This Thanksgiving let's give thanks by unplugging from the information overload

This Thanksgiving let's give thanks by unplugging from the information overload
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Many people find the Thanksgiving holiday stressful. They are traveling to or hosting family and friends, shopping for and preparing the meal, and trying to keep dinner conversation enjoyable or at least not heated. But, in many ways, this Thanksgiving is likely to have an extra thick layer of negative coating.

These days it’s hard not to be on bad information overload. From our RSS and Twitter feeds, Tumblr posts and Facebook statuses, to TV and cable news updates and White House briefings, there seems to be a perpetual drip of depressing communication. According to a recent survey on stress in America, many of us are feeling the negative effects of a tense political climate in our daily lives.

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And how could we not feel jacked up with the conflicts in Washington, tragic news events like mass shootings, and stories of workplace harassment? Put those story lines on top of all the personal and professional work we have to do, including a never-ending stream of emails, texts, voicemails, and instant messages, and they make for a heavy burden.

 

The inundation of cyber information has been called infobesity, because it’s like bad cholesterol, clogging our arteries. The entire excess negative glut can give us infoxication, strained capacity, loneliness and ideological isolation.

Many years ago, cognitive science explained that our brains have limited capacity to take in and store information. And that, under such overload, our thinking becomes clouded, and we make poorer as opposed to informed decisions. We are only human. There’s only so much negative processing we can take before we break down.

Living in the flood of data we can easily numb out or get hyper-aroused. Either way we aren’t effectively processing incoming information, or optimally engaging in decision-making and functioning. If we extend too far beyond our capacity for too long of a period, we likely get into dysfunction — difficulties sleeping and concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed or irritable, and misusing substances.

As a clinical psychologist, I hope this year’s Thanksgiving, we all find a way to give thanks for our blessings by unplugging. I’m not suggesting you permanently unplug, throw away your smartphones or deactivate your social media accounts.

That’s unrealistic and likely not helpful. But a temporary unplug by being mindful and disciplined about your information intake may help re-establish vital interpersonal contact and recharge mental and emotional batteries. It’s not enough to be physically present for the holiday. What we need is to be present in an attentive, engaged, and meaningful way.

It may be a challenge at first, but with a little effort we can limit the times we check our phone or computer per day during the Thanksgiving holiday. Some of us may be news addicts and the idea of not watching any news or checking any news websites being in touch for a day is way too much. Maybe we can sign in for a ten-minute period once in the morning and again in the evening or not at all on Thanksgiving Day. Unplugging for a few hours rather than a day may be more realistic.

The point is, that by limiting our electronic input during the long holiday weekend, and being mindful when the urge to check comes up, we can slowly detox from information overload. A 24-hour break, to tune out the chaos of the world and turn to self and healthy connection with others, will likely be good for all of us.

At the risk of being seen as the psychologist who says something trite and commonsensical, self-care is essential. This could be a great time to reflect and recharge. If the thought of tuning out in this way scares you terribly, try to challenge yourself with these questions, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you severely limited or even forego the news for one day, or even a half-day?

What’s the worst that could happen if you didn’t read and respond to emails for 24 hours? Might you get behind, be out of the loop, have a hard time getting caught up? Whatever your fears are, they are probably exaggerated. And even if you get behind you can probably quickly recover. Use this electronic time out as a powerful practice to regulate your fears and enjoy the freedom of not responding to every email, call or post right away.

All of us can relate to eating too much food on Thanksgiving. We overfill our plates with roast turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, hearty slow-cooked stuffing, collard greens, lasagna, roasted vegetables, zesty cranberry sauce, pillowy, dinner rolls and crunchy pecan pie. We can almost feel the tightening of our clothes as we overeat, and the lethargy sets in to our body and mind from such overstuffing. Just as we need to regulate our eating on Thanksgiving, we need to mindfully engage in digital and media input.

This is the metaphor Clay Johnson, one of the founders of the technology company that built the transformative website BarackObama.com in 2008, made in his national bestselling book entitled, “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.” Johnson argued that we shouldn’t gorge on information from our screens and speakers. He advised us that we should consume less, and engage in a healthier information balance that works for our capacity and temperament.

Of course, there are other stress management techniques to try, if this doesn’t feel right for you. On this fourth Thursday in November, may you find a way to unplug, unwind, connect with more healthy outlets, and be thankful for this annual tradition.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.