There are two kinds of anxiety: neurotic anxiety, which is characterized by over-rumination, looping thoughts, and generally unproductive worrying, and normal anxiety, which is what Kierkegaard talks about — the anxiety that we are able, the fear of our own potential, the “possibility of possibility.”
In this unique socio-political moment, I think we have to be very careful about which of these two types of anxiety we are indulging in. Social media (and regular old media) provides an endless stream of updates that can keep us in a constant state of high neurotic anxiety. Monitoring the bad news and worrying about the bad news starts to be so all-consuming it feels like its own brand of activism. But it’s one that accomplishes nothing.
What’s worse: all of this over-worrying literally drains the cognitive resources and energy you need to face the anxiety of your own potential — the possibility of possibility — and overcome it so that you can create great art that asks big questions, build a business that is humane and calm and diverse, or organize a protest or petition or other action that reflects your true beliefs.
Our challenge then is to turn down the noise on all that unproductive, neurotic anxiety, so that we can amplify our ability to face down the creative demons that keep us from taking action on the ideas that could truly make an impact on society.
A few ideas on how we can squelch the neurotic anxiety that’s currently eating up way too much of our attention:
1. Adopt a media diet that’s focused on news with perspective. Rather than gorging yourself on the frenetic news cycle of social media, consider shifting the bulk of your news reading offline by subscribing to weekly or monthly news publications that provide context around what all that breaking news actually means. And if you can’t break the habit of daily news, try reading non-US outlets like BBC, Al Jazeera, or CBC which typically offer less alarmist takes on breaking news because they—literally—have the perspective that distance offers.
I recently made this shift myself after too many nights of Twitter surfing that left me agog with anxiety. My new, less digital diet, consists of subscriptions to Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, the New Yorker, and New York Magazine. The change was inspired by Alan Jacobs, who had this to say about the toxic nature of minute-to-minute news:
I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. So I’m not just staying off Twitter, I’m cutting back on the news sites in my RSS feed, and deleting browser bookmarks to newspapers. Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things — trying to start thinking about issues one when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out.
2. Spend less time consuming, and more time creating. Constant engagement with social media fuels neurotic anxiety and drains your energy for real-world human interactions, activism, and creativity. In a moment when real, live, civic engagement is of paramount importance, it’s crucial that we protect our attention and focus by reducing our social media intake. When you create time and space for your mind to unwind and wander, you create an arena in which meaningful a-ha moments can actually happen—the kind of deep thinking that’s de rigueur if you want to enact real social, spiritual, or personal change. Here’s writer Tim Kreider on the diluting effects of endless social media consumption:
The more time you spend immersed in the shitstream of TV/internet/social media the stupider and more boring and just like everyone else you will be. Hang out in real life having good conversations with brilliant and hilarious people, so you can steal their ideas and all the clever things they say. Spend a lot of time alone so you can think up some original thoughts of your own.
But how to minimize our intake of a medium that is so god awfully addictive? Well, one way is to capitalize on your own laziness. Trying taking some steps to make it physically more difficult to log onto your Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter profiles. That could mean removing the apps from your phone entirely (so that you can access them only on your desktop computer) or placing them 12 swipe screens to the right on your smartphone, so it’s just a little bit more of a pain to open them.
Beyond that, I would strongly recommend that you pre-program tweets and other posts for your professional social media accounts as much as possible (using apps like Tweetdeck or Buffer), so that you can limit the necessity of being on social media for work. (Because, let’s be honest, we both know you’re not really doing that much “work” on social media.)
3. Don’t let likes and retweets be a substitute for action. The danger of digesting the news purely via social media—where you can like, repost/retweet, and comment on everything—is that it gives you the feeling of doing something with little actual impact. And this ceaseless monitoring and commenting, in turn, drains your energy away from doing things that could cause real change.
Here’s Backchannel on how China uses social media and fake news to distract citizens from taking meaningful action:
Earlier this month, a new paper came out on the Chinese government’s practice of blanketing social media with fake comments, racking up a total of about 448 million fabricated posts a year. For years, Chinese social media users had speculated about the posts and their objective: were they intended to steer sensitive conversations in a pro-government direction? Or to argue with people who criticized the establishment?
As the researchers found, the posts in fact did only one thing: shower praise on all things China. They tended to emerge in bursts around events that might stir protest — for example, the riots in Xinjiang province in 2013 (1,100 fake posts), the rail explosion in Urumqi the following year (3,500), and the Qingming festival, a time often characterized by political unrest (18,000). The fabricated posts’ sole purpose? To distract people from the temptation to organize — by stealing users’ time and mental energy. The Chinese government had decided that the ability to distract was one of the most powerful features of social media.
Instead of getting caught up in social media’s smoke and mirrors, make a plan for engaging offline in a way that feels appropriate to you and your values. I’m donating monthly to the ACLU, calling a senator or congressperson every other week, and prepping new projects (a podcast and an event series) about how to move forward confidently in a world filled with uncertainty.
You’re a different human than me, so that may feel like too little or too much for you. But there are tons of meaningful ways—small and large—to take action. Find something that feels right to you and commit to it.
The first step to overcoming anxiety is taking action.
Hat tip to Austin Kleon for pointers to Tim Kreider and Alan Jacobs.