Information anxiety in Covid crisis

A healthcare worker checks the nasal swab taken for COVID-19 testing at Jammu railway station on Sunday April 18, 2021. GK File/Mir Imran

At a time when Covid-19 infection in its second phase is wreaking havoc with human lives across the country, the overflow of information pertaining to the disease itself through social media platforms has put the general public on cross roads. A breed of self-styled experts is on prowl on the social media sites with their own information and analysis on the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The over-loading of information has caused anxiety among the users as they are caught between ‘to be or not be’ on the side of the information broadcast on the social media and other electronic platforms.

This huge amount of information posted on daily basis by unknown sources is mostly loaded with fake news and confusing content. The ugly part of this information campaign is that the content creators present the information in most lucid way which leaves almost no scope for most of the users to doubt the authenticity of the information.

Just few days back, an acquaintance forwarded me a ‘stunning’ WhatsApp message containing a news item about the origin of coronavirus. The message claims that “Japanese Nobel laureate Tasuku Honjo  allegedly said that the virus has been manufactured by Israel”. It also has a link to the Wikipedia page of Prof. Honjo at Japan’s Kyoto University. The text also misleadingly says Honjo “worked in a lab in Israel”.

The message claiming to be a quote of the Noble laureate reads: “…the virus is not natural. If it is natural, it will have not affected the whole world like that. Because, depending on the nature, the temperature is different in different countries. If it were natural, it would only have affected countries with same temperature.”

In the first instance, the content of the message hits bull’s eye. But a fact check about the claim revealed a different story. Last year, the same Japanese Nobel Laureate was quoted to have stated that “the new coronavirus is not natural and that China manufactured it”. According to a Reuters report, it was then shared in more than 400 Facebook groups and was debunked. Even the Nobel Laureate had refuted the claim in a written statement as “false accusations and misinformation”.

Basically, social media platforms remain loaded with such fake news. As the country is grappling with this Covid-induced unprecedented health crisis, such types of misinformation campaigns are only causing lot of mental agony to the users.

Since the outbreak of coronavirus in January 2020 in the city of Wuhan in China, the volume of information has been grown exponentially, perhaps much faster than the outbreak of the infection.  In the second phase, the virus is showing no mercy and consuming thousands of precious human lives daily. This time the crisis has emerged as a human catastrophe as the infection is leaving human lives lifeless irrespective of age and gender.  This time, its adverse impact on the economy has not been picked as a concern, which otherwise had dominated the first phase of the pandemic.

Amid this mayhem when unprecedented loss of lives is reported all over the country, unbelievable and uncontrollable amounts of data about the Covid crisis is being loaded onto the social media and other internet based platforms every day. The dissemination of voluminous information on 24×7 basis is largely proving hazardous for the mental health of the general masses. Now, this information overload is emerging as a serious issue. Per se, there is not a problem with the availability of the information. The real problem is lack of quality control on the information propagated through web, especially on the social media sites. For example, we find a lot of stuff posted daily on the social media sites about the precautions to be taken against the Covid -19 infection, especially with respect to use of masks. Surprisingly, we come across posts and videos which list surgical masks as very effective to dodge the virus. While as there are others who advise against the use of surgical masks for being unhygienic to control any virus or bacteria.  Varied opinions on use of masks which are contrary in nature have put the general public in dilemma.

Here let me share the exact definition of information overload. It is the state of feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information to the point at which one feels more confused than knowledgeable about a particular topic. Information overload can manifest itself as brain fog and difficulty making decisions.

Precisely, information overload is the kind of stress one feels when one consumes more information than can be digested. It leads to mental fog.

This bombardment of information on Covid crisis has subjected most of the people to information anxiety where they caught in ‘what to do or what not to do’ situation.  Too much of information is no longer allowing them to think clearly and fruitfully.

An acquaintance, medical doctor by profession, picks this overload of information during the time of these ongoing Covid-induced fatalities as most dangerous for the health of human brain. “Information overload leads to brain fog. When brain surpasses the limit of processing certain amount of information, it leads to symptoms of cognitive overload occur. A person starts to feel irritated, and is no longer able to think clearly. His decision-making ability takes a huge hit. It is not just a person’s ability to make decisions that suffers. His ability to stay motivated and productive is also impaired when there is too much information hitting the brain,” says the doctor.

Precisely, the above mentioned adversities of the information overload triggers anxiety, which we call ‘information anxiety’. At a time, when Covid crisis has been giving sleepless nights to the people, the overdose of information, which is mostly unauthenticated and not vetted by the experts, can lead to mental health problems. Otherwise also pandemic-induced mental health issues have been cropping up at an alarming rate. Now this ‘information anxiety’ makes it harder to focus and concentrate.  People stop questioning the authenticity of the information they receive and this attitude becomes the source of things like fake news, phishing and cyber scams to flourish.

The current uncertainty has automatically increased stress and anxiety levels of the people not only about the virus and its health hazards, but the deteriorating economic scenario also affects their mental health. The prolonged anxiety leads to anxiety disorder. A study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity in May 2020 underlined how insomnia, anxiety and depression are showing up. The study suggested social isolation and restricted mobility also leading to depressive symptoms in most individuals living under quarantine or lockdowns.

Precisely, when we look at the ongoing pandemic, we find all those symptoms in most of the people that indicate stress on their mental health and medical professionals vouch that today’s anxiety has full tendency to become a tidal wave in the post-covid crisis. If these apprehensions turn out in practical shape, it would be yet another huge shock to the healthcare system to cater to this pandemic. Rates of anxiety and depression have steadily risen for years, and people are most of the times in denial mode when it comes to their mental health issues.

Meanwhile, it’s a matter of great concern that the COVID-induced anxiety (including information anxiety) provoking changes to everyday life that people are enduring are not getting noticed seriously. In the words of a clinical psychologist, “anxiety is exhausting and terrifying. If it is happening long enough, you’re going to get depressed about it. You’re going to get hopeless and maybe even suicidal.”

As far as information overload is concerned, it’s nothing but a junk food for brain. In succinct, it’s harmful for the brain. There are certain things which one needs to take note.

Don’t dwell on the news. However, it’s important to stay up to date and that too in a gentle way.        Don’t heed to misinformation going around, and avoid sensationalistic coverage.  Avoid constant monitoring of social media feeds. This can fuel anxiety rather than easing it. Be careful what you share. Do your best to verify information before passing it on. Help to avoid spreading rumors and creating unnecessary panic.  It’s always better to focus on the things which are under your control. Avoid finding answers of questions which you don’t know and don’t thinking over all the different scenarios that might happen. Even don’t look at circumstances outside of your personal control. This strategy will get you nowhere and leave you drained, anxious, and overwhelmed. When you feel yourself getting caught up in fear of what might happen, try to shift your focus to things you can control.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)