In one of my classes last week, the lecture and discussion focused on the concepts of information anxiety and information avoidance. The scholars who study these concepts argue that people will avoid information that conflicts with the individual’s world view or that will force changes. This makes it sound trivial and petty, but it’s not. A lot of the literature on this topic uses medical examples – people refusing to get tested for genetic disorders or STDs, because the potential results will require drastic changes and important decisions the people are unwilling to face. There are of course less traumatic examples. One article we read used the example of a pretend study of physical attractiveness – do the participants want to know what the other (imaginary) participants said about their attractiveness?
Personally, I’d say no, but that gets into discussions of a favorite concept in social sciences and humanities scholarship: context. We learn from experience, and if experience shows that similar interactions went a certain way in the past, we use that information to make our decisions.
I’m an anxious person. I’m just wired that way. It’s hard for me to avoid worrying. I’m not talking the top ten phobias kind of worrying. I don’t LIKE spiders, but I don’t spend my day obsessing about whether there’s one behind the fridge. If I notice one in my apartment and I’m unable to catch-and-remove before it scuttles out of reach, then I get a little jumpy.
The thing about anxiety is it doesn’t feel rational. It may have logical reasons behind it, but the feeling itself, not to mention the state of mind it creates, relies on illogical emotions. Let’s face it: Anxiety is a kind of fear. When I’m anxious, the feeling can be as minor as a gnawing feeling in my gut, or as major as a full-blown anxiety attack, including nausea, uncontrollable shaking, and inability to focus or relax.
I do avoid some kinds of information, not so much because I think it will force change, but because I know it will trigger anxiety. One of the coping mechanisms for living as an anxious person is to learn what to avoid. I don’t read any newspaper articles that mention the word “pandemic.” I avoid announcements of what the newest OMGDEATHFLU is each year – I just go get the flu shot and hope fervently that it works.
Mostly, however, I prefer to rip the band-aid off, information-wise. Most of the time, I’d much rather know. When I’m anticipating information, the anxious part of my brain goes into catastrophe mode and starts imagining all kinds of terrible outcomes. Information avoidance, to me, is generally way worse than having the information. Yes, getting the diagnosis or hearing the news can create new things to worry about. Yes, it can be hard. But at least when I know, I can do something about it. I can create a plan and start working to solve the problem. I hate the articles on the West Coast that come out every year or two that talk about how the “Big One” (earthquake) could happen any time, that we’re overdue for a massive shake on the Hayward Fault, and look how things will fall apart when it happens. Those articles regularly give me a stomachache (not exaggerating). On the other hand, it makes me paranoid about checking my first aid kits, which is arguably a good thing.
I’m struggling with anxiety a lot right now, in large part because so many areas of my life are stuck in holding patterns. Finding a job, figuring out the health issues that plague me, dealing with social life, and so forth – it feels like a lot of things that are on hold until I figure out what happens after graduation. Obviously the job thing needs to happen, like, yesterday, but everything else seems to rely on that. Getting a job means getting health insurance (I hope), income, and hopefully a new social circle. It means moving to a new place and navigating this whole grown-up life thing.
On the one hand, anxiety is making me attack this, do something about it. I know I won’t feel better till I know what to expect from the next few months, and the rest of the year.
On the other hand, I kind of want to go back to bed and never leave that nice warm safe place.