When Everything is Just Too Much
By Jamie Bussin
I think about things all the time. It is both a strength and a weakness. A strength in the sense that I have built in processes that help me understand the world, take in information and make good decisions. A weakness in the sense that I find it very difficult to turn off the flow of information. And it can be a lot sometimes.
For many of us both the state of the world and our own little private universes have been overwhelmed by information, much of it negative. For me the information confirms many of my fears and is suggestive of a paradigm shift -a fundamental change in our society and how we conduct ourselves. Things that I used to take for granted seem less certain.
Unless I choose to live life off the grid (which is really not an option for someone in media) I’m going to have to learn how to navigate the volume of information projected at me, how to better process that information (which seems to be increasingly negative), and how to more constructively respond to how the volume and negativity of the information makes me feel and thus respond.
The Volume of Information: It’s ironic that I complain about the volume of information when at this very moment I am adding to the flow (as you read this article). And data, information and knowledge are perhaps the most important asset to the global economy. I’m not a Luddite and I’m not advocating for ignorance. But I think when it comes to information there is such a thing as “too much”.
I’m not the only one who thinks so. On Episode #301 of the Tonic Talk Show/Podcast, researcher David Nelson and I discussed our diminishing attention spans. He identified the volume of information as a key factor – postulating that our brains are jumping from idea to idea in a desperate attempt to take in an ever increasing amount of information. But we also discussed social media and the concept of “shallow thinking”. Social media isn’t really meant to impart information with depth or nuance. And so it fosters “shallow thinking” – where we become unable to critically think about important information. Everything is easy and digestible.
I worry that without journalistic guardrails we’ve lost our ability to discern what is fact and what is opinion – to the point where for many the distinction is immaterial. We hear what we want to hear and believe what we want to believe. Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Alex Fink and I explored the phenomenon of “click bait” websites which leverage hyperbolic and frequently incorrect headlines, and how emotion is creeping into factual information reporting online on Episode #273 of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast. His solution, the development of ‘nutritional labels’ for media reporting.
On Episode #298 of the Tonic Talk Show/Podcast, another researcher, Dr. Eran Magen, and I discussed the pros and cons of social media. Social media allows us to connect with others and can be useful for those who are isolated or who find it difficult to connect. But the level of connection between those connecting can be overstated or misunderstood. Social media relationships are (exclusive of real life connections) shallow. We don’t really know the people on social media beyond what they choose to tell us about themselves and their lives. We should be wary of the veracity of information from sources that we don’t really know or whose agenda is not clear. In this context social media can be a driver of anxiety and impact mental health.
So what is one to do? For starters, I don’t assume that information (from any source) is necessarily factually correct. I strive to research issues that interest me and work hard to distinguish between fact, the manipulation of fact, and opinion. Taking the time to deepen shallow thought gives me agency. But, for others, that process could serve to exacerbate the problem of feeling overwhelmed -who has the time to think more deeply about all the information being thrown at us?
Sometimes the answer is to simply disconnect. I mean that both literally and figuratively. David Nelson (on Episode #301) suggested that digital disengagement can be a useful process. Simply set aside time to put down the phone and turn off the computer and connect with those you love and care about in person, face to face. We have a “no device” rule at dinner time at our house at all times. Most recently I placed a (temporary) moratorium on the discussion of politics and world affairs during family dinners. Taking a break is okay. It’s just not a long term solution.
Medical cannabis is being used effectively to treat anxiety. I discussed this with Umar Syed, whose companies pioneered the production of medical cannabis in Canada, on Episode #236 of the Tonic Talk Show and Podcast. CBD, a component of cannabis (cannabinoid), has been shown to impact serotonin receptors in our bodies. It works differently than other drugs in that it doesn’t cause sedation or cognitive impairment and is not addictive. Clinical studies show that CBD can help treat “situational anxiety”. Mr. Syed asserts that CBD is appropriate to treat chronic conditions too. Of course, you should consult with a medical practitioner before taking CBD for anxiety.
There are nutraceuticals which can be taken to help with anxiety, according to health educator, Alexandra Leon. On Episode #181 of the Tonic Talk Show/Podcast we discussed how to break the cycle of chronic stress by replenishing nutrients into our body. She recommended Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Magnesium to alleviate stress generally, L-theanine and Skull Cap help to reduce neural irritability, and Linden and Chamomile work to calm the digestive system.
Holistic Nutritionist Heather Lillico believes that certain foods can contribute to anxiety. On Episode #162 of the Tonic Talk Show/Podcast, she identified 5 foods (or components) that contributed to her and her client’s anxiety and panic attacks: Caffeine, processed sugar, alcohol, red and processed meats and dairy. This may or may not work for you. If I had to give up coffee, booze, steak and cheese, that might cause anxiety itself.
On Episode #308 of the Tonic Talk Show/Podcast I discussed the neurobiology of fear and anxiety with researcher Dr. Mihaela Iordanova. Fear and anxiety appear the same because they are both unpleasant, but the research field does make a distinction between them. Fear is more about the known, whereas anxiety is a response to a diffuse threat. “We look at the behaviours that are invoked. There are differences, but there are similarities too – such as cold sweats, a change in the heart rate, loss of appetite, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and blood flowing to the extremities – activating the sympathetic nervous system. We see a lot of cortisol and adrenaline pulse in the body.” says Dr. Iordanova. She recommends mindfulness to help with anxiety.
For as long as I’ve hosted The Tonic, mindfulness expert Tracey Soghrati and I have discussed the tools at our disposal to deal with anxiety. We started that journey back in Episode #31. She defines mindfulness as “paying attention in the present moment with an open mind and curiosity”.
Later in Episode #262 Tracey defined anxiety as the overestimation of threat and the underestimation of our ability to cope with that threat. In turn our body reacts to that threat through protective behavior. We either become highly perfectionist or avoidant. All we’re trying to do is keep ourselves safe psychologically. But long term avoidance is not effective and feeds into anxiety. Doing something as simple as recognizing and naming our feelings allows us to deal with them. Tracey recommends “not avoiding feeling the sensation of the feeling”, in order to cope with the feeling.
Thus, when feeling anxious she suggests striving to connect with the body and not to concoct a story about how you feel. The goal is to be aware of your emotions without engaging them. She said; “We’re all convinced that our feelings are fixed and accurate, when that frequently isn’t the case. Our feelings are passing, more like waves in the ocean. If we just sit and watch them they will dissipate on their own without the need for us to act on them. Meditation helps us become the observer of ourselves.”
I hope that I haven’t overwhelmed you with advice on how to respond to being overwhelmed. That wasn’t my intent. Whether you decide to try mindfulness, nutraceuticals, cannabis or a change in diet, I wish you peace of mind.