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Information Hygiene: How Not to Go Crazy When the Rest of the World Is

Updated: Mar 5, 2022

Tragic events in the Ukraine that unfolded last week impact all of us.

A lack of sleep, difficulty to stay focused, uncertainty about the future and goals, and experiencing a range of emotions every few minutes – from hope to anxiety, from sadness to anger… and above all, an urge to keep reading the news and social media, which often makes things worse. We might not be in the physical war, but our brains certainly are.

In this post, we share some basic rules of information hygiene in such challenging times.

Image source: Wikimedia commons.

1. Know and manage your brain biases

Our brains have evolved in the way that helped our survival, which leads to a number of biases.

Viral bias: we are more likely to share information that provokes one of the following emotions – anger, anxiety or awe. It means that you are more likely to react to and share an upsetting social media post and that fake news spread much faster than non-fakes, as they trigger our worst emotions.

The war is happening not only in the physical space, but also in the virtual one. This is the war for your emotions, which tries to get you involved into co-creating negativity and hate.

To resist it, try instead to spread positive and constructive emotions. This does not mean that you are ignoring sad facts, you are just refusing to amplify the viral negativity loop.

Negativity bias: our brain is wired for survival, so we are more likely to look for what can go wrong. This gives us some form of satisfaction, as it means that potentially we are preventing the trouble.

This means that your brain will inevitably be drawn to bad news, and the more bad news you read, the more you will want to read to calm yourself. And the more anxious you become. Which leads us to the next tip…

2. Drastically reduce your information intake

Select only a few trustworthy experts you are following, and max 2-3 sources of information, ideally with different viewpoints. There won't be a fully unbiased source of information, but at least you can try to get to a "golden middle".

Check news only at particularly established times and be really strict about it with yourself.

Unsubscribe from all notifications from news sources and social media groups, and only check them when you have emotional capacity.

It’s also ok to tell people that you aren’t ready to discuss a particular subject because it feels too painful, especially if these are not your closest people. You don't have to explain your position to everyone who asks you about it, nor to take sides.

The idea is to take control over when and how information gets to you.

3. Talk about your emotions

Instead of hiding from your own emotions by consuming more news or distracting yourself from them through some entertainment, talk to someone close about them. When horrible things happen we all go through the same phases - from denial to anger, to bargaining, depression and acceptance. (Acceptance does not mean forgetting, but rather finding peace within ourselves).

The more you talk about how you feel, the faster you'll be able to live through each of these stages. If you ignore your feelings, you are likely to get stuck in one of those for a long time. Remember also that social media is more likely to get you stuck in the anger phase, and if you want to transition to the next one, you may need to reduce your usage of it during this stage.

4. Give yourself the right to pause at any moment

This is a fundamental thing. Put the mask on yourself first before helping others.

You do not have an obligation to follow all the news. We may keep reading the news or social media, because it gives us a sense that we are doing something, and we hate to feel powerless.

But the sad truth is that constantly being on top of everything does not help you or anyone else, unless you are a professional journalist and it’s part of your job. All it does is depleting your energy.

What can you do instead? First of all, monitor your anxiety levels, and if you feel that your breath changes, your muscles tense, stop all you do and take 3 long breaths. Allow yourself to slow down. Second, focus on what you can do practically.

5. Focus on what you can do practically to help here and now

If you feel you don’t have the health or nerves to go to a demonstration, you don’t have to. Focus on the small practical things that are within your current area of control and physical and emotional resources.

For example, could you donate to charities that help refugees? Offer someone your home to stay? Sign a petition to your MP? Help coordinate picking someone up at the border or buy medicine and send it with humanitarian aid?

If you are concerned about yourself and close ones, write down all things you need to take care of legally, financially, physically. Focus on what you can do here and now instead of trying to control something you cannot.

6. Carry on with normal physical and work routines

The crisis is not an excuse to stop studying or working, or taking care of your physical body.

While most of us do have the tendency to forget to eat, sleep or stop focusing on work when horrible things happen, this isn’t helping anyone and only ruins us.

Carrying on with your responsibilities towards yourself and others helps you stay grounded and so more resourceful when needed.

P.S. What to do next?

If you'd like to know more about the impact of social media and your brain biases, check out my bestselling book Homo Distractus.

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