Do negative news stories and events tend to cause you anxiety long after you’ve finished reading? You could be dealing with a phenomenon psychologists call a “sticky mind”.
From the IPCC’s damning report about the impact of climate change to the earthquake in Haiti and the crisis currently unfolding in Afghanistan, the events of the last couple of weeks have been enough to send even the calmest of minds into an anxious spiral.
But for those who deal with what’s known as a ‘sticky mind,’ the amplified intensity of the news cycle over the last couple of weeks has likely presented an even bigger challenge.
Defined by psychologists Dr Marty Seif and Dr Sally Winston as “a biologically based trait that is experienced as repetitive looping thinking, a sense of getting mired in worry, a talent for imaginative flights into catastrophic images and thoughts, and a tendency for junk channels of the mind to get loud and insistent instead of simply flowing by,” people with a sticky mind essentially get “stuck” on specific thoughts, images and eventualities, meaning that the news stories they consume will stay with them for hours or days on end.
This happens because people with sticky minds typically find themselves plagued by strong feelings of anxiety, and struggle to “compartmentalise” those feelings and put the stories they read to the side to get on with life, as most people are able to do.
And because people with anxiety disorders typically experience an increased sense of responsibility and “excesses of empathy,” people with sticky minds tend to fret about whether they’ve spent enough time watching the news and berate themselves for being irresponsible or selfish for choosing to go on with their lives.
All of this therefore combines to leave people with sticky minds plagued by anxiety-inducing thoughts, often causing them to ruminate on the story and consume more information in an attempt to solve or understand the situation (with the climate crisis, this might mean reading all the latest reports to try and ‘prepare’ themselves for the future).
The problem, as Dr Seif and Dr Winston highlight, is that the thoughts experienced by people who deal with sticky minds “do not respond to direct efforts to get rid of them,” and instead worsen as the sufferer tries to answer, debate with or simply eliminate the worries in their mind.
So what can we do if a news story gives us a particular set of worries and anxieties which refuse to budge? Understanding the “sticky” aspect of the mind – and choosing to accept rather than fight this pretty common trait – is half of the battle.
“The most effective way to live with a sticky mind is not to struggle with it, but to change your relationship with it,” the pair recently wrote in Psychology Today. “This means taking a broader view, a step back, an attitude of curiosity and humour instead of judgement, alarm and urgency.
“Despite how urgent and demanding they feel, most sticky thoughts are not emergencies, warnings or signals.”
Going on a “news diet” may be one action you could consider if the news is getting to you. Of course, it’s important to stay informed (especially in our current political and social climate) but there’s something to be said for taking a step back and not putting the weight of the world on our shoulders.
“As human beings we’re not designed for the level of stimulation we are now exposed to,” therapist Kate Hogan previously told Stylist. “Our brains are frazzled by all the processing and not having adequate down time to switch off. Because we’ve never had this level of information processing before, we don’t know how to regulate ourselves. This is where it can become unhealthy.”
Being aware that you struggle to get certain thoughts and stories out of your mind is half of the struggle, and regulating the content you consume – especially stories you know are bound to trigger your anxiety – could be an important step in the right direction.
Indeed, just as we try to eat healthy and make sure we drink enough water to look after our physical health, thinking about the news we watch, read and listen to could be just as important for our mental health.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.
If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support.
This article was originally published on 27 October 2019 and has been updated throughout.
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