Joyconjurer Ep 6 - Uninstall Anxiety Drivers


I used to enjoy being a news junkie, but now it feels like it is adding to my anxiety. My husband has begged me to stop checking my phone at night and to take a break from tuning in, but I feel even more anxious when I don't know what's happening in the world. If I pay attention, the world terrifies me. If I don't pay attention, I'm even more terrified. Is there a way to not be anxious about the world or at least to manage that anxiety?

-Damned if I Do, Damned if I Don't

DiiDDiiD, any sensitive or sane person is going to be absolutely horrified at the rise of fascism in the world. Your anxiety is coming from a real place. It is important to accept your anxiety as a normal and healthy reaction to the circumstances of the world. Once you accept it, you can focus on making sure it doesn't drive your day-to-day reality.

As a news junkie, it seems as though you find comfort in knowing about things and being well-informed. It gives you a sense of control and confidence, and I imagine it comes in handy in social situations. You see, our brains are hardwired with a desire to know the lay of the land—be it a literal patch of ground or a complex social reality. The news is a map of sorts for you.

Unfortunately, we live in 2020. Social media is in the middle of rewiring the way we think, and we haven't yet adapted to it. The circumstances in the world are beyond horrifying, so the comfort of being informed now brings along anxiety and despair. Worse still, when you try to unplug, your brain feels the absence of information and starts panicking. Rock, meet Hard Place.

The search for a new source of comfort, one less riddled with complications, starts on the inside. Begin by articulating your values and identifying ways you can live them regardless of the state of the world. This is easy to say, but hard to do. But when the external world is in chaos, having your internal house in order can go a long way toward giving you comfort and even strength. In fact, your physical well-being is just as crucial. It might sound odd, but exercise and sufficient sleep can greatly mitigate anxiety and stress. The world is starving for goodness and care and value; start by feeding yourself and your family, then you can branch out.
Look for activists who have similar values and see if there are political actions (protests, vote drives, etc.) that you can volunteer for. Part of anxiety comes from the feeling that you can't change anything—but fighting for even a little bit of change can help quell the storm. Additionally, you might have a relative who is happy with this administration or pro-Brexit. Feel free to cut them out of your life, yell at them at family gatherings, or put down hard boundaries about certain things.

As you begin the process of discovering new sources of comfort and control, it would probably be good for you to disengage with the news, at least for a time. Rather than trying to do that cold turkey, do it incrementally. Limit yourself to thirty minutes throughout the day to scroll through social media or read the news. Make sure it isn't the first thirty minutes of your day or the last thirty minutes before bed. After a few days of that, take it down to fifteen minutes. Then ten. Remove Facebook, Twitter, etc. from your phone so that you have to actively make the choice to turn on a computer to log in. Once you are down to zero minutes, try holding on to your social media detox for a full month.

My suspicion is that you can find substitutes for the positive things being a news junkie did for you. A few good substitutes, combined with a prolonged absence from social media, and your anxiety levels should come down. Replace your wide breadth of knowledge from the news with a deep expertise on one relevant issue. Deep dive and learn it in and out. The part of your brain that finds comfort in knowledge and mastery will enjoy the journey. See how it goes. If none of this lands for you and you are still feeling an unbearable amount of anxiety, talk to a therapist.

In the end, we are just a sack of meat and bones that has a shockingly short lifespan. We don't get to see full arcs of history, and the injustices of our time sting all the more as a result. Accepting that some things are beyond our control is hard and painful. So, I'll leave you with some sage wisdom from our old friend, Gandalf:

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

Happy 2020! What are you doing to survive these dark times? If you'd like to post in this thread anonymously, PM me, and I'll post your comment as "anon." You can also send your quandaries to [email protected].


I hope it's okay if us GWJers chime in to offer some specific suggestions.

I am in the same boat as DiiDDiiD with being a news junkie. I also seem to be a negativity sponge too which isn't good for my overall mental state.

The JoyConjuror said it perfectly: try to limit your news intake. Below is what has been working for me lately. YMMV, but overall it has really helped my mental well-being while still feeling like I am staying informed.

1. GET OFF OF TWITTER! Seriously. Just delete Twitter and don't look back. Don't try to curate your feeds or sort "quality" users into lists or promise only to check it once-in-a-while. It will not work. The garbage will still get through. Trust me on this.

2. Install a quality news app on your phone and allow it to send you notifications. Here's the tricky part that takes some discipline: never open the app to browse the news. Ever. (Just bury the app in your phone menu somewhere if you need to.) Only open the important stories that are sent to you via the app notifications. (Or just read the headline and move on.) The next trick is finding a) a trustworthy news source that b) won't bury you in notifications that aren't really very important. After getting an Apple Watch for X-Mas I tested a ton of apps and the two best I've found are BBC News and Reuters. These two don't spam you with stories that are not important breaking news stories. They do overlap a bit on international stories though (I'm in the US) so you may want to try one at a time.

3. If you need a daily news fix, try a video or audio podcast. For video, Reuters has the best app for Apple TV and Fire TV. You can choose 10, 15, or 30 minutes and you will get a daily recap of stories. Top notch. For audio, NPR has the best podcast: Up First which is about a 7 minute highlight of the top stories. It's available daily by 6am. If audio or video don't work for you, there are several great newsletters that you can sign up to be emailed to you every day (so you're not tempted to check Twitter). The two best I've found are The Daily Skimm or the NYT Morning Briefing. There's even a great app called Stoop which you can use to sign up for newsletters with a different email address so you're not cluttering up your regular inbox.

4. Avoid the local news. It's all doom and gloom local disaster o' the day: robberies, violence, fires, death, hot dogs are killing you, etc, etc ad nauseum.

Remember, the strategy is to keep it tight. Get in, get informed, get out. Avoid internet "discussions" about news. Get the facts. If something is important enough to do a deeper dive (such as the elections or Iran) go for it, but try to keep it limited in its scope.

Hope this helps.

I have been having this same struggle... I was going to say I've been dealing with it over the last six months or so, but really I've been dealing with it since early 2016. I had been so excited for the election that year to finally end so I could put what felt like temporary insanity behind me and unfollow dozens of news and politics accounts I'd been reading obsessively trying to find some comfort and security in my knowledge of what was happening and then...well, that didn't happen! It wasn't until 3-4 months ago that I finally convinced myself to pull back dramatically because I realized this was just bad for my mental health and I needed to stop.

I don't have any advice of my own, I more or less did it cold turkey. All this time, I'd had the Twitter feed of one good reporter who always shared interesting and sometimes funny stuff as a pinned tab in my browser that I'd look at every few minutes. That was an easy thing to get rid of. I stopped listening to 3-4 political podcasts I had been listening to weekly--more video game podcasts, more comedy podcasts, focusing on fun stuff. And I realized I was using every moment where I was off-duty in my kids' bedtime routine to read through tweets on my phone, so I just stopped when I have 5 minutes because my wife is brushing their teeth or reading a book to them, I just pull up a book on my phone, or at worst, Reddit, where I am not subbed to any politics subreddits.

I had been consuming this news and politics content so voraciously for similar reasons to DiiDDiiD: it's depressing to know this stuff, but just think about how bad it would be to not know this stuff!!! What I realized, though, is this is exactly like how I respond to my fear of flying. I am a very nervous flyer, and have come to understand my reaction to that as seeking control: I want to be able to see out the window, I register every mechanical whine and clank, and I tense and shift my body with the movement of the plane, all out of some gut feeling that if I can see how the plane moves, track every noise, feel every jutter, I will know whether things are going okay or not and can protect myself from anything bad happening. But in reality, I have essentially no power over it. So, too, the news.

I try to focus on doing a few things I can do to help: When I can, I've donated to non-profits working to protect immigrants and voting rights and other causes under threat. I've donated to a few political campaigns too (I especially like this fund that sets up slates of candidates in state legislative races where they can make a big difference with relatively small amounts of money). And I do work in a public service job, so I can feel good about what I'm doing on a daily basis. Otherwise, I'm just trying to keep in mind that I can't control the rest of the world. I try to recognize my privilege, as I know there are many people who don't have the luxury of limiting how much of the awful stuff they deal with on a daily basis, but I also know that making myself miserable doesn't really help anyone.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Knives Out. At one point a character refers to another character as an "SJW." My wife, who consumes internet content much less aggressively than I do, leaned over to me and whispered "What's an 'SJW'?" I was totally astonished she had never heard that term before, but also was incredibly jealous. Does my knowledge of internet scumbags who use that terminology make me any more informed about the world? Maybe in a sense of like "total amount of information known", yes, I know more, but I don't think my wife is any less well-equipped to identify how wrong and bad people who use that term are.

PaladinTom wrote:

I hope it's okay if us GWJers chime in to offer some specific suggestions.

Of course! People should feel free to share their experiences and solutions here. The column can only have so many words in it, and different things are going to work for different people. The more we all share, the better off we all are.

For my part, I definitely come and go with the "no news at all" mentality. I got off Facebook in 2016 and, while I didn't delete my account, I never log in, preferring to let notifications of event invites and birthdays come my way. I also paired twitter down to just artists (who still, occasionally, retweet news, but rarely).

But I still have that desire to "be in the know". So how do I break it every time I feel myself getting too involved or invested? I pick up or return to a hobby and do a deep dive into it. I'll go deep into writing, letting myself get caught up in the world I create. I'll find a video game that grabs me (either with addictive and repetitive mechanics like My Time in Portia or a great story like Dark Fall Ghost Vigil or Eastshade or Unheard). I'll get back into sewing and challenge myself to improve or make something new and awesome. I'll read more or revisit beloved classics.

Maybe you'd call that just distracting myself and maybe you'd be right, but I find that my desire to be in the know fades over time, in turn making it easier to resist the temptation to check my news feed every minute. And since, for my part, the act of creating something brings me joy, it's a double hit of happiness. I'm creating, and I'm not getting caught up in the downers of the world.

This won't work for everyone, I know. But you could give it a try! Get deep into jigsaw puzzles or lego sets. Challenge yourself to become a wine aficionado. Get away from news by giving yourself something else to do.

If you're checking the news every 5 minutes because you want to feel in control of the world around you, give yourself something positive to be in control of.

Constant struggle for me. When I'm good I'm blocking news on my phone and computer using apps like Freedom.

Even better I've curated a Facebook account that's basically 99% cat pictures. That seems to help too.

That's when I'm good.

All these suggestions are good -- knowing about unjust stuff that's happening when you can't do much about it is a surefire ticket to anxiety, impotent rage and other not-great emotional states.

I have no qualms turning off much mainstream news, because I have even come to resent the packaging of it, and the curated formula of what media select to show us. What is the point of watching an interview with a politician who repeats the same 3-word slogan over and over? Why do news bulletins have 2 minutes on the stockmarket? Am I going to call my broker at 6.26pm each night after the stock report? You don't need to hear about every crime in a big city, or every traffic accident. I don't think our brains are built to cope.

I am a big proponent of escapism (including gaming) for this purpose. Escapism is not so great for avoiding personal connections, but is good for cocooning yourself from the firehose of News media. My weak spot is at bedtime, when the anxiety thoughts can come back while I'm trying to get to sleep. Sometimes distracting my thoughts with a podcast helps (thanks be to sleep timers) or some meditation-lite techniques, but as soon as I think "try to not worry about X", I'm doomed.