If the Donald Trump administration does one thing well, it’s generate chaos and news. From the catastrophic rollout of the executive order restricting immigration to Trump’s endlessly strange and inflammatory remarks (this week he described Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is recognized more and more”) to the dark story line of Steve Bannon’s apocalyptic worldview, it can be hard to simply keep up.
Things were bad enough back before social media, when during times of crisis it was easy to sit transfixed before hours upon hours of cable news. Now, though, things are much worse — just trying to keep up with each day’s torrent of awfulness feels like it incurs a serious psychological toll. Since Trump’s election, there have been numerous times when I’ve found myself glued to Twitter, angrily tweeting and replying and retweeting, thoroughly engrossed in … I’m not sure what. I call it zombie-clicking — the state of not feeling like you’re in full control of your browsing or social-media behavior, like you’re just hopscotching from one outrage to the next.
Now, to be clear, feeling dragged down by all the bad news isn’t the same as being personally affected by it — as being deported or demonized or otherwise affected by Trump’s policies and rhetoric. But still, it’s not a good state to be in, particularly in light of research showing that an overconsumption of bad news can affect one’s worldview in unhelpful ways, skewing things so they appear (even) darker than they should. At the same time, one of the only hopes for responding to the threat posed by Trump and his enablers is for observers to stay informed, to raise a ruckus when harmful policies are proposed and enacted. How do you walk that line? How do you stay abreast of the news without allowing it to turn you into a zombie-clicker? I reached out to a couple of researchers to come up with four basic strategies.
Specifically seek out uplifting news. Back in 2014, Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a University of Texas–San Antonio professor who studies media consumption habits and their effects, told me that when she has people watch bad news for her research, she notices a certain effect: “[I]f you ask them how they feel about the world, what they end up with is this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”
One easy way to not let yourself fall into this sense of despair is, as mawkish as it may sound, to simply seek out uplifting news. Just this week, for example, there’s a nice story about how after a Texas mosque was burned down, the leaders of the town’s small Jewish community handed over the keys to their synagogue to the mosque’s worshippers, saying they could use their space while the synagogue is being rebuilt. Such stories don’t just give us a temporarily jolt of feel-good energy: They help stall our descent into hopelessness. The world is a lot bigger and more complicated than any one president — even Donald Trump — and it can be extremely helpful to recognize that. So even if it’s just once a day, check out a site like the Uplifting News subreddit (where the mosque story is currently No. 1).
Monitor your social-media habits very carefully, and intentionally cut yourself off whenever you can. Social media, and particularly Twitter, has a scary ability to turn us into click-zombies. As McNaughton-Cassill explained, that’s partly because our brains evolved to be very sensitive to changes in the environment, and to reward us for noticing and reacting to them — and Twitter is a veritable carnival on that front. It’s “such rapid reinforcement — it’s that dopamine surge every time you find something interesting.”
This can explain that feeling of paralysis that sometimes sets in. You might intend to simply check in on Twitter to make sure nothing important is going on, with the plan to sign off after a few minutes. But whatever your intentions, all those dopamine hits quickly take hold — from the point of view of our more primitive brain functions, it’s an endlessly fascinating, change-rich online environment. Those few minutes can quickly become an hour. And when you click from outrage to outrage to morbid joke to outrage, it’s not going to do anything good to your psychological state or your desire to participate meaningfully in politics or conversation.
That’s why McNaughton-Cassill suggests simply setting limits. One easy idea, for those who don’t like the idea of cutting themselves off from the news entirely, is to swap out Twitter for a less tweaky source. Maybe you allow yourself 15 minutes on Twitter in the morning, for example, but after that, every hour you just check the New York Times homepage every two hours. Anything of serious importance will find its way there anyway, and while there’s still some of that same risk of falling into a link-wormhole, a webpage doesn’t have quite the addictive features of a social-media platform.
Given how tempting Twitter and similar platforms are, actually sticking to a plan to stay off of them can be easier said than done. One useful idea, which comes from research into behavioral economics, is to adopt a so-called commitment device — basically some type of incentive that will cause you to actually stick to your promise to yourself. In weight-loss contexts, there’s some research suggesting that being part of a group whose members check in with one another about eating and exercise habits can help people stick to their goals. When I need to rip myself off Twitter, I do a version of that — I simply tweet out that if anyone sees me on Twitter for the next however long, they should yell at me.
Weirdly enough, it works — I spend too much time on Twitter, but every time I’ve tweeted one of these “yell at me” tweets, I’ve actually stayed off Twitter (you could make the same sort of announcement with a Facebook post, of course). Now, this specific approach might not work for everyone, but the underlying theory is pretty well-supported: We respond more to social incentives than fuzzier “Do this because it’s good for you” directives. You could also get a bit more hard-core: There’s software like SelfControl or Freedom you can download that will simply block social-media sites or the internet entirely. My colleague Melissa Dahl also said that she and her boyfriend will simply change each other’s Twitter and Facebook passwords to enact some forced separation from social media. The point here isn’t that one method is best — the point is that telling yourself you’ll stay off almost certainly won’t work, so you should experiment and find an approach to social-media breaks that can actually give you some breathing room when you need it.
Intentionality really is the watchword here. Are you just clicking around aimlessly, getting sad and angry, or are you seeking out specific information for a specific purpose? One way to counteract such maladaptive clicking is to really focus on one or two issues that are most important to you, whether the environment or education or whatever else, and focus specifically on learning about and following those issues, rather than letting wave after wave of generally bad news wash over you and eventually carry you to a dark place.
Once you do have an issue or two, that might also offer some opportunities for a very productive, therapeutic behavior: writing. And no, not writing tweets or Facebook updates — something a bit more in-depth than that. Emily Esfahani Smith, a psychology writer and the author of the recently released The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters, explained in an email that individuals’ responses to Trump can, ideally, tap into two of the “pillars of meaning” she believes help people thrive, “purpose (doing something worthwhile) and storytelling (narrative).” Writing fits the bill nicely. “I’d recommend writing letters to leaders in Congress. I think this is a meaningful response for a number of reasons.” For one thing, she wrote, there’s evidence it works — as veterans of Congressional offices will tell you, staffers actually read such letters and pass on their messages to their bosses.
But writing can be a useful psychological salve even if the letter in question is never sent to an elected official. “I think we all need to make sense of why exactly we object to Trump’s proposals, and getting our ideas down in writing is a good way to do that,” said Smith. The “narrative you craft in the actual letter will help you make sense of your raw emotions” — raw emotions that again, might otherwise be wasted on zombie-clicking. “I might even post the letters online and see what happens — you never know, maybe they’ll get in a leader’s news feed,” Smith said. But whether or not you post it, the act of sitting down and writing something with a bit of depth to it is what matters most.
These are three fairly well-supported interventions for bolstering your general well-being. You probably know the basics of meditation, but if you haven’t been able to stick with it, I found that even “meditation-lite” made me feel better when I tried it last year — just take a few times a day to sit or stand wherever you are and count out 25 deep breaths, not worrying about any of the other “rules” of meditation.
Self-affirmation and gratitude exercises go back to the salutary benefits of writing. Self-affirmation isn’t, as the name might suggest, writing about how great you are. Rather, it’s writing about what you value the most and how those values dictate what you do and what you would like to do. So maybe one day, for your 10-minute (or however long) self-affirmation exercise, you could note that justice and fair play are really important to you, and that’s why you’re engaged in activism to make life easier for immigrants trying to establish lives in the U.S. This act of connecting your deepest values to your day-to-day activities can imbue those activities with — there are those words again — more meaning and intentionality, and might just stop you from entering zombie-clicking states, since you might be more likely to ask, Is all this Twitter and Facebook usage helping me? Is it helping anyone? Gratitude exercises, meanwhile, are simply the act of taking the time to write down what you’re grateful for. Again, there are no strict rules — it could be personal stuff, appreciation for what others are doing in the broader fights happening right now, or whatever else.
Overall, it’s probably unrealistic, in light of everything that’s going on, that you’re going to be able to tear yourself away from the news for any length of time, and that you won’t have the occasional period of turning into a click-zombie. But if you approach social media with a bit of a plan, you should be able to make the time you spend engaging with it a bit more productive and a bit less crazy-making.