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SOS! Digital distress calls and how to answer them

By Julie Sturgeon
July 14, 2015
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Information overload as a term is old school. The average person takes in plenty of complicated data while walking around the block, but the mind finds that experience soothing.

These days, thanks to the fact that we have all the knowledge in the world tucked in our pockets, humans wrestle with what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” We struggle to keep our attention span, memory, judgment, evaluation, reasoning, decision-making and comprehension afloat.

Welcome to a state of unresolved stress and anxiety, say psychologists. That’s no way to live. If your nervous system is sending out these SOS signals, it’s time to get your head out of the cloud and concentrate on smooth sailing. Here are a few of the specific issues that can arise from cognitive overload and what you can do to mitigate them:

The volume of information constantly stresses you out because your left prefrontal cortex — the seat of executive function in the brain — can’t wade through the emails and texts to focus.

Don’t tell yourself you’re an idiot. Instead, talk nicely to yourself. A little self-empathy can reach in and rescue this floundering gray matter.

Your brain mildly freezes when confronted with the sheer volume of material. You are a mental statue and may be emotionally numb.

What is the minimum you have to do to survive the project, the conversation, the moment? Which parts would be the least painful if you wait to change them? Congratulations! You just cut the to-do list by half or more.

The feeling that you aren’t in control of your life is sinking your battleship.

Go ahead and laugh: Technology is the key to whipping this puppy into shape. Organization apps and specialty programs like Freedom that block the internet for intervals are your friends.

You know everything related to your family, career and hobbies.

Pull up anchor. Not all of that is even mildly interesting. List in one column topics you must stay up on (career developments, perhaps) and a few things you like in Column B (for example, hobby information), and everything else is history. Bye-bye political debates, celebrity news, newsletters, alerts and Facebook post notifications.

You don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to asking teens not to text at the dinner table.

Bite the bullet and designate information-free, technology-less time zones in your life. Rope off a few hours and ground the phone on your desk. Leave the computer at home on vacation. Read a real paperback book (or a designated e-reader) rather than a tablet where you’re tempted to catch up on RSS feeds.

Julie Sturgeon is a freelance writer and editor living in Indianapolis, Indiana.