If negative news stories and events stay with you long after you’ve finished reading, you may be dealing with what psychologists call a “sticky mind”. Here’s how to deal with this surprisingly common symptom of anxiety.
You’ll know you have a sticky mind when reading the news becomes an exercise in navigating a metaphorical minefield.
You’ll be scrolling through your morning news feed, flitting between your various apps, only to be met by yet another story that makes you stop in your tracks. Right now, it’s probably something about the coronavirus outbreak – one of those scaremongering headlines that make you want to panic buy 100 toilet rolls and find yourself a bunker to hide away in. But no matter what it is, you know it’ll be taking up some real estate in your thoughts for a significant amount of time.
Described 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,” someone with a sticky mind essentially gets “stuck” on specific thoughts, images and ideas – and suffers anxiety as a result.
Whether you spend your day ruminating on the awful facts of a news story or catastrophising about the future of the world due to climate change, stickiness of the mind can lead to an influx of anxiety-inducing thoughts.
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.
This article was originally published on 27 October 2019 and has been updated throughout.