How to Stay Sane in a World of Crazy News

Another day, another firestorm. Nine experts on ways to keep up — and keep your head from exploding.

Our Social Media Accounts Are Driving Us Crazy

Life comes at you fast—these days, it seems, at the speed of light.

The first 100 days of any new presidential administration bring a flurry of actions and reactions, but this first month alone has been a blizzard of executive orders, presidential tweets, and momentous events—among them an immigration order that created havoc at airports before being blocked in court, dozens of large protest marches, anarchists in the streets of Berkeley, one nomination to the Supreme Court, one national security adviser's resignation, and, for good measure, a North Korean missile test.

News readership is on the rise. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker are just a few of the publications reporting post-election subscription bumps. Leading up to the inauguration, news consumers spent 42 percent more time in the newspaper category last year than in 2015, and in the political news category 180 percent more, Comscore reports. Meanwhile, "fake news" is proliferating on the right, as the left jumps into the fray with anti-Trump conspiracy theories. It's no surprise so many Americans report experiencing more stress than usual, overwhelmed by the daily barrage.

"When threatened or apprehensive, we don't process information the same way," said Anthony L. Rostain, professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "It's good for short periods of time, or when you really are in danger. But to be in that state constantly is both exhausting emotionally and inefficient in getting things done." 

Below, some advice to help keep you informed and reasonably sane.

Mad as hell? Here’s why

How to tell if a story is for real? Experts say the best indicator is the feeling it elicits. 

"My biggest rule of thumb is if it arouses an emotional response in you, double-check it," said Brooke Binkowksi, managing editor at Snopes, a website that specializes in debunking popular internet myths from both the left and the right. "They upset you because they're meant to."

When a story seems outrageous, such as a five-year-old Syrian refugee shown in handcuffs before deportation, it might not be true—or entirely true. That Syrian girl wasn't in handcuffs, her father said after he had heard the reports, and they aren't refugees. The photo shows detained Syrians trying to go on vacation who, despite their visas, were denied entry and had to return home. Binkowski and D.C. Vito, executive director of the Lamp, which teaches media literacy in New York, suggest searching for a second source, especially when a story is incendiary.

Sticking to stories reported by established news media can help. For different perspectives on U.S. events, Binkowski recommends getting news from a variety  of outlets, such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, as well as overseas outlets such as the BBC and Al  Jazeera. "I am not in the camp that Fox News is evil," she said.

When a story comes to you through social media, take a moment to determine whether the news source is trustworthy. A photo with a message that it "comes from a friend" probably isn't. 

"Examine the byline. Make sure you're looking at a name that seems like a name," Vito said. "Does the author provide sources to claims that they're making? Look at the ads on the page. Are they adult-oriented? All news has bias, but is it so overt that you can just sense it's immediately making you mad as hell?"

Focus like a laser—and protect your kids

Pacing your news consumption will help you manage your reactions, and will also make you less likely to spread misinformation. 

"Even before news breaks on channels, you have social media talking about it," said Farha Abbasi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and director of the Muslim Mental Health Conference. "It's constant. Your mind doesn't have time to digest one piece of information and you're getting another."

Vito says slow down. "Reading the first report is never really important," he said, noting that early reports are often the least accurate. You don't need to watch every story unfold in real time. 

"You have to figure out a sustainable schedule for yourself," said Vaile Wright, director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association. "It's upon us as citizens to be paying attention, but we need to know our own limits." Give yourself an hour in the morning to read the news, an hour at night, or both, and then get back to your life. 

The rest of the day, prioritize. "Keep focused  on what you need to get done and try to minimize off-task behavior as much as possible," said Rostain, who is also the co-author of The Adult ADHD Tool Kit: Using CBT to Facilitate Coping Inside and Out. Following the news constantly not only makes people more anxious, it's also a "time killer," he said. You need to take a step back and "create a space around you and the task at hand so that you can complete it." 

If your job requires you to be constantly up-to-date on the news, make time to look away. "You have to carve out that time where you can take a break," Wright said. Being out of the loop for an hour isn't going to make you worse at your job, but better, said Sallie Richards, a clinical psychologist at Rural Mental Health Associates Inc. in Oil City, Pa. That's especially true if you read or hear something that upsets you.

"When we identify something that is triggering an emotional reaction, having a break helps maintain our strength and endurance, which helps us continue on effectively," she said.

Parents might consider changing their normal news consumption habits so their kids aren't exposed to vulgar language or a drumbeat of angry exchanges, said Mona Damluji, an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

The point is to take action. "Don't overestimate your own self-control," said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Medicine and former policy adviser to the White House under President Barack Obama. "It's really hard to have your phone and not look at it." If you're setting aside screen-free time, he said, "the best thing is to turn it off or don't bring it with you." You might even consider turning off all notifications. 

And if ever there was a time to break the before-bed phone habit, this is it. 

"It's bad to look at screens right before bed anyway," Humphreys said, noting the research that has shown blue light to disrupt sleep. "Going to bed terrified and enraged is going to cause you misery."

Do this now

Even the most fastidious news consumers will sometimes get sucked into emotionally charged stories too quickly to recognize that they might not be true. And even real events can be deeply troubling. You probably can't control what just happened, but you can control how you react to it.

Instead of sharing these stories to Facebook, "have a few friends—two or three people on a text thread—for when something upsetting happens in the news," said Tara Well, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College. "Stay supportive and close with those people," whatever your politics. This can help avoid the "emotional contagion" of social media, where feelings of fear can spread quickly, warranted or not.

Take self-care seriously. Don't let your regular healthy habits—eating, exercise, sleeping—go out the window. Add new healthy habits to your routine, and implement them when you need them. Well recommends mirror meditation, starting with 10 silent minutes of thought while staring in the mirror. Abbasi, the psychiatry professor at Michigan State, is a fan of laughter yoga. "Laughter is free, it is infectious, and it helps your stress levels go down," she said.

Mindfulness and finding ways to be in the moment by focusing on your senses and deep breathing are important, Richards said. If you've never meditated, you're in luck—there is no shortage of apps available to teach you how to do it. Good old-fashioned therapy still works and can be done through an app now, too. 

Replace some of your news consumption with uplifting content, whatever that is for you. Damluji, the media studies professor, has created a new playlist for background audio she wants children to hear, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and the work of Warsan Shire, a London-based Somali poet.

Writing or calling your senators and state representatives to advocate for the institutions and programs you believe in, or becoming active in your local community, can help you cope in tough times, said Abbasi, who spoke at the Women's March at the Capitol steps in Lansing, Mich. "However raw and depleted and underprivileged you are feeling, there is someone out there you can reach out to and share the pain." She encourages everyone, of every political stripe, to volunteer for a cause.

"Giving social support can be even more helpful than getting it," said Humphreys, who also recommends finding opportunities to serve through a faith community of some kind. "It gets us out of ourselves and gives us a sense of competence. Even just taking time to tell a colleague that you value them as a co-worker. It's good for your own well-being to do that."

Don't disengage. "I wouldn't advocate that people become totally unplugged, uninformed, and unaware of what's going on," Damluji said. "I think we could schedule our time or consumption of information so that it is not spilling over and consuming every waking moment."

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