“[This nighttime scrolling] often happens when something during the day, like at work or in a relationship, feels very out of control, so at night, the mind attempts to gain control over those emotions by pushing them away,” Josephson shared in a recent Instagram post. To do that, the brain latches onto social media and its endless feed of unrelated content as a distraction from anxious thoughts lurking in the background.
Below, Josephson explains why this happens, and what you can do about it in order to preserve your sleep and your sanctity, both in the moment and over time.
- Meg Josephson, certified meditation teacher, writer, and integrative therapist based in the Bay Area
For more on the mind-numbing power of social media, listen to the recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast on this topic:
Why you might feel like you can’t stop scrolling on your phone at night
In most cases, scrolling through a social-media feed offers a welcome escape from the anxiety-provoking realities of life, providing an endless carousel of content peppered with opportunities for validation. Plus, it’s an escape that you have full control over taking whenever you’d like to do so. This can make the habit particularly alluring at night, after the obligations of the day are done and when uncomfortable emotions might otherwise have room to surface, says Josephson.
Oftentimes, you might not even be aware of these distressing emotions in the first place because the tendency to scroll (and scroll and scroll) keeps them suppressed. “What's key to understand is that our brain's primary job is to protect us,” says Josephson. “When an uncomfortable emotion arises, our brain wants to eliminate that discomfort as soon as possible—even if experiencing the emotion wouldn’t actually pose any danger.” Cue: the feeling that you just can’t stop scrolling through your phone at night.
“When numbing [difficult] emotions becomes your go-to, the routine of escapism feels familiar, and therefore safe, to the body.” —Meg Josephson, MSW, therapist
The problem is, turning to a distraction like scrolling every time a difficult feeling surfaces just numbs the mind rather than allowing you to feel and address the emotion. And “when numbing these emotions becomes your go-to, the routine of escapism feels familiar, and therefore safe, to the body,” says Josephson, which just makes you all the more likely to do it before bed.
But despite that sense of surface-level comfort, the end effect of pre-bed scrolling isn’t likely a positive one. Not only are you potentially numbing a feeling that should be confronted and, on a tangible level, delaying much-needed sleep, but also, you’re putting yourself at risk of being agitated or irritated by the 24-hour news cycle (doomscrolling, anyone?) as well as exposing yourself to ample blue light, both of which can make it tougher to doze off afterward. And again, that just means less overall sleep, which is not great for your mental or physical health.
How to stop yourself mid-scroll
At first, breaking the pattern of pre-bed scrolling may require making it literally impossible to do: Try charging your phone in another room and putting it away for at least an hour before bed, if possible, suggests Josephson. (And if you can leave it there overnight and use an actual alarm clock to wake up instead, even better.)
In the meantime, without a phone to scroll, you’ll have the space and time to create a nighttime ritual that feels just as comforting and safe in the moment but that has a more effective end result. Josephson suggests doing some gentle stretching or deep breathing, reading a book, or journaling—but anything that helps you personally wind down can be a part of this “sleep arc” or pre-bed ritual.
“Start small and be consistent with it,” says Josephson. “Over time, your brain will start to associate the activities you choose with a restful night of sleep.” And that will just make falling asleep when the time comes that much easier. “Remember that this is also nothing to be perfect at,” she adds. “It should feel like a treat to your mind and body after a long day.”
How to break a pattern of pre-bed scrolling over time
Because choosing to scroll—much like choosing to delay your bedtime—can provide a sense of control and agency, it’s often a feeling of lacking control that triggers this behavior in the first place. As a result, it may be helpful to reflect during the day on what’s actually in your control and what’s out of it, so that by the time night arrives, you’re less likely to find yourself worrying about things that are out of your control and self-soothing by scrolling.
To do this, create a can/can’t control list by carefully sorting the concerns swirling in your mind into one or the other bucket. For example, you can’t control how your boss acts at work, but you can control the work-life boundaries you set. You can’t control whether the rain keeps you from your afternoon walk, but you can control whether you decide to take a mental-health break from your computer, anyway.
“The fearful part of yourself may have trouble distinguishing between these two categories,” says Josephson. So, she suggests asking yourself an even more specific question if everything that you’re writing down seems to be falling in the “can’t control” category: “Is there something I can do today to make this feel less overwhelming tomorrow?” This way, you can come up with actionable baby steps to feel more in control of almost any situation. “When we start too big, it just overwhelms us more and leads us to freeze even further,” she says.
If you identify something worrisome that is very much out of your control—e.g., the health of a sick family member, the poor behavior of a partner—practice noticing when your mind fixates on that thing and then return your focus to what is true in the present moment, says Josephson. “That could mean turning your attention toward your breath, any sounds in the room, the color of the wall,” she says. “When we slowly and gently practice shifting our focus, we're re-teaching ourselves to return to the safety of the now.”
Making this practice a regular habit can leave you feeling more in control over your emotions come nightfall and less likely to scroll into oblivion at the expense of your sleep.
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