Take an Information Vacation!

Staying informed is a good idea. Even before we had printed newspapers people stayed informed by town criers, gossip, letters, etc. These various sources took sometimes weeks or months to get to individual people. Today, however, we are literally bombarded every second by information and news stories. Watching the evening news, not only is the journalist telling you about the local news but, frequently, you're also able to view breaking news, stock information, weather statistics and a variety of other information on the bottom ticker (or multiple tickers!) simulaneously. The internet allows us to view multiple news stories or informational bits with a click of the mouse. On Facebook, if you look at a post, frequently there are "related stories" that you might be interested in as well... It is quite literally information overload! And if you're a naturally curious person wanting to feel informed, you can spend a LOT of time looking into these stories.

Viewing all of this news and other information has its place, to be sure, but it is surprising how detrimental it can be to our mental health. Unfortunately, news sources cannot help but give us a very distorted picture of the state of the world. They are not telling about the Jones' next door, they're telling about the sensational events that we don't see every day. Of course, these things DO happen, but not with the frequency that news sources unintentionally make us believe.

I'll tell you the story that got me thinking about the connection between too much information and impaired mental health. When my daughter was an infant, I used to watch the news with my husband in the evenings. We used to watch Dateline and 60 minutes, too. When I would put my daughter to bed, I would frequently wake in the middle of the night positively convinced that someone was breaking into our house to kidnap her. I'm not joking! I would literally get up and go check on her several times each night: "Is she still here? Okay, she is, but is she breathing? Because she could die of SIDS. Yes, she's still breathing. Okay." Then I'd go back to bed only to lie awake listening for sounds of the intruder that I knew was just waiting for his opportunity to break into the house and kidnap my daughter! Needless to say, I was one stressed-out mama! Now, some of this could have been that I was a new mom and all new moms are a little bit... overzealous, but what was interesting was that shortly after that, I consciously stopped watching and actively avoided all news and other programming that constantly talked about kidnapping, SIDS, intruders, murderers, rapists, etc. and my anxiety level went WAY down. I no longer found myself checking on my daughter every 15 minutes. I was sleeping better, she was sleeping better, and I was a much more relaxed parent.

I have had more than one client who has convinced themself that they have an extremely rare variety of cancer (which changes to another rare condition the next week, and the next...) because at the smallest twinge, they look it up on the internet and convince themselves that this is an early sign of some fatal disease. Their anxiety level NEVER went down with all of this checking, it would only escalate with each new story or source! Obviously this behavior does not happen for everyone but if there is already a tendency present, this habit can be highly detrimenta--and very rarely is it helpful.

Information overload not only causes or intensifies anxiety but can frequently intensify depression as well. Unfortunately, if a person is already feeling depressed, they may not be leaving their house as much as they should and may spend more time laying in bed or on the couch watching TV or surfing the internet. When we're already feeling depressed, our eyes will naturally gravitate towards the worst stories, the most depressing events, etc. This just fuels an already depressed mood! Who wants to go out of the house when our world is going to hell in a handbasket?

When we notice that our mental health is declining--we're feeling more anxious, more depressed, more negative overall, what we really might need is a vacation--an "Information Vacation"! Shut off the TV. Don't read the newspaper. Don't surf the 'net. Don't look up every twinge that you feel. Don't seek out news stories. Despite your best efforts to avoid it, I doubt you will become a sorely uninformed member of society. You will still hear about awful things happening in other parts of the world. You'll still hear about disasters and the deaths of our favorite actors. What you will gain, however, is a much more balanced view of your world and the greater world in which you live. Your anxiety may decrease, your depression may ease, your happiness will increase. Isn't that what we all want from a vacation? If you don't notice an improvement in your mental health or you're still feeling anxious and/or depressed, it may be advisable to seek professional help.

Vacations come to an end eventually, so when (or if!) you return to the world of information overload, do so as a more informed consumer. Choose what and how much you watch and think critically about what is being portrayed. There was an interesting TED talk given by some researchers in Sweden that showed that, despite what the news media would have us believe, things are actually getting better. Not worse, but better. View that talk here (please view it, it is extremely interesting!) Take their suggestions and apply them as your vacation ends--if it ever does.