Anxiety and Digital “Rubbernecking”

Many people today are feeling anxious and fearful about the restrictive, aggressive actions being taken by the Trump administration, such as:

  • Families being torn apart by deportation or detainment.
  • Refugees who have gone through years – sometimes decades – of bureaucratic vetting suddenly forbidden from reuniting with their families in the U.S.
  • Protections on the environment and the economy eliminated to promote the interests of corporations and financial institutions.
  • Fear that Trump’s poor judgment and obsession with aggressively settling vendettas could put us on a path to war that will threaten our own safety and put the lives of innocent people across the planet in jeopardy.

Unsustainable levels of pressure are unquestionably being put upon an already fragile system and it’s hard to look away.

Most People Can’t Control Their Attention to News and Social Media

Everyday I hear just how hard it is for people to manage this unending onslaught of bad news. It is incredibly difficult for most people to modulate their constant monitoring of unfolding political events. As I suggested in my last post, it is a good idea to take steps to refocus your attention when interacting with social media and news reports if you are constantly feeling upset by unfolding political events. Though most would theoretically agree that trying to keep their “psychological home” safe by being more selective in their consumption of information is important, many are unable to maintain this posture for any significant period of time.

As a psychologist, I have always been interested in understanding what actually helps people to make changes in their lives. As such, I am fascinated by the question of why it is so difficult for most people to turn away (even momentarily) from the train wreck we are witnessing in our country.

Watching a metaphorical train wreck - like the accidental death of a celebrity or “rubbernecking” at the site of a car crash – is a part of human nature. Many of us are compelled to look in spite of ourselves. Researchers and philosophers believe that a sense of morbid curiosity associated with taking in the misfortune of others is one way for us to learn important lessons about life. Often we can come to understand something personally profound through the experiences of others. Such new understanding shapes us all in critical ways, generating greater compassion and fostering additional nuance in our own lived experience.

Why is it so Hard to Look Away From the News?

Witnessing events that bring death and misfortune nearer to us can also be a way of reaffirming the reality of living. Eric Wilson, a professor of English literature, expresses his own belief in “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” ; the nearness to death can be paradoxically horrifying and nourishing. He writes, “to repress death is to lose the feeling of life," and maintains that “closeness to death discloses our most fertile energies."

Movies, plays and books about loss and pain can be of great value to the enrichment of our own humanity. These stories act as social learning tools allowing us to vicariously experience different and sometimes dangerous realities. Researchers have found that even horror movies can help teens (and many adults) grapple with important lessons about fear and death. 

In my next post , I will discuss how the internet and social media, our newest vicarious social learning tools, harness on our innate sense of curiosity and drive us on a quest for greater safety and form unrealistic expectations about our level of control.