An Ex CIA Analyst: How to process current modern life
July 3, 2018 3:38 AM   Subscribe

Otis is a Former CIA military analyst and wrote a short twitter thread on how to process current modern life when you find it overwhelming. As well as being a former CIA Analyst, Otis has also worked as a White House Intelligence briefer and is currently a Travel and YA Writer.

Otis has also written for the the Daily Beast website, CNN, the NY Times and TeenVogue
You can find out more about Otis here.

Original Twitter thread. (Reformatted [for readability not content] text is in full below.)

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.
  • Complacency - becoming so used to the deluge that it all starts to seem normal.
  • Paralysis - that is, being so overwhelmed, you can't figure out what to do/how to move forward.
  • Crisis perspective - you get trapped in the Breaking News cycle where everything seems like a potentially world-ending crisis to you.
  • 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:
  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. - 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

The above text has been edited [format not content] to make it more readable than a twitter thread.

Twitter Original Thread - https://twitter.com/CindyOtis_/status/1012488916178436096

Or in a collated format here on Threadreaderapp:
https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1012488916178436096.html
posted by Faintdreams (33 comments total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
 
RESEARCH BEFORE PANICKING.

seriously. do this. Read tons of history and alternative perspectives and viewpoints that challenge your own (note, don't do this via twitter or metafilter or facebook or Medium or whatever else social media engagement site is out there, by research I mean go to a bookstore or library or google scholar and read texts written by people who have informed and reasonably authoritative voices on the subjects you're researching. Knowledge is light, social media is pure heat.)
posted by nikaspark at 4:04 AM on July 3, 2018 [28 favorites]


Yeah. Read a book. I‘ve ditched facebook/twitter and instead consume very targeted news content, and I read up on history; the more complex, the better. It‘s making a big difference in my perception of the world. Not that it seems less scary, necessarily; but I feel more like an actual observer and less like a chicken running around with its head chopped off.

Sadly I‘ve also had to stop reading the catch-all threads here; always intelligent and fun, but just too many hot takes.
posted by The Toad at 4:19 AM on July 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


If everyone read more we wouldn’t be where we are now.
posted by kinnakeet at 4:25 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


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.
This a thousand times. Personally speaking, I've learned this is absolutely necessary for my own emotional wellbeing. Only when I am emotionally well can I process through the anger and frustration into a more peaceful and reasoned space.

I think this is excellent advice, thanks for sharing this.
posted by bologna on wry at 4:36 AM on July 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


If everyone read more we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Kind of depends on what's being read, doesn't it?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:39 AM on July 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


Thank you for pasting the text here, and please let this be the new normal. Expecting people to load two megabytes of spyware in order to read a kilobyte of text is insane.

(on topic - it's good to go to news websites when you want to read the news. News that finds its way to you via social media has done so by means of some stranger putting pennies of dubious origin into the slot of an intrusive algorithm. Getting your news from Facebook and Twitter is like buying sandwiches from a petrol station - sure, it's technically possible, but there's a dozen perfectly nice sandwich shops right there on the same street. Personally I just open the IPlayer and have BBC Radio 4 going all day. Couple days of that and American news sources start to sound like nothing but screeching noises and flailing)
posted by FeatherWatt at 5:40 AM on July 3, 2018 [13 favorites]


Yeah. Read a book.

For some deep background on politics and power I recommend:

Robert A. Caro - The Power Broker
Robert A. Caro - All four LBJ books
Daniel Yergin - The Prize
posted by M-x shell at 5:56 AM on July 3, 2018 [5 favorites]


Nikaspark - 'Knowledge is light, social media is pure heat.' - I like this very much but what exactly is Mefi if not, admittedly disparate, knowledge via social media.
posted by numberstation at 6:00 AM on July 3, 2018


I’m not entirely sure why a professional background comprised of torture, kidnap and extra-judicial execution should qualify anyone to think that they have a well adjusted view of the world. Quite the reverse I’d imagine.
posted by dmt at 6:47 AM on July 3, 2018 [18 favorites]


Totally agree dmt!

This piece reads like a white cop lecturing poor, black Americans about relaxing more when they interact with the police.

Has this analyst never bothered to check on what the CIA does: overthrow of democratically elected governments, running secret turture dungeons all over the world, constant flow of disinformation...

But it's our fault for getting upset?!
posted by booksarelame at 6:57 AM on July 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm not seeing anywhere in here that says you should be upset after dealing with upsetting things? This is more on how to deal with upsetting things and be productive enough to work against them. I don't know about the rest of you, but I can't afford to be in a fetal position for however long, even though it is really, really tempting.

I mean, I'm not exactly the CIA's biggest fan either, but I'm not going to deny that CIA analysts see some really fucked up shit on the daily.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:04 AM on July 3, 2018 [21 favorites]


Metafilter is a good place to find avenues to explore but it’s not a place where I go to consider myself fully informed. More like, initially informed.

And yeah, I’m looking past the CIA part on this post and compared to what social justice activists have written and talked about, this list tracks accordingly. So again, it’s about putting together multiple sources and sets of knowledge to arrive at a calm place.
posted by nikaspark at 7:09 AM on July 3, 2018 [9 favorites]


a professional background comprised of torture, kidnap and extra-judicial execution
...
like a white cop lecturing poor, black Americans


She probably killed a bunch of goats, too. And she did it all from her wheelchair at Langley. She's not "lecturing". She's not saying it's your fault that you're stressed out. She's offering self-care tips. Take them or don't, but this is the very definition of ad hominem.
posted by Etrigan at 7:10 AM on July 3, 2018 [44 favorites]


dmt / booksarelame - May I suggest you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater!

Are you suggesting that the worldview and perspective of the 20,000+ employees of the CIA or any employees/subcontractors of the other 16 declared US intelligence agencies is absolutely valueless, and automatically null and void due to your issue with actions taken by some individuals within those organisations? Are you sure about that?

I would have thought a more nuanced consideration would be appropriate but clearly you feel the need to play to the crowd and shoe horn in a simplistic dig. The author it would appear, had a career primarily behind a desk working as an analyst...
posted by numberstation at 7:12 AM on July 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


If everyone read more we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Kind of depends on what's being read, doesn't it?


I don't know all of the racists, but I've known a lot of racists (of various varieties and intensities), and the ones who think they're well-read never are. At best, they read the same thing a lot of times and skim other people's abstracts of the "important" texts of their shitty religions.
posted by Etrigan at 7:12 AM on July 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


I don't object to the advice given. It is sensible.

"Don't injure yourself. Avoid bruising and bleeding." Is very reasonable advice. When it is coming from the person pummeling me in the face, not so much. I object to the willful blind ignorance of the source. Not the advice.

Again, like someone shooting at me suggesting that I meditate more to stay calm. Yeah, ok, maybe stop shooting at me first.
posted by booksarelame at 7:14 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm not exactly the CIA's biggest fan either, but I'm not going to deny that CIA analysts see some really fucked up shit on the daily.

Perpetration induced traumatic stress (PITS) is in some respects different from other PTSD. Advice from experience with PITS may not be generally applicable.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:17 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I’m going to leave this thread and employ a few of these suggestions now.

Have fun y’all.
posted by nikaspark at 7:22 AM on July 3, 2018 [16 favorites]


The "take action" part is always the most stressful one for me. I learned that I am not, in fact, good at talking to strangers, doing block walks, and all the very needed and necessary things out there. It triggers my anxiety in a serious way.

I can write, though. So I've done a few postcard events. Obviously I vote. I donate. When I can muster the energy, I go to protests.

I have way fewer spoons than I would like when it comes to taking action, basically.
posted by emjaybee at 7:30 AM on July 3, 2018 [7 favorites]


[General point about the CIA made and acknowledged, let's bring it back around to the specifically self-care side which is the subject of this specific link. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:36 AM on July 3, 2018 [10 favorites]


The "take action" part is always the most stressful one for me. I learned that I am not, in fact, good at talking to strangers, doing block walks, and all the very needed and necessary things out there. It triggers my anxiety in a serious way.

As an organizer, let me tell you that there are a TON of things you can do that do not involve much interaction with strangers, and those things are super valued because they aren’t “fun” and so people always forget! Like, off the top of my head, some things that have been useful in my own organizing in the past month that have been provided by people who hate social contact are:

FOOD, omg, food. People bringing food to picket lines, meetings, etc are my HEROES. Without those people no one remembers it and everyone gets snappy at each other and makes big mistakes.

PRINTING. People running off a bunch of copies of those flyers that need to be up all over and handed to people. We always have a ton of volunteers for the “handing them out” piece and few volunteers for the “get them from the print shop” piece.

TRANSPORTATION OF GOODS. Frequent volunteers to transport people, but few volunteer for “I will show up and transport a carload of signs by myself”

SETUP/TEARDOWN. If you show up to an event I am organizing and just want to set up chairs or fold chairs and put out napkins and start the coffee/what have you I will weep silent tears of joy because you are so so so so important in making the thing Actually Happen.
posted by corb at 7:49 AM on July 3, 2018 [35 favorites]


The "take action" part is always the most stressful one for me. I learned that I am not, in fact, good at talking to strangers, doing block walks, and all the very needed and necessary things out there. It triggers my anxiety in a serious way.

Yeah, I suck at these too. Though taking action can also just be supporting those who are either better at or more able to do the stuff you can't - sending pizza to protesters, handing out cold water bottles at a march, doing data entry instead of calling people. Door knocking is important, but it's not all door knocking.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:49 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


But it's our fault for getting upset?!

A friend of mine scuba dives, and he said his teacher drilled one idea into their head: Calm people live.

This has become my mantra through this: calm people live. Or -- calm people are capable of assessing the data, clearly view the sources and influences, determine an immediate act-or-watch stance, and develop longer-term solutions. Control over emotions IS a powerful tool right now. None of this negates the horror of the situation. It simply means that I willfully, and with great force, exercise control over my responses.
posted by Silvery Fish at 7:53 AM on July 3, 2018 [50 favorites]


Oh! Also information coordination and logistics! Having a person who updates the website/facebook page with the relevant information is very much needed, and not always there. And man, every single organization I've ever been with has had a couple of people who were really good at saying 'we should do this thing!' and then a bunch of people will do 'I will do whatever thing someone tells me to do!' and then needs more people in the middle to figure out how to break the thing up into little pieces and assign tasks to the people who want to show up and knock on doors or whatever.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:59 AM on July 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


> But it's our fault for getting upset?!


Be careful to not conflate assignment of blame/responsibility with acting in a way to protect yourself and others. The world sucks sometimes, and just because there are good and bad ways to respond doesn’t change the moral calculus.
posted by cirgue at 9:24 AM on July 3, 2018


This list has been helpful to me. Every year I run an arts and crafts booth at a local festival, and it has been really, really hard for me to plan it this year. It's always a somewhat challenging event for me that I don't particularly enjoy doing (on my day off, long, hot, a slam of people, volunteers, etc.). But on top of my usual worries, every time I think about doing crafts with kids, my mind goes straight to the kids who've been separated from their parents. It's that feeling of despair- how can we have a festival when the world is falling apart?

Rule 6: You Need Fun is what is going to get me through it this year, I think. I'm going to remind myself that all the parents and kids need to get out and have fun too. Plus it's a free event and families of all backgrounds can participate, so maybe this will help bring people in our community a little closer.
posted by Mouse Army at 9:42 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


(This post contains very simple, useful advice. Perhaps it should be linked to at the start of each new FuckFuckFuckityFuck MetaVenting thread.)

Also, don't forget about HALT: originally from AA, I think, the letters stand for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired -- and they are four states when it's a poor time to make decisions or take drastic action. Instead, fix whichever of the four applies, and then return to your problem/opportunity/decision.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:56 AM on July 3, 2018 [8 favorites]


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.

Um, fuck this a lot? You know another reason we have this society? You and your pals. I'll ignore all of the current events ever if the alternative is being committed to a locked ward, or worse. My therapist--and her therapist--agree that this is the best course of action for me to stay mentally healthy. I've had 50 years of socio-political engagement, and it put me in the hospital twice. I'm owed a period of total ignorance, thank you.
posted by tzikeh at 10:05 AM on July 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


I sometimes feel like this is one of those periods in history where keeping up with current events is pretty pointless. We have forces of evil ranged against us. Not acting sneakily or in the shadows, just being openly evil. Given that lack of subtlety, maybe the only really important question you need to be able to answer right now is which side are you on?
posted by howfar at 10:16 AM on July 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


I sometimes feel like this is one of those periods in history where keeping up with current events is pretty pointless.

I subscribe to the Guardian Weekly -- which tends to show up ten days or two weeks after the fact. So whatever's making the headlines, it's always way in the rear view in comparison to whatever's breaking right now right here on CNN or wherever. It may be bloody awful news but still, something about it being already "old" calms me. I guess it tells me, well, okay that thing you thought was the end of the fucking world two weeks ago wasn't, humanity has survived, we've got other problems now, maybe even bigger ones, but what the hell, you can read about them in two weeks. In the meantime, concentrate on your breathing, and tend that garden.
posted by philip-random at 2:25 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Have Fun!

Go for a walk!

Eat a good meal with friends!

Honestly, his advice sounds thoughtless, and glib, to me.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 2:40 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Without the "Ex CIA Analyst" aspect (and maybe even with that) I'm not sure what is particularly novel about this list. It's a pretty good summary of Self-Care 101, and I guess it's valuable to have a reminder every once in a while. Maybe I'm just jaded; I'm sure there are plenty of folks to whom some of this stuff is new. I guess the whole "advice on how to deal with terrible stuff from a person who saw/was involved with terrible stuff on the daily for a long time" framing had me expecting some next-level advice.

Maybe the lesson is just that there is no next-level advice, no magic trick to getting through hard times without being hurt by them. The best thing we can do is just to take breaks, keep our perspective, and do what little we can to help make things better. That's it, that's all there is. That, and supporting each other—because if we haven't got each other, what have we got?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:28 PM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I have switched to a old timey no-internet phone to break myself of the constant urge to check the news.
It's helped.
posted by wowenthusiast at 3:30 PM on July 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


« Older Stitched up   |   Why Athletes Need A 'Quiet Eye' Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments