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Let Cindy Otis Teach You to Avoid Being Overwhelmed and Stay Focused

Let Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst and author, teach you how to avoid being overwhelmed and stay focused in a world where everything seems to be on fire.

 

Otis published an amazing thread on Twitter on June 28, 2018. Read it, save it, memorize it. We’ve reproduced it here, with the emojis removed. Scroll down for more info on Otis.

 

Today seems like the right time to do a thread I’ve been thinking about for a while on how to handle the seemingly never-ending deluge of depressing and disturbing news. My tips are based on my time as a CIA military analyst in which I dealt daily with disturbing content.

 

There are several risks to being overloaded with disturbing/negative content.  [We are replacing her emoji checks with numbers.] 1. Complacency – becoming so used to the deluge that it all starts to seem normal. 2. Paralysis – that is, being so overwhelmed, you can’t figure out what to do/how to move forward.

 

3. Crisis perspective – you get trapped in the Breaking News cycle where everything seems like a potentially world-ending crisis to you. 4. Depression/PTSD – you don’t have to be on the frontline of a war have either/both. Disturbing content is absolutely a trigger.

 

There are also serious physical consequences to living a negative content overloaded life. I had a colleague who didn’t know he had stage 4 brain cancer because the symptoms were the same as our very stressful careers–exhaustion, random fevers, stress, and dizziness.

 

So, what do you do? First, I strongly urge you not to ignore the news/current events. Ignorance is one reason we have this society. It won’t make the problems go away & contributes nothing to their solving. Now that that’s established, here’s how to make it easier to handle:

 

[Numbers from here forward are from Otis.] 1. TAKE ACTION. Volunteer for a food pantry, canvass for a political candidate, donate to a NGO, visit a sick friend. Seriously. Service of some kind in your community lets you be part of SOLUTIONS. You will see RESULTS when otherwise you’d feel helpless.

 

2. Conversely, for those who may take tip #1 to the extreme–know that you alone can’t save the world. Accept your limits. You aren’t a 7/11. You can’t always be open. At the end of every day when I reached my limit, I silently told myself, “I’ve done what I can today.”

 

(Note: Repeating that to myself did not stop me from feeling like I could have done more most days. But it was important to tell myself anyway because I am human. We are human. It’s good we *feel* things.)

 

3. RESEARCH BEFORE PANICKING. Easier said than done, but everything will seem like crisis/earth-ending if you don’t know what has/hasn’t happened before. If it has happened before, it’s can be hugely comforting to know how it was resolved and/or what might happen next.

 

4. GET UP & MOVE. Put the phone away, turn off the TV, log out of Twitter. Go for a walk, sit outside, get some coffee, call a friend. CIA is full of ppl walking the building with a colleague/friend. There’s a reason. Our brains & bodies need breaks from stressful content.

 

5. SET RULES. Because of my work at CIA, I had a rule–I only read fiction at home. I had enough reality at work. In the civilian world, I set blocks of time each day where I turn everything off–no news or social media. Let yourself recharge so you can keep fighting later.

 

6. AVOID DARK HOLES. (I’m sure there’s a joke to be made about that.) It’s easy to get sucked into the swirl of bad news. You watch a gruesome YouTube video and the next one is all queued up to play right after it. Focus on one issue at a time. Deal w/ it before moving on.

 

7. YOU NEED FUN. When there is suffering, war, despair, etc. around you, it’s easy to feel guilty when you have fun, feel happy, have a good meal with friends. You NEED these things. You will be better able to do good in the world if you let yourself have these things.

 

8. TALK TO SOMEONE. Often, we curl inward socially when overwhelmed w/ negative content. It’s a means of protection. One of the great things at CIA was that everyone else knew what you were going through. Whether it’s therapy or talking to your person, talking helps.

 

None of this is easy. I got burned out a lot in my career & many days recently, I’ve felt overloaded by the barrage. I’m sure you have too. But you and I can’t check out. We can’t give up & we need to stay engaged, but we can’t do that if we get overloaded. Keep going.

 

Shout out to who forces me to get out of the house when I start sounding especially doom and gloom!

 

 

Otis posted a follow-up thread on June 29, 2018:

 

Wow. I woke up this morning to find my thread went viral & my inbox was full of messages from ppl. My biggest takeaway from it is that we’re all struggling right now. So, I’ve got a few quick things you can do RIGHT NOW to help survive whatever news dump we’ll get today:

 

1. Read this article by that includes tips from me on how to read the news like an intelligence analyst. It gets at my tip from earlier on doing research before panicking and talks about how to actually do that research. Knowledge = POWER.

(Here is the link she referenced:) http://www.realclearlife.com/media/6-rules-thinking-like-cia-analyst-beat-fake-news/

 

2. Schedule the time you’re planning to unplug today. Write it down so it is more likely to happen. Will you take a walk? Call a friend to talk about anything but the news? Take a power nap? Bake some cookies? Watch your fave trash TV show? Whatever it is, DO IT.

 

3. Look at who you follow on social media. Do you only follow people who perpetuate the crisis mentality? If so, add in some practical folks who provide actionable ways forward and context you need to know. is a must for Americans worried about politics.

 

4. Tell yourself as many times as you need to hear it today — YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU CAN DO THIS. WE NEED YOU WITH US. Take care, all.

 

 

Follow Cindy Otis on Twitter:

@CindyOtis_

 

 

Visit Otis’s website:

http://www.cindyotis.com

 

 

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