to arguments with people who may not agree.”
The best test of this, of course, is to see how you feel when you take a break and focus on other things. After all, as Manjoo writes, “Mr Trump is 90 percent of the news on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, and probably yours, too. But he’s not 90 percent of what’s important in the world.”
“I probably spend more time online than almost anyone I know, and I was getting grumpy from that last fall,” says Ellen Jovin, a principle and co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication skills training firm in New York. Her antidote was to get outside more “to look at light and air and humans and trees.” She calculates that since early December, 2016, she has walked about 125 miles per month, which has made “an unbelievable psychic difference.”
Jovin is able to stave off overwhelm by rooting herself in history, and she recommends people read about “truly difficult times” throughout time. It helps her keep her “inclinations toward self-pity and self-importance in check.” For example, she takes comfort from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, which she read during a very sad time in her life. “If he could survive wars, and natural disasters, and the deaths of his children, then I can survive modern media.”
Biondolillo struggles with the feeling that turning away is equivalent to not caring. “If someone knows how to take a break without it feeling like I’m not doing everything I can to stem the tide of hate and misogyny spewing from our current political system, I’d love to know,” she laments.
This is what Hunter refers to as a “double-bind,” or “Putting yourself in a situation where you can’t win,” she says, which can contribute to increased overwhelmed. Instead, she suggests reminding yourself, “I’m going to take in the information I can today because I need to take care of myself.”
Another likely cause of information overload, cites Dowd-Arrow, comes from the work of sociologist James Jasper, who suggests that “it takes both positive and negative outcomes to energize a person to keep them participating in social movements.” If one is only drowning in the negative, one is likely to become discouraged, defeated, depressed and emotionally tapped out. Likewise, when things are going swimmingly, people can become complacent and stop fighting for what they believe in. In either of these instances, he suggests you take a look outside your echo chamber. If your news is coming from a strongly partisan, highly opinionated source, you may not be seeing the full picture. Or, it might help to re-energize you to look at the world through the filter of those you don’t agree with.
Dowd-Arrow also suggests that we turn more toward each other, particularly for those who are engaged in social justice activism. “If activists are in dialogue with each other, it recharges that emotional battery, because they’re able to build narratives with each other based on shared experience.”
And though many civil rights and common sense regulations for our safety and the environment are under threat right now, trying to tackle them all is a surefire way to court overwhelm. “Social movements scholars have seen that the person who takes part in one movement is also the same person taking part in other movements.” Overload follows if you don’t focus.
While there’s no single solution to becoming more resilient in the face of this extreme onslaught of information, the simplest one may be the most effective: take your information in small doses, connect with others who uplift you, and do the things that refresh and energize you at the same time.