While the act of continuously scrolling through social media or surfing the web and taking in a constant torrent of bad news isn’t really new, it’s gotten new attention during the pandemic and even a new name: doomscrolling.
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Chances are, at some point, you’ve found yourself doing this, an unending scroll in the harsh light of your smartphone or computer screen. Whether it’s Facebook or Google or any number of other places, you’re subjecting yourself to a constant stream of terrible news.
But, surprise, doomscrolling isn’t good for your mental health for a variety of reasons. We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about doomscrolling, including why we do it and how we can stop this bad habit.
Why do we doomscroll?
We may be telling ourselves that we’re staying informed, but there’s something deeper at work when we find ourselves constantly scrolling through social media and bad news headlines.
“If you’re depressed, you often look for information that can confirm how you feel,” says Dr. Albers. “If you’re feeling negative, then reading negative news reconfirms how you feel. It’s the same mindset.”
If you do that a few times, it can easily become a habit. “If you’re continuously scrolling, it becomes a mindless habit,” she says. “A lot of times, you might not even be aware you’re doing it. But it becomes such a habit that if you have a down moment, you might pick up your phone and start scrolling without even really being aware of it.”
Dr. Albers notes that doomscrolling can also be a function of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “In this scenario, your brain continues to loop around on a particular topic similar to endless scrolling,” she says. “The behavior is not really about finding news, it’s about reducing anxiety.”
When OCD is at the root of the problem, it’s likely that more structured cognitive behavioral therapy is needed or therapy.
Why it’s bad
Doomscrolling can reinforce negative thoughts and a negative mindset, something that can greatly impact your mental health. Consuming negative news has been linked in research with greater fear, stress, anxiety and sadness.
“If you’re are prone to anxiety, depression or sadness, doomscrolling can be like stepping into quicksand,” says Dr. Albers. “The negativity can pull you under quickly and can lead to panic attacks.”
She also says it can impact your sleep: “When you’re anxious, it’s hard to turn your mind off to go to sleep.”
But another risk of doomscrolling is that it has the potential to create what is called “crazy-making.” In other words, you might see one set of information from one media outlet but the very next source you scroll by might give completely conflicting information. Your mind doesn’t know how to reconcile the information.
There’s also a big downside to simply being online so much. “Too much time on any media or social media sites, whether the news is bad or not, has been linked with feelings of depression,” Dr. Albers says. “Burying your nose in a phone can exacerbate disconnection and loneliness. Being locked on a screen can zap your energy and leave you feeling drained.”
What’s happening on a biological level, she says, is that you are feeding your brain a continual stream of cortisol, or the stress hormone. “Over time, the brain and body become exhausted by the high levels of this stress hormone. It breaks down and leads to health problems or mental health issues.”
11 Tips for ditching doomscrolls
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are ways you can give yourself distance and reduce the urge to dive into the social media abyss, says Dr. Albers. And she has ways you can gently alter your behavior so that you can make sure you set up healthier patterns of mindfulness and news consumption.
1. Localize the behavior
“Localizing means limiting a behavior to a specific time or place,” says Dr. Albers. It’s okay that you need to read some news to stay informed, but by setting these boundaries and sticking to them,you’re channeling behavior into more appropriate or specific time periods that are more ideal.
“If you’re scrolling first thing in the morning,” Dr. Albers says, “plug your phone in on the other side of the room so you don’t pick up your phone before you even get out of bed.” Instead of opening your phone before anything else, get up, have some coffee get your day underway before you dive into the news.
2. Use Mindfulness
“Be mindful of how a particular article makes you feel as you are scrolling by it,” Dr. Albers suggests. “Notice or observe the sensations in your body or your mind’s response to the news.”
When you pay attention consciously to the bad feelings such as anxiety, agitation or stress, she says, it’s more likely to motivate you to put on the brakes. “This,” she adds, “is your body’s way of saying stop.”
3. Avoid “catastrophizing”
“Catastrophizing” is when your mind jumps straight to the worst-case scenario. “Often, these thoughts are possible but not really probable,” Dr. Albers says. “You’re mind is jumping right from A to Z.”
Instead, she says, reel your thoughts back in by asking yourself what is a more realistic or likely outcome of the situation you’re reading about.
4. Practice thought stopping
Thought stopping is a cognitive-behavioral technique typically used for ending obsessive or anxious thoughts. “When you have difficulty turning off a thought, imagine a red stop sign,” suggest Dr. Albers. “The power of imagination is helpful in curbing your thinking.”
Check your phone consciously, not compulsively, she adds. Compulsive checking is something you do automatically without even much thought. So when you pick up your phone, pause for a second and be mindful of what you are doing. If the stop sign doesn’t work and you find yourself still engaging in too much scrolling, try wearing a rubber band around your wrist as a physical reminder.
5. Slow the scroll
If you can’t stop the scrolling, consider slowing down the pace. “The human attention span is very short,” Dr. Albers points out. “When we scroll quickly, we continue to shorten the length of time. You need a solid attention span to help you concentrate and focus. Consciously tell yourself, to ‘pace, don’t race’ through the articles.”
When the news is dismal, it can lead you to feel hopeless and down. Hang positive mantras, sayings and slogans in your workspace or around your home. These words help to keep your mind pointed in a positive direction.
7. Focus on the now
“We can’t control what is going to happen in the future,” Dr. Albers says. “But you can control what is happening right now. Ask yourself what is going to help you to feel better in this moment.”
8. Radical honesty
Be honest with yourself about what’s at the root of your scrolling. Are you looking for reassurance? Guidance? Confirming your fears? If you are feeling lonely, a more lasting and healing intervention would be to connect with someone.
9. Digital wellness apps
While technology is part of the problem with doomscrolling, it can still be part of the solution thanks to a variety of wellness apps that are currently available. “Set time limits on apps or set alarms on your phone to set boundaries on the time you spend on social media sites,” Dr. Albers suggests.
“Unfollow negative news sources or those that tend to make you anxious,” she says, “and limit the number of sources you consult. Put a cap on the number of sites you consult in one sitting or per day.”
10. Look at the big picture
Sometimes looking at the news can be a positive and give you perspective. “Your own problems seem more manageable or not as difficult compared to some of the things you are reading about in the news,” Dr. Albers says. “If you find yourself sinking into doomscrolling, ask yourself for the nugget of gold from this behavior. What does it tell you to be grateful for or appreciate in your life?”
Unhook yourself from your screen by mindful movement. Exercise and deep breaths help to reconnect you with your body and gives your mind a rest while exercising your muscles. Exercise has also been shown to help pump up your serotonin level, that feel-good neurotransmitter in your brain.