Informed or overwhelmed? The brain on COVID-19 news

This week marked the first official week of learning at home in the wake of school closures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Our family started social distancing efforts last week so I had a little time to mentally prepare for the new reality of juggling working, parenting, and teaching. I knew better than to expect Pinterest-worthy activities or innovative project-based learning in week one. (Have you reached out to your child’s teacher yet to thank them for all that they do??) I was ready for my kids to be stressed, to show some resistance, and for the whole enterprise to be a bit of a mess as we get our feet under us.

To my surprise, the kids have actually done okay. Beyond their general resistance to getting out of their pajamas and attending to basic hygiene, they are young enough and curious enough to make home-based learning a fun new family project.

What I didn’t expect was that I would be the messy one.

“How did it go with your kids?” a friend of mine with a teenager asked gently over video chat mid-week.

“The kids are doing okay… but I’ve been a wreck,” I responded. “It felt like every time I got a text, turned back to my work computer, or just looked at my phone, I was launched into full emergency mode. I’m exhausted.”

“Sounds like my teenager,” my friend replied. “He says that he isn’t worried about the pandemic but he is constantly looking online for more information about it. I’m not sure it’s helping.”

Teenager checking their cell phone

Why information can help (and hurt) in uncertain times

As the COVID-19 virus quickly spreads across the globe, information and updates about the virus are traveling just as fast. From scientific information, to policy opinions, petitions, memes, videos, and misinformation, checking your phone today can feel like facing a firehose of information.

In many ways, this is a good thing! Critical information about school closures, social distancing advice, economic support packages, and resources for families and children can be shared quickly across communities. At a time when things are changing so quickly the ability to quickly disseminate information is essential.

But when it comes to our mental health, it is clear that the near-constant onslaught of information can take a toll. There are a number of things about our brains and the COVID-19 news cycle that can make it especially difficult for us to look away from our devices and find solid footing.

  • The brain is built to seek out information. The brain’s “seeking system” is built to reward us for exploring, being curious, and learning new things. This is a good thing! But it means that every time we get a notification or receive a text, it ignites the seeking brain and compels us to respond. As we click through to learn more, our brains reward us with a tiny dose of dopamine, the brain’s reward  chemical that makes us feel good. This can make it difficult to unplug.
  • Information FOMO is real during a pandemic. Things are changing so quickly that there is nearly always something new to read, understand and share. Skip the news one day and you might miss school closures, travel guidelines or other important updates. (FOMO = Fear of Missing Out)
  • Intermittent reinforcement ups the ante. While things are changing quickly, big news isn’t released every time we check our devices. If that were the case, we might get overwhelmed and want to turn away or shut down. Instead, we are more likely to encounter consequential announcements intermittently throughout the day, making compulsive checking more likely.
  • Fear drives attention. When we are anxious or fearful, we tend to pay more attention to information related to threats. This also makes sense. Fear puts us on high alert for information that we perceive to be essential to our survival, telling us, “Hey! Look here!” The challenge is that as we pay attention to information related to the threat, our anxiety goes up. This further increases our vigilance and selective attention to scary information. The good news? When we pay attention to other things our anxiety does go down.
  • The brain seeks reassurance in uncertain times. It makes sense that in the face of crises we seek out reassurance from each other and our online sources (especially if we are in high alert). We are looking to answer the question, “Will things be okay?” The challenge with the COVID-19 outbreak is that when we go online to answer this essential question, what we find is a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. There are a lot of unknowns about the virus, its spread, and its long term impacts on our global community. While some people may retreat or unplug in the face of such overwhelming ambiguity, many double down on their search for reassurance. The loop of reassurance seeking followed by ambiguous data followed by more reassurance seeking can be a difficult one to break. Indeed, research shows that in the face of ambiguity, anxiety and compulsive reassurance seeking often follow.

So what do we do?

It is clear that while the spread of the virus is fast, this emergency is nowhere near its end. In other words, we will need to adapt to this “new normal” for months, not weeks. Anyone who has their own cell phone or device (this applies to adults, teens, and kids alike) will need to find ways to stay informed without getting completely overwhelmed. Here are some ways to get started:

Talk about it

Talk as a family about how difficult it can be to unplug from the news and social media during uncertain times. Normalize the desire to be informed (and connected) but lay out the costs of constant information seeking to mental health and wellbeing. Brainstorm ways to support each other, stay informed, and take digital breaks.

Name your own emotions

It’s not a good idea to use your kids to debrief all of your anxiety or to process your own dystopian future scenarios. It is okay for kids to know that you are grappling with worry as well. This can give teens permission to have feelings too.

Use and provide reliable sources

Misinformation related to coronavirus is rampant online. Make sure that you and your kids are using reliable sources of information. Humorous memes are a common coping mechanism for kids and adults alike. That said, relying solely on TikTok videos and memes rarely helps you sort fact from fiction and can increase confusion. Remember though that kids often use memes as a way to connect and cope with fear and anxiety. Instead of shutting it down entirely, make sure they understand and practice good information hygiene and ask open-ended questions about their understanding of the crisis and their emotional response to it.

Turn off notifications

Notifications are difficult for us to resist during times of relative calm, and nearly impossible during a national crisis. Notifications reliably pull our attention away from the task at hand – whether that is work or kids. When it comes to being home with our kids, this constant “technoference” is a quick way to increase anxiety and conflict.

Practice appointment information seeking

Turning off notifications doesn’t mean turning away from critical announcements. Checking news platforms on your own time and schedule gives your nervous system a chance to recover. If you or your child are struggling with this, consider designating someone as your “alert person” who will get in touch with you if there is an actual emergency. Designating this person can help you relax.

Find replacement habits

It is totally normal to seek reassurance during difficult times. If you or your child find that going online only amplifies anxiety, identify a set of replacement habits that will help them get to calm. This could be a mindfulness app, moving your body, playing with a family pet, breathing, playing a game, or going outside.

Seek out positive news and media

Remember, we can lower our anxiety by purposely paying attention to positive things. This does not mean you should ignore critical information, downplay the magnitude of the crisis, or deny reality. Instead, it is a way to help boost your digital resilience during a difficult time. Screen time is going to go up as we practice social distancing. Find, share, and connect over stories that move you and your kids.

Create and enforce digital curfews

Scrolling through news or memes about COVID-19 as you fall asleep or reaching for your phone right when you wake up is a recipe for disrupted sleep and increased anxiety.

Make a plan

When there is a lot of uncertainty about the future, it can be helpful to make concrete plans. These include being clear about steps you can take to prevent virus spread (think handwashing and getting enough sleep), ensuring you have enough medication, and planning for mental health support through virtual appointments, tele-health, and online connections. Finally, plan what you will do if someone in your family does get sick to reduce uncertainty.

Stay in the present

Anxiety is often drive by anticipation of what the future might hold. This would be a good time to start cultivating mindfulness practices that help you stay in the present. Research shows that mindful meditation, for example, can help ease anxiety, depression and even pain. If guided meditation is not your thing, find other ways to focus in-the-moment. Researcher Ellen Langer argues that mindfulness doesn’t have to involve meditation or yoga but can be “the simple art of actively noticing new things.” Here are some ideas to get you started:

      • Notice five new things about your child today
      • Look at your child’s face and notice how it moves as they show emotions
      • Notice five new things about your partner or a friend today
      • Go outside and look for things close to your home that you have never seen before
      • Try something new (doodling, cooking) and notice how it feels
      • Notice five new things about your food when you eat it

Focus on what counts

The reality is that there is no clear roadmap for this kind of crisis. Some of us have had more experience living with uncertainty, stress, and risk than others, but there is no magical recipe that will make our personal or collective anxiety go away in this moment. As we all learn to juggle uncertainty, economic insecurity, work, mental health, parenting and teaching we won’t just need to learn how to manage information seeking and the news. We will also need to learn how to manage our own expectations. Not only will our children be messy at times, we will be messy too.

When the  juggling begins again tomorrow morning, I am going to be a bit more gentle on all of us. I will read the daily headlines to better understand what’s going on and use technology to connect with family and friends. I also know that I will need to turn off my news notifications, take some deep breaths, notice something new about my kids, and give my brain and body time to recover from the big things that this time demands.