How to Stay Sane in a Crazy World

4 healthy ways to handle the stress of modern life

Nick Wignall
Oct 6, 2019 · 14 min read
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Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

For example:

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.

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.

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 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.

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:

  1. 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.

In order to be genuinely productive and a force for positive change — and boost your sense of self and emotional stability along the way — stop thinking and start doing:

  • Pick a social/political issue that matters to you and create a local meetup for it on MeetUp.com.

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.

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:

  1. 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).

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).

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.

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.

And that feeling of being overwhelmed by the state of things, can lead to both personal miseries like chronic anxiety or depression and make us less capable of creating the positive change we desire.

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.

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Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth: https://nickwignall.com

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Nick Wignall

Written by

Psychologist and blogger. I help people use psychology for meaningful personal growth: https://nickwignall.com

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

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