Constantly checking our social media pages and consuming endless amounts of bad news — or “doomscrolling” — isn’t exactly new, but 2020 has definitely brought more awareness to the habit. Never has that been more apparent than this week, as we face the outcome of elections and grapple with the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s actually a valid reason why we doomscroll, according to Kaz Nelson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis: The human brain is always on the lookout for threats to our safety and wellbeing in order to prepare ourselves for what’s to come.
“When we read upsetting news, the threat response is activated,” she said. “This can be helpful if it helps us to be aware of true threats to our safety and health and motivates us to work to address or respond to the threat. This is why it is so tempting to scroll page after page. Our brain perceives that we are doing something essential and productive.”
However, she added, “our brains did not evolve to access information in this manner and to this extent” — so information overload can contribute to overwhelming amounts of stress. It can also lead to other significant mental health problems, like an anxiety or panic, depression, insomnia and self-harm.
But just because we know doomscrolling is bad for us doesn’t mean we can easily stop doing it. Instead, experts recommend introducing some healthier habits into your routine to help cut back. Give some of these a try:
1. Set aside a realistic block of time to spend scrolling.
Pavan Madan, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry in Davis, California, said it could be helpful to give yourself a predetermined amount of time on social media.
“Set a reminder to turn off your phone, and use apps that educate you about your total screen time each day and how much you spent on each social media site,” he said.
You can also carve out chunks of time throughout the day. For example, give yourself 15 minutes to catch up on Twitter and the news, then put your phone down or exit the apps for a few hours. Then you can return to them later for another 15 minutes, and so on. This can be a difficult habit to develop, but after a few days of practice, it’ll become simpler.
2. Examine the thoughts that come up when you’re doomscrolling.
Madan also suggested using tools from cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT.
“One of the techniques used in CBT is called cognitive restructuring, and involves identifying and evaluating your irrational or maladaptive thoughts,” he said.
Basically, you spend time examining the negative thoughts you have and then slow your reaction to them. This includes taking the time to reflect on how accurate your immediate thoughts really are, identifying what triggered them (so, in this case, what tweets or headlines are causing the most damage?), examining what your instant reaction is to these thoughts (do you yell or lash out? Do you withdraw from friends?), and then finally working to change this reaction.
“While this is ideally done under the guidance of a psychotherapist, CBT-based self-help books may also help in learning them,” Madan said.
3. Try a 10-second (yes, that fast!) meditation.
A shorter version of the last tip can happen through a meditation exercise. Sure, it sounds cliche, but building a meditation habit could drastically improve your mental health. It’s also probably a lot better for you than indulging in doom and gloom.
Meditation teacher Paul Harrison said he often advises his students to practice a quick technique to help interrupt doomscrolling. It’s called Vipassana, and it only takes 10 seconds.
“Vipassana is a meditation technique in which we label the thoughts and feelings that we experience,” Harrison said. “It is practiced by closing the eyes, focusing on the breath, and labelling any thoughts or feelings that are occurring. This will remind you that it is just a feeling and nothing more. Then, your feeling of worry will have less power over you.”
Any time you’re going through your phone or watching the news and you start to feel unsettled, pause and try this method.
4. Don’t pick up your phone right when you wake up.
Liana Pavane ― a digital wellness coach and founder of TTYL NYC, a tech-free community dedicated to human connection ― suggested adding a bit of mindfulness into your morning rather than starting it off with social media.
“Make a solid effort to wake up at the same time each day and eliminate technology for the first half-hour upon waking up,” she said. “This will allow your body and mind to awaken naturally and increase productivity for the rest of the day. Start your morning by doing an activity to fill the time slot of your normal commute that doesn’t include looking at a screen. Maybe that means listening to a podcast or reading a book — not checking the news.”
5. Turn off your phone’s push notifications.
In the early days of smartphones, having your notifications on felt productive. But these days, notifications can be an unnecessary distraction — and maybe even triggering.
“If you have notifications set up on your apps that cause you to stop what you’re doing and read an article, turn them off,” said Candace V. Love, a licensed clinical psychologist at North Shore Behavioural Medicine in Chicago. “They’re just distracting and make you feel a false sense of urgency to read something right now. Those articles can wait.”
6. Carve out time for creative activities.
Pavane also recommended taking one period of your day where you’d watch the news or scroll your phone and using that time to do an activity that positively stimulates your brain instead.
“For example, working on a puzzle each day releases tiny amounts of dopamine as you connect the pieces,” Pavane said. “The closer you get to completing the puzzle, adrenaline increases and your body releases endorphins.”
“Colouring books follow the same principles, as does reading a book or playing an instrument,” she added. “Any activity that will allow you to reach a level of accomplishment creates a significant dopamine effect on your brain.”
7. Set time to talk with your family and friends — and make the news off limits.
You’re likely not the only person in your circle struggling to stay away from doomscrolling. Take some time to reach out to your family and friends: Ask how they’re doing and really listen, make plans you can look forward to together in future, dive into your current read or that great podcast you just discovered. But whatever you do, don’t talk about the news cycle.
8. Get outside during the day for a few minutes.
Amber Trueblood, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the Stretch Marks Podcast, noted that “spending time in the fresh air, preferably around trees, grass or sand ― without your phone in hand ― is incredibly helpful.”
She added that your “nervous system can better recalibrate when you’re in nature,” and being exposed to daylight can help regulate your mood, circadian rhythm and more.
9. Clean up the list of accounts you’re following.
Regine Muradian, a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health advocate, recommended that you “follow people on social media who inspire you and make you feel happy.”
“Make a list of things you enjoy and would like to learn more about. There are many influencers, professionals, and artists who have positive messages to share,” Muradian said. “By choosing to follow these people, you are making a healthy and feel-good choice.”
Stick with a handful of trustworthy news sources and flood your feed with more calming, funny or entertaining accounts. That way you’re able to break up the doom a little bit better.
10. Have a cut-off time at least an hour before bed.
If that’s too hard, start by ending screen time 15 or 30 minutes before bed and slowly increase that to an hour or more. And this doesn’t give you permission to switch to Netflix: This goes for all devices.
“Technology impacts sleep quality in many ways and can keep your brain alert — preventing you from getting a restful night’s sleep,” Pavane said. “Eliminate blue light, aka screens, at least an hour before bedtime. Keep your phone and computer out of the bedroom as a best practice and prioritise your sleep routine. This also prevents you from scrolling the news late into the night.”