TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity
Addicted to the answer: anxiety in the age of information
Looking back, I can think of two defining moments in my life.
The first was when I learned that my childhood love, Leonardo DiCaprio, only seemed to be interested in dating models over five eleven. I, regrettably, am five foot two.
The second was the night I thought I was going crazy.
It was my freshman year at UCLA and I was having a hard time. These weren’t shaping up to be the best years of my life. College wasn’t one big party. I wasn’t having fun. And living with 40,000 students was just overwhelming. I was confused, disappointed, and lost.
It all started with a slight pain in my shoulder. Desperate to diagnose it, I Googled through the night on Monday. And then again on Tuesday. And on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday. So that by Saturday, I was convinced I was dying.
After 30 hours of online searching, I had no answers and I felt worse. The more I searched, the more I worried, the more anxious I became.
Now by this point in time, many of you would have just gone to the doctors. That is a reasonable thing to do. But I was nowhere near reasonable. Doctors terrified me.
So instead of going to see one, I thought of the worst-case scenario. How would I break the news to my friends and family? How on earth would my parents cope with my inevitable loss? My thoughts were spiraling out of control.
But I knew I had a real problem the night I called my mom at 2 a.m. from the top bunk in my dorm room. My heart was pounding as I dialed, and I can still remember her words: “Sheva, this is crazy. Of course you’re going to be okay!”
I couldn’t believe her. Instead, I felt myself floating away from my reality. Disconnecting. I kept thinking, “This. This is what it feels like to lose your mind.” I was going crazy.
This episode wasn’t the first time I had been flooded with catastrophic thoughts, and it wouldn’t be the last. Anything I could think of was fair game for my obsessive mind.
If you’re curious, the diagnosis wasn’t terminal. It was a strained shoulder muscle. But it took seven more years before I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. Not the handwashing kind, or the checking kind, or the doing things in a specific order kind. Mine was obsessive thinking, an endless loop of doubts, a constant search for certainty that never comes.
It’s hard to say I’m thankful for what happened in college. But today I work as a psychotherapist helping people with anxiety disorders and OCD understand what I couldn’t that night, that thoughts aren’t always facts, and that just because we don’t know something doesn’t always mean we should go looking for it.
That’s my story. But here’s the rest of the story, and the reason I’m here. I’ve noticed a troubling phenomenon. Today, more people sound like I did in college. I see panic and anxiety on my Facebook feed. I hear it in the news. The world itself seems to be going crazy.
Studies show that young people today are more anxious than those that lived through the Great Depression, the Cold War, and even World War II. How can we explain this dramatic shift in human behavior? And could the way we treat anxiety teach us about what the world needs to stay sane?
See today, we have incredible access to information. We can research anything with just a few keystrokes. We’re up to date on global events, we watch every political move.
Remember the days when kids used to whine, “Are we there yet?” Because they had nothing to do but stare out the window? They don’t need to do that anymore. Kids as young as two are watching movies or playing video games the entire drive. Or let’s say I’m waiting in line at the DMV. Did you know it took just five seconds to find this famous cat online?
So what’s the problem? These seem like benefits of living in the age of information. They don’t hurt anyone.
But that’s not true. Because what we don’t realize is that we are getting hooked on a daily dose of instant answers and distractions. The more we use, the more we need to use, and that dosage just keeps getting higher.
A study at the University of Florida suggests that our insatiable appetite for the Internet mimics an impulse control disorder. We simply can’t stop ourselves when information is at our fingertips. More access leads to more consumption, which leads to more anxiety.
And the sad thing? It isn’t that hard to imagine a world run by anxiety. We’re already in it. Just listen to the news and you’ll hear its disturbing effects. Authoritarianism. Xenophobia. Violence.
See, I don’t think information itself is the problem. The problem is how we use it and how it affects our brains. Our access to instant information trains us to fear its absence. It trains us to fear not knowing.
We all know someone who stayed up late Googling the answer to some difficult question. We want to know more and more. One answer? It just isn’t good enough. Doesn’t that sound a lot like those nights I spent Googling my shoulder pain?
We are becoming addicted to the answer. And what I know about anxiety is that to quiet it, we must tolerate its existence, not rush to escape it. If we run from everything that makes us uncomfortable, we reinforce our intolerance. We become worse at not knowing.
What if, instead of spending all those hours on WebMD, I had tolerated the pain of being unsure? I would have slept better, I would have been more clear-headed, and then maybe I could have asked my roommate to take me to the campus clinic because I wasn’t going to go on my own. That would have been a reasonable response to my problem.
The age of information is a 24-hour all-you-can-eat data buffet. There’s more data to be had than we can possibly consume. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. And some companies don’t want us to limit our intake. They profit when we consume too much.
Take fake news, for example. Stories found on social media that are unregulated and unreliable. Born of our insatiable desire to be in the know at all times, we’ve created a market for cheap information. They recognize our appetite for answers, so they serve up news whenever we want it. They don’t have to be concerned with quality because it seems like we’ll accept anything. They are profiting from our addiction to information.
A study at Stanford University revealed the tactics of these distributors, describing how they mask lies with legitimate-sounding article titles and website names like these. Fake news is an online McDonald’s where the healthy-sounding oatmeal actually has as much sugar as a full can of Coke.
The consequences of all this access are right in front of us. Rates of depression and anxiety among teens has risen 70 percent in the last 25 years. Antidepressant prescriptions have risen 400 percent in the last 30. Study after study shows we’re more anxious today than we have been at any time in human history.
But even with the facts, how many of us can honestly say they’d feel comfortable putting down their phones for an entire evening? Or even an entire hour? How many of us can tolerate a day out of the loop? Uninformed, even?
Let’s accept that discomfort is a necessary part of being alive, not just a condition to be solved.
The unknown is a fundamental part of the human experience, and it has been as long as we’ve walked this earth. Information can only take us so far because we all face difficult questions. Questions about who we are and what we believe. Questions no search engine in the world can answer for us, no matter how late we stay up at night.
This is a turning point in the human story. We have a choice to make. If we let our addiction to information run our lives, a rise in anxiety is all but guaranteed. We will live in a world run by fear and ruled by those that capitalize on it.
But if we can look at information differently, if we can respect its benefits and its consequences, we can actively take charge of it. We can decide what, and when, and how much.
So can you accept that just because we can doesn’t mean we should? And could you believe that not having an answer might be the greatest solution of all? Thank you.