How to Stay Sane in a Crazy World
4 healthy ways to handle the stress of modern life
The world feels crazy at the moment.
And while I’m not sure this particular moment in history is actually that much crazier than any other, the feeling of being overwhelmed, afraid, confused, angry, and hopeless about all the awful things going on in the world can be crippling.
Just the other day, I was in a therapy session when a client of mine who said:
I’ve never been depressed before — and I don’t think I am now — but after checking my phone for 5 minutes this morning when I woke up, I truly did not want to get out of bed. I just wanted to fall back asleep, preferably for a few decades until the world was a little less crazy.
The point is: the state of the world can make us feel all sorts of awful, from chronically irritable and angry to apathetic and depressed. And if we’re not careful, these feelings can start to change the way we think, act, and live our lives — and probably not in a good way.
Given the consistently depressing cable news cycle, our endlessly outraging social media feeds, and general madhouse that is contemporary political discourse, we need a way to protect our sanity:
- We need a strategy for managing the barrage of information we encounter every day, a method for reliably sorting the wheat from the chaff.
- We need a plan to protect our time, attention, and energy — to keep our moods and emotions balanced enough to deal effectively with the genuine concerns and difficulties in the world.
- We need a way to stay focused on and connected with our values and the things that matter most, not to be constantly distracted and thrown off our game by the latest presidential tweet, parliamentary gaffe, or celebrity whatever.
Unfortunately, I don’t have some grand strategy or playbook for doing this.
But I do have a few ideas for how to stay a little more sane in the face of life’s craziness. These are habits and practices I try to cultivate myself, but also ones I’ve found to be helpful for a variety of people in my professional work as a psychologist.
Be intentional about how you consume the news.
A handful of people make a lot of money using “the news” to keep us perpetually riled up and upset all the time: Strong emotion keeps our eyes and ears on our channels and feeds, and all that time and attention means a whole lot of advertising revenue.
From Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Fox News, it’s pretty clear that as a society we’re becoming addicted to the news.
But what do we actually get out of this, besides higher blood pressure and increased stress? We’re investing hours of our day and bundles of intellectual and emotional energy consuming the news, but do we actually profit from that investment?
The standard answer, of course, is that watching the news helps us to be “well-informed citizens.”
But I’d challenge you to take an honest look at that idea:
- Do 10 hours a week of MSNBC really make you a more intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed citizen?
- Is using Twitter to stay up-to-date about politics on an hour-by-hour basis really helping you help your country and the world?
- What’s the opportunity cost of reading the news online for an hour every morning? Is it really a better investment of your time and energy than, for example, joining a volunteer group or maybe starting your own?
We’ve all become habitual consumers of the news. And we’ve been told this is a good thing. I disagree.
I think we’re increasingly slaves to an addiction of media consumption that’s not doing us or the world any favors.
Of course, everyone’s situation and circumstances are different, but I’d urge you to consider how you might become more intentional and less habitual with your news consumption.
Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Delete news apps from your phone. Use the “friction” of having to type a web address into your computer browser as a way to maintain healthier boundaries with the news.
- Use a read it later service like Pocket. If someone sends you the latest hot take on whatever’s happening, save it and read it on Sunday morning.
- Set and enforce scheduled news times throughout your day or week. If 2:00 to 4:00 on Saturday afternoons is your only news consumptions time, you’ll likely get the same amount of useful information with 90% less of the stress and emotional volatility that comes from being constantly connected.
- Stop following media conglomerates and get your news from thoughtful people. I’m suspicious that CNN, Fox News, or even the New York Times are really that interested in me becoming a more well-informed citizen (I think other motives are far stronger for them). But, reading and listening to the thoughts of specific people whom I respect and admire and learn from who don’t have a profit incentive for sharing their thoughts seems far more reasonable. So consider dropping some of the news and reading some high-quality blogs instead.
Maintain your hopes but lower your expectations.
A lot of stress and emotional volatility comes from unchecked expectations:
- You get angry with a coworker for not getting their portion of the monthly report in by end of day… because you expected that they would have it done in as timely a manner as you would have.
- You get anxious about your upcoming school presentation… because you expect that everyone should love it and your performance be flawless.
- You get discouraged and apathetic about the state of your marriage… because you expect that your spouse knows exactly how you feel (because, apparently, you expect that they can read your mind).
We’ve all had experiences like this of how bad it feels when our expectations aren’t met. What most of us are less familiar with is how out of control our own expectations are.
See, expectations have a life of their own. They tend to grow and propagate and evolve all on their own.
What started out as a simple expectation that you take out the trash and your husband does the dishes, has turned into a massive set of after-dinner expectations about who’s responsible for what when and under what circumstances. The problem is, while you might have dedicated some deliberate thought and conversation to the initial division of post-dinner labor, the rest of the expectations just sort of grew out of your own inner self-talk.
As a rule, we’re terrible at managing expectations. Combined with the self-growing nature of expectations themselves, many of us end up living under the crushing weight of bloated and unhelpful (not to mention, unrealistic) expectations.
And this is true of matters small and large.
Sure, you have expectations for your coworkers’ report filing timing and your husband’s after-dinner chores, but — whether you know it or not — you also have expectations about how politicians should communicate on social media, how corporations should compensate their executives, and the way civilization as a whole should think about everything from climate change and bitcoin.
The trouble with expectations of bigger issues like this is that you have very little control over them. You can’t influence how cryptocurrency is or isn’t regulated any more than you can influence what kind of tweets the President sends out. This means you get all the stress of high expectations with none of the benefits.
An obvious solution is to lower your expectations. But the problem with this is that it feels gross and somehow wrong to lower our expectations for things we care deeply about:
- If you’re passionate about climate change, it feels borderline unethical to lower your expectations for how we regulate industrial emissions.
- Similarly, if you care a lot about second amendment rights, it feels wrong to lower your standards regarding the regulation or deregulation of gun ownership.
- It even feels wrong to lower our expectations about co-worker timeliness (So should we just have no deadlines at all?!)
The reason we find it so hard to lower our expectations is that it feels like we’re compromising our beliefs.
But here’s the thing:
The strength of your expectation is independent of the strength of your conviction.
Let me break that down:
I believe strongly that people should use their turn-signal when driving. But I know that, realistically, some not-insignificant percentage of the population simply doesn’t do it.
For me to be both a safe and relatively happy driver, I’ve adjusted my expectation that people will use their turn signal. In fact, I’ve completely flipped the expectation — I actively expect that people won’t use their turn signal.
This has the twin benefit of making me a safer driver by always accounting for error in other drivers and a happier driver by never getting surprised and caught off guard when another driver doesn’t use their turn signal.
Even though I’ve completely dropped my expectation that people will use their turn signal, I still believe strongly in it as a good thing. And I even hope that, eventually, more people will learn to use their turn signal.
In other words, distinguishing hopes from expectations allows me to remain a turn signal idealist, and at the same time, operate as a turn signal realist. It’s the best of both worlds!
This relatively simple trick of maintaining your hopes and lowering your expectations can be applied to borderline miraculous effect in almost any aspect of life, big or small:
- Chronically frustrated with your wife for not picking up her clothes off the bedroom floor? You can continue to hold out hope that she will one day see the error of her ways and join the rest of civilized society. But until then, you can preserve both your sanity and relationship by lowering your expectations.
- Consistently enraged by the stupidity of federal monetary policy? Cultivate hope that things will start to change after the next election cycle — and hey, maybe starting donating or volunteering! — but drop the unrealistic expectation that the current administration will pull a 180 overnight and fall in line with your preferred strategy.
Stop whining and do something useful.
This is one I really struggle with myself.
We spend our time consuming the news, talking about politics, and thinking about important issues because, deep down, we’re lazy and afraid:
- We read the latest NYT or WSJ op-ed because it makes us feel like a responsible citizen staying abreast of the important issues of our time.
- We express our outrage at so-and-so politician for corrupting the moral fabric of society because it makes us feel morally superior and self-righteous.
- We fill our minds with facts and statistics about our pet issues because it gives us the illusion of control and the feeling that we’re making a difference.
We like feeling smart and ethical and powerful, but we don’t like hard work that goes along with actually contributing to change:
- Getting up early on Saturday mornings to volunteer at the homeless shelter downtown is sort of a pain-in-the-ass and not that fun. So we read that really nuanced expose about homelessness in the New Yorker, satisfied that we’re part of the solution, not the problem.
- Running for school board would take a ton of time and energy (and the thought of having to actually stand by our opinions while campaigning is kind of terrifying), so we shoot off an angry email to our kid’s principal instead.
While all these intellectualizations and emotional cop-outs feel good in the short-term, they actually contribute to our stress and dissatisfaction in the long-run. Because no matter how often we tell ourselves that I don’t have time for X, or it’s just not realistic for me to do Y, we know it’s not true.
And when we’re chronically dishonest with ourselves — when there’s a consistent mismatch between what we really believe and what we do on a day-to-day basis — ultimately our wellbeing and sense of self suffer, primarily in two ways:
- Not taking truly productive action on what we believe to be right erodes our self-esteem. Having high self-esteem comes from consistently aligning our actions with our values. But if we’re constantly avoiding the hard work and effort required to make positive change — and rationalizing it away with flimsy excuses like I don’t have time or reading about it is all I can do — we’re going to be fundamentally dissatisfied with ourselves.
- Avoiding challenging work leads to displaced emotion. When, deep down, you feel guilty and frustrated about not doing more to make your family, city, state, nation, or world a better place, that guilt and frustration are going to come out in unconstructive ways. Ever had a stressful day at work and then got snippy with your spouse? Same phenomenon.
- Pick a social/political issue that matters to you and create a local meetup for it on MeetUp.com.
- Call up the campaign office of a politician you actually believe in and ask how you can help support them.
- Go to the website of a local church, charity, or non-profit and see what kinds of volunteer opportunities are available.
- Track how much time you spend consuming the news for a week. Then ask yourself: What if I spent a quarter of that time doing something genuinely productive instead?
These are all small ways to start being more genuinely engaged and proactive about the things that really matter — the things we like to talk and read about but tend to avoid actually doing much about.
But even outside of contributing directly to a cause or issue that matters to you, I think the simple act of being productive or helpful in any form helps alleviate feelings of stress and overwhelm:
- Calling up a friend who’s going through a difficult time just to chat and be supportive instead of jumping on Instagram.
- Doing an art project with your kid instead of turning on a movie or YouTube channel.
- Finally fixing the broken planks on the fence in the backyard instead of another segment of CNN.
Human beings are born for action and wired for creation.
For 99.99% of our history as a species, we spent our days doing. We didn’t have time to sit around and think, ponder, run thought-experiments, and debate. Survival demanded action.
Of course, I’m glad to live in a time (and place) when I do actually have the time and resources to think and read and discuss, but the proportions are all off. We spend 90% of our time consuming and regurgitating information and maybe 10% making and producing. But what if it was the other way around? Or less ambitiously, what if it was just 10% different? What if we spent just a little less time each day consuming and a little more time creating — doing something small but useful?
I suspect both our world and our emotional lives would thank us.
Cultivate a habit of gratitude.
I think most of us know intellectually that we have a lot to be grateful for.
Despite the endless parade of tragedies, atrocities, traumas, disasters, and violence we see every hour on social media and the news, we know there’s still a lot of beauty, wonder, and goodness in the world.
Our problem is, we don’t make the conscious effort to remind ourselves of it.
I call this The Intellectualist Fallacy: the belief that knowledge alone is sufficient for positive change.
Knowledge is necessary but rarely sufficient for positive change.
What we also need is action. And more often than not, in order to make a worthwhile change, we need consistent action.
The key to consistent action? Habits.
If you want to be consistently and realistically aware of the state of our world, you need a habit of exposing yourself to both positive and negative information.
The media makes a very conscious effort to remind us every minute of every day how awful everything is, but where’s the other team? What’s the mechanism by which we’re regularly reminded of all the good things happening in the world?
Because we all have a negativity bias built-in, we tend to be overly attracted to what’s wrong. That’s our default. Our automatic instinct. This means we need a deliberate plan for counteracting this if we want to feel less overwhelmed and depressed.
And one of the best ways to counteract our biological and cultural bias toward the negative is to cultivate a habit of gratitude.
Luckily, it’s simple:
- Find a quiet 5 minutes during your day. Could be the first 5 minutes of your lunch hour, the five minutes before getting into bed, or the five minutes it takes for your morning coffee to brew. What’s important is that it’s a relatively calm, quiet time when you are unlikely to be disturbed. And, that it’s a time that’s consistently available to you (don’t choose the first 5 minutes of your lunch break if you only get a formal lunch break 2 days per week).
- Open up a notes file on your phone, or pull out a pocket notebook, and write down three things you’re grateful for. Don’t get hung up on the details. You could put down anything from the fact that global poverty rates have been and continue to fall sharply, or the fact that your spouse complimented you on your shoes this morning. Whatever you’re grateful for, jot them down quickly. If you like, feel free to elaborate on the specifics (I felt really proud of myself when my son told me he loved it when I came to watch his soccer practice).
- Rinse and repeat.
It’s not rocket science:
- If you surround yourself with negative information, on average you’re not gonna feel great (plus, it’s an inaccurate representation of the world).
- But, if you make a small effort to remind yourself of the things you’re grateful for each day, your mood will lift and you’ll take on a more realistic view of the state of the world, and perhaps, your life.
A Few More Tips
A few more brief ideas for staying sane when it feels like the world is on fire:
- Read history and biographies. I find it profoundly comforting and even validating to learn that we’ve repeatedly been through very tough times and keep managing to find creative solutions to all the awful problems we get ourselves into. Think our current politics are ugly and divisive? Read this.
- Surround yourself with encouraging people. Obviously, a peer group of pessimists and doomsday prophets is neither good for your mental health or a very helpful set of teammates. But surrounding yourself with a bunch just-think-positive-thoughts “manifesters” isn’t going to do you (or the world) much good either. Instead, strive to surround yourself with people who are constructively encouraging, rationally optimistic, and above all, helpful.
- Work with a therapist or coach. Okay, so to a hammer everything looks like a nail, and to a therapist, everything can be solved through some good therapy… My own personal biases aside, working with a really good therapist or coach can be a powerful way to get some fresh perspective and practical tools for managing the stressors of daily life and coming up with a plan for doing so consistently. Not sure where to start? Read this.
- Read the Stoics. Stoic philosophy is actually a far more humane, emotionally-nuanced, and intellectually rigorous approach to managing difficult times than the common term “stoic” implies. I recommend starting with Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.
Everything You Just Read in 100 Words
Whether or not the world today is objectively any crazier than it’s ever been, it can sure feel that way.
Let’s fight back against the unhelpful inertia of a the world is just crazy outlook:
Be intentional about how you consume the news.
Maintain your hopes but lower your expectations.
Stop whining and do something useful.
Cultivate a habit of gratitude.