Your inbox is full of emails. All the emails contain links. You are supposed to follow the links, which will take you to webpages. You have to read, and sometimes watch, the webpages. There is stuff in them that you are meant to know. There is even some stuff that you could be quite interested in. Then there are more links, and you have to go to your third meeting or class of the day with some disembodied faces. They are pixels, with little capital letters that spell out their names. In real life, they might actually be people. But for nearly a year, ‘people’ have been moving blobs of light on this flat surface in front of your face. You don’t feel much when you look at them apart from boredom, although sometimes, you want to cry. Now your phone screen lights up. Someone has sent you a news article. Another news article. You are supposed to read it and think about it and Whatsapp your thoughts back. You don’t want to do this, yet you also very much want to swipe and look at the news article, and maybe check Twitter. You pick up your phone. No-one will notice. They’re probably looking at their phones too. You swipe to open, and it’s a coronavirus update. Suddenly, overwhelmingly, you want to scream.
If, by the end of that paragraph, you could feel your jaw clenching and the muscles around your stomach and throat tightening, you may want to pause for a moment; press your feet against the floor; release; and take a deep breath.
Many of us will have experienced the above litany of horrors this week. As you read it, the rushed jumble of thoughts, impulses, and body sensations that come up may mimic more generally what has been happening in your mind and body during a typical day over the last ten months. And once you end the workday, of course, there is still admin, and news, and the business of life and loved ones to attend to.
In pandemic times there is endless stimulation, and yet in other ways, with many of us still largely confined to home, life may feel quite dull. Some of you may wonder why you feel so overwhelmed if each day is the same: the same room, view out the window, faces over breakfast. We are living in a strange perceptual place in which information overload coexists with mundanity. It’s the more pernicious because it’s subtle, and it’s a combination which can put many of us on the road to burnout.
What happens when there is Too Much Information? TMI, it turns out, ‘can lead to real feelings of anxiety, feeling overwhelmed and powerless, and mental fatigue. It can also lead to cognitive issues such as difficulty making decisions or making hasty (often bad) decisions.’ In ordinary times, the mental health consequences of information overload ‘may be quite significant and go beyond just a few moments of feeling overwhelmed.’
In extraordinary times, when information bombardment is happening on multiple levels – admin, coronavirus updates, family worries, government policy and the economy – it may feel as if there is no solid ground anywhere, no place of respite for your attention. The mind not only multitasks within one of these categories; it’s multitasking among all of them.
When you first sat down at your desk after Christmas, this may have induced a rush of productivity and determination. ‘Successful’ multitasking triggers a dopamine high: we feel competent, quick, masterful. But as Sharon Salzberg writes, multitasking borrows against future energy. Even as dopamine is peaking, making us power through lunch, multitasking also ‘prompts the release of adrenaline and other stress hormones, which contribute to short-term memory loss as well as long-term health problems.’
Interrupting this process begins with recognising that it is happening. This in itself is hard to do; cognitive sub-systems research tells us that the mind gets stuck in ‘driven doing mode’. Firing on all cylinders in response to potent flashes of stress, the mind is like the border collie who is so intent on getting out for a walk that he starts digging through the couch. To do things differently, you first need to catch yourself in that moment where you’re sitting on the floor, surrounded by broken springs, and wondering why you’re still a thick wall away from clear blue sky.
Here are some ways of looking after yourself, when it’s all too much.
1. Microsoft Screams
When you are far down the road of information overwhelm, you may find yourself deeply exhausted. The mind is less like a multitasking jack-in-the-box, and more like a mud slick. At work, you experience Zoom burnout. The brain fogs up: you lose words, and trains of thought. You may feel numb, weepy, or have an immoveable low mood that permeates everything, like a thick haar. Depression and anxiety may move in, setting down their suitcases quietly, so you don’t hear them coming.
Settle and steady yourself, little and often. Pause in-between tasks, and take a breathing-space. A couple of times a day, try a short breath and body practice, to remind yourself of the here and now. As you go about your day, practise grounding: feel your feet on the floor as you walk to the kitchen, and the sense of your seat on the chair as you work.
If you are working or studying from home, make sure that you leave your house each day. Sameness feeds fogginess and low mood, so go to a spot with a beautiful view; seek out the colours and smells of winter; cook something you haven’t in a while. When you reintroduce vividness and texture into perception, the Microsoft Screams – however loud – will start to quieten.
2. Running on Fumes
When you feel a little better, you may notice that your energy comes back, but that you find it hard to concentrate. Your mind jumps from one thing to the next. Your sleep is disrupted, and you may be ‘tired but wired’. You may be physically twitchier than usual. The more strung out you feel, the more you are compulsively drawn to check your phone, and refresh the internet headlines. You are easily bored, and frustration and irritation move close to the surface. You may notice that your breath is shallow, and that there is tension in the shoulders and chest.
At this stage, you will want all the grounding and steadying of Microsoft Screams First Aid, above; and you will also have the energy to put up some clear boundaries around information influx.
The phone is a straightforward place to start. Many of us go straight to our phones: swiping, clicking, scrolling. This may feel like downtime, but from a cognitive perspective we are simply switching to another channel of info input. Experiment, this week, with using your phone differently: put time limits on the apps that you check repeatedly; delete some entirely. Charge your phone on the other side of the room, and this weekend, try turning it off for an entire morning or afternoon.
When you ground and settle your attention, you slow the frantic pace of the information-sodden mind. When you offer it something fresh to see, or taste, or hear, you remember that life is interesting and vivid outside of the two-dimensional to-do-list world. And when you outsource the willpower on all this, with clear and simple boundaries that protect your energy and attention, it makes a real difference. Try it and see.