How To Break Up with Your Anxious Life
Breaking Our Media Addiction, Part One
Hi. My name is Amanda and I’m a media addict.
It all started with Seventeen Magazine, the first publication I ever subscribed to. I read it religiously and quoted it to my friends, who got tired of it. I read the Los Angeles Times as a High School student. I went to school to be a journalist. I wrote for a magazine and shared with everyone what I learned from my research. And when social media was invented, I knew it was going to be a big problem (i.e. time and energy suck) for me. I held out for a long time. When I finally got a Facebook account, at the desperate urging of friends and family (who I guess cared about my kids’ baby pictures a lot) my password was “coerced.” (I don’t think it still is. I had better go check.)
Fifteen years later, you know how it’s going. I’m on two social media platforms (I have sense enough to stay away from Twitter); I have NPR in my “favorites;” I just unsubscribed from two online papers; I follow eight podcasts; I have a long list of “continue watching” on two streaming services. And I’m obsessed with Sharon McMahon, known as @sharonsaysso, who interprets the news daily through her non-partisan, extremely kind filter, with an extensive knowledge of government and the constitution (#governerds forever!). I quote her to friends a lot. They get tired of it.
Facebook and Instagram are triggers for my co-dependency, jealousy and burgeoning imposter syndrome. Netflix tempts me to numb out my emotions and helps me procrastinate. News outlets trigger my anxiety, depression and judgmental temperament. So, as with all my other compulsive behaviors, I have to set guardrails up around my media consumption. And you should, too.
God has placed in each one of us a desire for truth, learning, and connection. But as my sponsor Terry is fond of saying, all our good gifts can go bad. We have, as a culture, become addicted to information and entertainment. We’ve become addicted to noise – a constant outpouring of stimulation. And it is, unquestionably, contributing to our collective and individual anxiety.
Because we live in this broken world, it can start to feel good to feel bad. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “You know you're an addict when you're trying to deal with your distress with the very thing that causes your distress.” I saw a meme the other day that said, “Girls be like ‘I have so much anxiety’ then drink a third ice coffee and turn on a murder podcast.” (Thank you @lovebug1016). It’s a bizarre reality, but depressed people gravitate towards depressing media; sad music and sad movies feel less jarring than happy ones when you’re struggling with mood disorders. Angry people seek more angry stimulation. Studies have shown that you’re more likely to click on an article if it triggers judgmental feelings and/or outrage, making many news outlets into outrage delivery devices. On a bad day when I'm already feeling discourage with humanity in my personal life, I'm more likely to go on the web and click on news stories that are the equivalent of saying, "I'd like take that news with extra outrage, please."
Why do we do this? Three primary reasons: One: Stillness makes us more aware of discomfort, while a glut of information distracts and stimulates us. If we hold still with our depression, anxiety, worry, fear, sadness, or feelings of helplessness, at first, it gets worse. We feel it more acutely. Also, cynicism, which we find all over the "analysis" pieces on both the left and the right, are actually a cover for grief, which feels awful. So…
Two: When the news triggers stress, anxiety, or rage, our bodies flood with hormones like cortisol, making us ready for a fight. The intense stress hormones provide a kind of high. We feel that we are made powerful by our indignation. We can actually become chemically as well as psychologically addicted to the negative stimulus as a result.
Three: Media technology isn’t incidentally addictive. It’s designed to be addictive. Fifteen years ago, I sat at a high school reunion with an app designer, who told me that his goal was to make his products work like crack on the human brain; his job was to get consumers to spend more time with it and feel they can’t live without it. In 2020, industry insiders went on record in the documentary The Social Dilemma to confirm this: millions of dollars are spent on technology that not only manipulates the pleasure centers in the brain (the parts engaged in addiction), but also adjusts algorithms to deliver media that makes you most distressed. It’s a must-watch, especially if you have children.
In this media-saturated age we can become addicted to: Outrage Anxiety Judgement Jealousy Chaos Sadness Sex
The solution to media addiction, as any addiction is simple in concept but is achieved in multiple steps.
Acknowledgement— You might be a phone addict if you avoid looking at your weekly screen time average. Recognize that media is taking up too much time or mental energy. Notice the feelings you have after consuming it.
Confession – admit to God, yourself and another person where online you’ve been spending too much time or energy. (This is a paraphrase of Step Five in the famous Twelve) Ask for help from the Holy Spirit – I ask God regularly to show me the truth about myself, and empower me to do better.
Repentance—Change a behavior. Maybe you delete an app or news site from your favorites. Maybe you set up a time limit on your Instagram. Maybe you purge your watch list or your podcast library. Unsubscribe from one or two newsletters (hopefully not mine). Unfollow your friends on Facebook that post outrage articles.
Meditation—Bring stillness back. Start with three minutes a day of silence and no screens. You might be shocked how long that feels. When I first started doing this, I wanted to text someone and tell them all the insights I’d had after two minutes. Yeah. I have a problem. If you’re serious about breaking a media addiction, go back and read this piece on stillness. https://www.amandaandersonwriter.com/post/why-you-might-think-the-sabbath-sucks The two go hand in hand. I wish I could cut out social media (for starters) all together, the way I did alcohol, one of my other addictions. But like food and relationships, media -- social, entertainment and news -- is not something we can fully live without. (Unless you become Amish, but in that case, you're not getting this email.) I have to spend energy managing these impulses to click, comment and doom-scroll. But, but all the ways I’ve fought to lower my anxiety, this has been a battle worth winning. Join me. Fight for freedom.
Next week, I’m going to write about how we can engage with what’s going on in the world while being free from outrage addiction. I’ll be drawing on research from people a lot smarter than me. I hope you’ll stick around for it!