There’s no denying it—we live in a world where information rules. Our phones, tablets, and laptops ping at us indiscriminately, whether to report on a worldwide disaster or simply to let us know our friend has posted on social media. We are glued to our screens, feeling panic if we cannot access the internet. Does this sound like you? You may be experiencing information anxiety.
Anxiety in the Modern World
Anxiety is the feeling you experience in response to a perceived threat or danger. This mechanism has helped us from an evolutionary perspective, enabling early humans to defend themselves against predator attacks. But in our modern society, where we are not likely to be attacked by a wild animal, anxiety can create reactions that debilitate rather than assist. Indeed, anxiety is now the most common mental health condition with 18% of the population experiencing it at some point in their lives.
Anxiety is triggered by fear of what might happen and a belief that it will be unpleasant. An unexpected bill, a presentation at work, or an important life event can all trigger anxiety. But in this information age, a new modern-day disorder is coming to the fore.
What is Information Anxiety?
In simple terms, information anxiety is the feeling you get when you don’t understand but think you should. The term was originally coined by the founder of TED Talks, Richard Saul Wurman, in his two cult guidebooks dedicated to understanding information anxiety and its effects.
Information anxiety is caused by a variety of factors. Do any of these resonate with you?
- Feeling that you have to be “in the know”
- Not understanding information
- Not having access to information
- Feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information to be understood
- Other people’s expectations of what you should know
- Not knowing whether certain information exists
- Not knowing where to find information
Today, we can find all the information we could ever dream of at the touch of a button, from scientific data revealing the mysteries of the universe to the minute details of our friends’ personal lives. We are bombarded with information at every turn. We lug all our devices with us and frantically check them every minute. But does this make us more informed or just more anxious?
The word “information” is defined as “the action of informing; formation or molding of the mind or character; instruction or teaching; communication of instructive knowledge. Since World War II however, “information” has come to be used to describe anything that is sent over an electronic channel—nowadays, the internet. These days, information is less something that informs and more something that is communicated or told, regardless of whether it is understood by the receiver. Just think of the sea of information published each day through emails, newspapers, online content, television, social platforms, etc. Do you feel you should understand it all? Does the thought of all this information make you feel uneasy or pressured?
This modern unease can manifest in many different ways. Take a look at the list below, and see if you relate to any of these symptoms:
- Always feeling like you’re not keeping up to date with world events
- Checking your smartphone or tablet at every opportunity
- Subscribing to several podcasts or magazines and feeling guilty as they pile up, unplayed or unread
- Being too embarrassed to say “I don’t know”
- “Uh-huh”-ing or nodding knowingly when someone mentions a term, name, or event you know nothing about
- Believing others understand things you don’t or know more than you do
- Compulsively checking the latest news even when it has no effect on your life
- Having profiles on several social media platforms and feeling compelled to post or check on them several times a day
- Feeling on edge when you don’t have an internet connection
- Feeling “disconnected” when you haven’t checked your phone, tablet or laptop for half an hour
- Spending most of your free time in front of a screen
If this is you, you’re not alone! A cursory glance around any train or waiting room finds many people completely immersed in their smartphones, oblivious to the world at large. But, if you’re feeling compelled to check your devices at every opportunity and feel they are taking over your life, I have some good news: You can step away from the screen and reduce your information anxiety in just a few simple steps.
Disconnect from Information Anxiety
Let’s face it: The Information Age is here to stay with more media channels to explore each day. Rather than spending an increasingly large chunk of your day trying to keep up, you can take control of your information anxiety and learn to interact with information in a healthier way.
By identifying the information you really want and need in your life, you can let go of the rest and release the need to be constantly connected. As with other anxiety disorders, the first step is awareness followed by acceptance.
1. Accept that you don’t and can’t know everything—and know that it’s OK. Let this spark your curiosity rather than crippling you with fear.
2. If there are certain terms that fill you with dread because you simply don’t understand them (like the Dow Jones, for example), make a list, and learn what they are, one by one.
3. Plan for the information you really need:
- What is essential for your work?
- What really interests you?
- What do you like to talk about?
- Which topics do you have a passion for?
4. Turn off the automatic notifications on your smartphone so that you aren’t constantly being drawn in.
5. Dedicate a set time during the day for checking emails, looking at social media, listening to podcasts or reading magazines. Set yourself a time limit; if you’re currently spending three hours a night immersed in a screen, cut it down by half or more, and spend the rest of the time doing something else—having a bath, meeting friends, taking a walk, or trying a new hobby.
6. Spend more time outside. This provides a double benefit. First, it takes you away from the screen, and second, it provides you with the vitamin D so essential to both physical and mental health.
7. Turn off your devices at night. Switch off your phone, put away your laptop, and turn away from the television. The blue light from their screens can disrupt sleep, and poor sleep is linked to anxiety..
Accepting that you can’t know everything will have an instant effect on your information anxiety. You will feel much more at ease with not knowing everything. Detach from the need to know, and engage with your curiosity outside of the screen.
With some gentle awareness, you can learn to detach from 24/7 connectivity, embrace not knowing, and live more in tune with the now.
Do you experience information anxiety? How does it manifest in your life? Can you share any tips for stepping away from the screens? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, so feel free to drop us a line in the comments section!