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Former CIA analyst offers advice on how to deal with deluges of disturbing news

People look at the exterior of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on Friday in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Chris McGrath
Getty Images
People look at the exterior of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on Friday in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Hurricanes, mass shootings, political controversies, court rulings, riots, deaths ... every day the news contains one or more or all of these kinds of stories. Sometimes it may seem that the world itself is cracking up, and everyone along with it.

People who feel this way shouldn't feel alone, and Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst, doesn't want them to feel helpless or hopeless. That's crucial because how people deal with disturbing news affects their mental health.

Otis, the author of the book True or False: A CIA Analyst Guide to Spotting Fake News, offers some guidance on how to navigate the world's tough news one day at a time. She recently tweeted some tips on how to deal with the seemingly never ending flood of disturbing news, and it went viral.

She spoke with TPR's Jerry Clayton:

Jerry Clayton: Walk us through some of the high points of your tweet thread.

Cindy Otis: As a CIA analyst, you're constantly in this giant swirl of information you're constantly consuming. It can get pretty disturbing and depressing. And so as an analyst, you really had to sort of build some emotional and mental resilience to consuming that kind of information. So I felt like there were some some lessons that I had learned as an analyst that could be helpful for people who are feeling overwhelmed.

So, some of the things that I talked about in my tweet thread were that it's really important to certainly take care of yourself, but it's also really important not to check out from what's happening around you, that there are ways that you can stay sort of actively engaged in supporting your community, in supporting the country, in keeping on top of what is actually happening in the news without turning towards things like doomscrolling.

So, I really encourage folks to recognize first that this sort of never ending deluge of depressing content actually can have real consequences for you. You can become depressed by it. You can start to sort of live in a crisis perspective where everything feels like one day in emergency and that sort of thing. So some of the things that you can do to help yourself not fall into those traps are putting your phone down, turning off the TV for a while, logging out of social media and get outside, hang out with your friends, go get some coffee, call a friend, spend some time being unplugged.

The other things that I talk about are things like setting some rules for yourself. So don't check out of the world completely, but set some boundaries. So some hours that you're going to allow yourself to be online or some sources of information that you're allowed you're going to allow yourself to track. But otherwise, setting boundaries of like not allowing yourself to be on social media all day long because you get sort of trapped in that cycle of doomscrolling.

The other thing that I really focus on is taking action. It can feel really overwhelming to just sort of watch the news happen. You end up sort of feeling out of control, that there's nothing you can do about the depressing and negative content that you're consuming. But that's really not true. Getting involved in your local community. Volunteering for a political campaign. Contributing to some sort of service project. Bettering the community around you can really help you feel like you are actually making a difference in the world and that things aren't quite as chaotic as they otherwise would seem if you weren't doing any of those things.

Clayton: When you are looking at some of this information, it's important to realize that it could be disinformation or propaganda. How do you determine if it is or not?

Otis: One of the pitfalls of being sort of submerged in depressing and negative content is that we end up being sort of run by the emotions of it all, right? We get into that crisis perspective. We get stressed out, we get depressed, and we actually forget some of the things that we might otherwise be inclined to do.

So checking the source before sharing it, not sharing massive wild claims from social media accounts that we haven't validated, we tend to move really quickly online. So we share content as fast as we see it, as opposed to sort of taking a step back, taking a deep breath and starting to look into, are these things actually true?

We actually are more likely to fall for things like disinformation because we sort of stop doing the sort of critical thinking that we should otherwise be doing.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.