help give an information-scouring brain a break, please
April 3, 2021 6:30 PM   Subscribe

I use endless searching (in the Internet sense) to distract and numb difficult feelings. Like, hours every night. How can I not?

Specifically, I come back again and again to "scour for information, decipher what people say on forums/text-heavy sites (mmhmm)." Not even distracting with entertainment like games, but distracting with never-ending non-interactive-reassurance-seeking, which only makes it worse!

I've brought it up with therapists over the years, but somehow I have trouble keeping the focus on this particular problematic behavior and we end focusing elsewhere.

It's really clear to me it's a problem this weekend in particular. I found that I was avoiding feeling fear (about doing well on an exciting creative task with Admired Person) and loneliness (being back at my apt after seeing family) and instead deferring and intellecualizing both of those concerns with, like, endlessly searching for grad school programs (I have a masters degree, I'm good for now!!) literally for six hours straight.

I got up to run an errand and felt SO GOOD being out in the air, very brief social interactions, accomplishing a thing! and coming home to my cuddly cat, my space feeling new. when I realized I felt lonely, yeah that sucks, but I'd rather realize it and then do literally anything to solve it then... intellectualized internet purgatory.

I'd like for this to be a turning point. It's been years (decades) that I've gone to this behavior in this way and it's just... a waste. Yes it's ironic to post something in this kind of text heavy Internet space, but I find de-lurking can be helpful in advancing the plot internally, so to speak. Ugh, y'all, any help would be great. Thank you.
posted by elephantsvanish to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds like my obsessive rumination when my anxiety gets bad, and you might find mindfulness techniques helpful, but what really "cured" me of unbreakable ruminations was finding the right anxiety medication. YMMV.
posted by clarinet at 6:42 PM on April 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

FWIW: personally when I find myself narrowly focusing on news articles, forums, Hacker News or recursive dives down Web search rabbit holes it is usually because I have upcoming challenges or deadlines or decisions (i.e., anxiety). Sometimes the reading is related and sometimes it's just distracting.

Three things that have helped (not solved) my problem.
- I try to widen my arena of interests (I use Firefox extension GroupSpeedDial and I have added many more tabs with grids of useful or interesting sites so at least I'm not in a tight spiral)
- I try to remind myself of times when conversations (as opposed to information mining) have helped me put into perspective the upcoming challanges/decisions, or even gave me resources I was unaware of
- I try to remind myself of this cartoon (Caution: PDF) about getting out of ruts
posted by forthright at 7:02 PM on April 3, 2021

This sounds like trying to break a bad habit of getting sucked into a vortex of internet surfing.

One book I’ve found useful is Atomic Habits with some behavioral advice for changing habits.

Applying that advice to this situation:

Make it harder to get into the evening searching mode. Log out and turn off your device in the evening. The extra time and effort it takes to log back in will be a trigger for you to ask yourself, “do I really want to do this?”

Have a good substitute task for your time not spend on your device. Every time you’re tempted to log in and surf, say “Instead of searching, I’ll do X.” Whatever X is, it should be fairly easy, and more emotionally rewarding that searching. Maybe listen to a podcast, read a book, go for a walk, call a friend or whatever you’d find more fulfilling.
posted by ktheory at 7:10 PM on April 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

My husband had to strictly limit his screen time after a brain injury, so I got him an Echo Dot so that he could just ask Alexa for stuff that he would normally pick up his phone to check (e.g., time, weather, how late something was open, news briefings, etc.).

That might help you too, since every time you pick up your phone to check something basic is an opportunity to get sucked in to your old habits.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:35 PM on April 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I fall into this very same hole when I'm having more-than-usual trouble with anxiety and/or OCD.

My most effective plan is, unfortunately, not immediate. Chronic not acute measures including
  • Getting enough exercise
  • Getting sunshine
  • Getting my meds on time
  • Getting a schedule; I don't tend to let myself go to bed too early and in the mid-late evening I will do chores
I have a hard time listening to speech and concentrating on anything else at the same time. Verbal processing is not a strength. So I have a well worn collection of favourite audiobooks to plug this attention hole. Podcasts and radio shows work ell enough for me in the day, but not in the twilight hours. Audiobooks that I know will do the job are selected with care and I try not to repeat the same one inside of a year-is-or-so.

My anxiety issues have not been well treated with medications in the past but staying on top of my epilepsy (both medications & seizures) has helped with my anxiety & depression as well. Comorbidity.

Lastly - I (personally) have found these things very difficult to judge; I went a long time wondering if everyone felt this way about a bunch of things. Turns out, actually, no - not everyone has all of these experiences. Knowing that helped. I hope that working up the words to ask our question has been of some solace all by itself. If not, well, I was once given some important advice - maladaptive thinking (or feeling) isn't going to work itself out on a sensible timeline. Nor can it be ignored indefinitely. But the channels available aren't all that wide or deep.

Feeling bad? Pick a task that requires some thinking and/or attention. It doesn't have to be much. Scrub the grout, make some soup, sort some books. Thinking bad? Pick a distraction to feel different. It doesn't have to be much. Take a walk, maybe a shower. Call a friend, lift something heavy, really - y'know - taste that coffee. or, well, headphones and a favourite audiobook.

Best of luck. Not because you need it but because we're all in this together. If we choose to be. And writing this is far more productive than what I was doing 10minutes ago. So thank you for that. Sincerely. May you find a little peace in trying just a little less tonight.
posted by mce at 7:40 PM on April 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

I truly relate to this and can tell you from personal experience and through coaching others that this is completely resolve-able. You have the power to change this and create the behaviour you want. Remember, your thoughts create your feelings, your feelings influence your behaviour, and your behaviour shapes your thinking.

The first step to forward progress is understanding this behaviour, including the ways that it is serving you both negatively and positively. It sounds like you have a bit of awareness of both, which is a great start!

For example, you realise the negative impact this is having on your life and sleep (and all the feelings that come along with this) and want to stop the behaviour. You also recognise that there is a payoff that you’re getting in the form of self-reassurance and soothing.

Here are two other concepts that may apply to you and can help you expand your thoughts and awareness about the behaviour even further:

Revenge bedtime procrastination

Notice how with these new thoughts about what’s going on here, the feelings shift a little? That’s a good thing. New thoughts create new feelings. You may notice some compassion creeping in, especially as you realise the unmet needs you have, such as the desire for reassurance about what you’re doing during the day, the wanting mind for things to be different, the hopes and dreams, etc.

When you’re ready, you can start to transform this searching behaviour into something else that serves you better.

Start by noticing the unmet need. Perhaps spotting it first at nighttime, when it’s loudest. But then at other times too. What else could meet the need? And what else besides that? When and how could you start trying these things? Is there a way you can generate some curiosity and excitement around seeing what will work for you? If you could make some progress in this way, what else could you think, feel or do? What might you achieve next?

I’ll leave you with this: remember that this is a process over time. And it’s a process that’s custom to you, only you can do what works for you, but you have everything you need to do it. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings as you go — they are your guides.

Good luck, but you don’t really need it because you can totally do this!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:01 AM on April 4, 2021 [7 favorites]

Hi there. I can't really get rid of this compulsive searching for information. But I feel better when it's less on internet sites, more on books and newspapers, and more focused. So, I'm constantly looking up true crime stuff, but I make an effort to read actual books, or at least long-form journalism, and not a lot of predigested stuff on twitter or whatever. If I look back over a week off from work, having read three books feels a lot different from having surfed the internet for a week.
posted by BibiRose at 7:28 AM on April 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I do the same thing. Oddly, I find reading familiar and violent novels soothing. Old Stephen King or Game of Thrones novels are my go-tos, because I already know the tone and how the story ends. It’s like, well sure I have problems, but they’re not ice zombie problems.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 8:00 AM on April 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have a tendency towards this too (something about scouring for information is really satisfying and scratches a certain itch in my brain, even though the sort of numbing effect doesn’t feel good in the big picture.) I find some success in substituting another activity—and specifically, substituting something that feels “easy” or somewhat passive, like listening to an audiobook or podcast (sometimes combined with walking, and sometimes on an almost set route) so that the sort of “energy of activation” needed for switching activities is lower.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:37 AM on April 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I installed FocusMe on my work computer, and it helps. I can block the sites that I find to be the most distracting (like the New York Times website). Yes, I can disable FocusMe if I want, but doing so is just enough of a nuisance that I rarely do it. In fact, this post has inspired me to install FocusMe on my home computer, as well.
posted by akk2014 at 10:00 AM on April 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

I was doing this a couple of years ago. I decided to start working on something I enjoy that could actually build up a skill in the evenings, rather than feeling like I wasn’t doing anything of consequence. I got into the habit of playing a bunch of guitar instead, and it feels better.
posted by umbú at 11:07 AM on April 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have been finding graphic novels to be a particularly good substitute activity for this problem. It takes less effort to get into them than a regular book, they provide visual and emotional stimulation, and they are finite.
posted by Comet Bug at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Can you hide your computer?
posted by catquas at 5:12 PM on April 4, 2021

Unwinding Anxiety tackles this exact problem. It's written by Jud Brewer, associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, as well as a research affiliate at MIT. The clinically proven method he advocates is mindfulness-based, and emerges from our current understanding of how our brains form deep habits (like continual internet surfing).

The approach is separated into three basic steps. The first is identifying the habit loop, what triggers the habit and what you do in response to it. It looks like you've already done that.
The second step is to develop and practice awareness of what you're doing when you're indulging in the undesirable habit. Brewer makes the point that when we behave habitually, we are often no longer aware of the reward we are getting for the behavior. In many instances, the rewards are no longer there but we still persist in the habit. Developing awareness of what you are actually getting out of the habit likely will reveal in fact its downsides. Teaching the brain, reprogramming it by reflecting on these downsides will help break the loop.
The third stage is about how to do that reprogramming by replacing the habitual behavior with BBO, a bigger better offer. Our brains have two internal emotional states that can be harnessed to break habitual behavior: curiousity and the attitudinal practice called by the Buddhists, loving-kindness.

I recommend the book. The work that is required is simple but may not be easy. On the other hand it may very well be depending on your history, attitude and motivation and a dozen other factors. But given what's at stake, the ideas are worth trying. I am using them myself to tackle the habit of midnight snacking and also procrastination. So far, so good I must say!
posted by storybored at 9:33 PM on April 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

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