It's not that I thought 2021 would bring a hard reset to the pandemic or hundreds of years of systemic racism—I’m cheerful, not stupid—but I did think we’d get a week in before an attempt to overthrow the government. Anyway, welcome to Doomtown. Population: all of us. This is a place in time where no one can figure out how to stop doomscrolling.
It’s important to stay informed, alert, and up-to-date, especially in a state of emergency. But doomscrolling (the tendency to endlessly scroll through terrible news on social media or news sites) feeds the debilitating mental health monsters of anxiety and depression, with a side order of paralyzing hopelessness. Superficially, it's simply not proactive or productive when it comes to taking care of yourself or others. Knowing how to stop doomscrolling when it gets out of control is a major way to stay fit enough for the fight.
As such, this is your doomscrolling checkpoint. I won’t condescendingly tell you to relax your jaw or drink some water (though you should, you’re probably dehydrated as hell). Instead, here’s the deal on why we doomscroll and what it is. And if you want to cut to the chase, you'll find out how to stop it.
Why do we doomscroll?
1. The naturally addictive nature of our apps
According to Nan Wise, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of Why Good Sex Matters, doomscrolling is a subset of the addictive behaviors the dark side of social media platforms and the internet promote. In theory, the internet can be a magnificent place for information, but because of the slot game-esque way the digital media is constructed, we might fall down a rabbithole trying to find answers or reassurance.
"What these media platforms do is grab a hold of our attention and the seeking system, which is powered by [the feel good hormone] dopamine," says Dr. Wise. "That seeking system is wired by nature to help us meet our needs, to pursue, food, shelter, sex, company, and to avoid pain, danger, and enemies."
2. Our discomfort with the unknown
Additionally, Dr. Wise points out that doomscrolling engages another core emotional system: fear. We’re living in some dystopian nightmare, so while we seek knowledge for comfort, we grow more fearful not getting the right (or any) answers. Human have an earnest fear of uncertainty because it makes them feel out of control, and these "unprecedented times" deliver uncertainty in large doses.
"Psychologically, nothing holds our attention more than predicting what can happen next or what we can see next due to the dopamine creating a special effect," says Cynthia Catchings, LCSW, a licensed therapist for Talkspace. "This explains why we can put our phone down to grab it again thirty seconds later. The internet is constantly streaming breaking news, making our brains feel the need to check more often. That adds to the difficulty of stopping."
3. The routine impulses we have when it comes to our devices
Just to take this a step further, we're now wired to think every notification on our phone is important. It's why boundaries like the Do Not Disturb button are essential for self-preservation.
"Most of us live with a cellphone by our side," says Catchings. "Psychologically, this is a constant reminder about checking, reading, and getting new information. By repeating the same behaviors, we create a routine that can become an addiction."
4. The same impulse as “rubbernecking”
“We have an innate urge to look at disasters, terrible accidents, and awful things that have happened,” says clinical psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD. “It probably helped our primitive ancestors to survive, because if they looked at terrible things that happened and communicated what they saw to their tribe, their tribe was more able to avoid it.”
Same concept applies in 2021, friends. Every time you repost an article on Facebook or communicate the latest Dr. Fauci briefing, you’re trying to help your tribe survive. Not sure if that’s considered doomposting, might be a larger conversation, but it comes from a well-intentioned place. After all, we’re all strictly in survival mode right now.
How to stop doomscrolling
More than a few methods excits to help you stop your doomscrolling habit, but a lot of it has to do with recognizing your feelings and embracing active coping. Here's a few things mental health pros want you to ask yourself when doomscrolling.
1. What am I feeling right now?
Maybe you're having a joyous time! Like you're scrollin' to that Tiny Tim song, "Tiptoe Thru' the Tulips With Me," except all the tulips are on fire and democracy is being held at gunpoint. More likely, though, you're noticing that fire, you're concerned about the nation. And that core feeling is No Good.
"If you’re flooded with a sense of threat and helplessness, it’s time to cut back," says Dr. Brenner. "You’re flooding your nervous system with hormones—especially cortisol—meant to help you deal with threats you can control. If you’re constantly feeling threatened by current or possible future events that are out of your control, you’re actually mentally, emotionally and physically hurting yourself."
2. Did I meet my daily news time for the day?
We've been saying it ad nauseam since March: time limits, time limits, time limits. Now, I'm still not that disciplined, but isn't just a platitude, there's a concrete psychological benefit here.
"Scrolling with a time limit rather than an intention and expectation can leave us feeling less attached to the outcome," says Talkspace therapist and board-certified counselor Meaghan Rice, PsyD. "After all, scrolling doesn’t really fit into any bracket of 'active change' so it’s best reserved for after all the other, active things that are getting us to the best versions of ourselves."
3. Am I doomscrolling to seek validation?
Whether it's to confirm something you already suspect, or you're just looking for that hormonal pot of gold, take a beat.
4. Is my source trusted?
If your source is "guy who has a car as his Facebook profile picture," the answer is probably "nah." But anyway, you know the drill, there's a lot of misinformation out there, this guide help you vet what's worth listening to.
5. Am I feeding my anxiety or truly looking for an answer?
Maybe it's a straightforward Google search that'll tell you whats-what. From personal experience, searching something nebulous like, "when will the pandemic end" just breeds more worry.
6. What can I do or put into action to help myself or others instead of just reading about my topic?
Back when the Georgia runoffs were a top concern (last week?), I would send out micro donations when I started spiraling. A prosocial action regarding what you're reading helps us regain some small sense of control, and usually makes us feel better. "That's active coping," says Dr. Wise. "We're making a contribution and doing something positive."
7. Will the news change from one minute to the other?
To be fair, rapid-fire chaos has been this pandemic's modus operandi. But on a slow day in unprecedented times, it might not matter whether you hit refresh. Use your judgement there.
8. Can I reward myself in another way?
Remember, you're trying to get a little dopamine ping in this entire process. It's why Dr. Rice recommends creating a short list of the active change that you’ve accomplished for the day or haven’t accomplished for the day. For her it's questions like, "'Am I in a good headspace? Have I gone to Orangetheory today? Do my loved ones know that I love them because I reinforced their meaning today? Have I asked for feedback at work? Nailed a project? Just barely getting by?'
If there are things accomplished, then it's safer to "reward" herself with a bit of scrolling. "It’s part of my internal reward system rather than doing something I’m totally winging," says Dr. Rice.
9. Am I being intentional and practicing self-care?
Inevitably there's something else you should be doing right now. Take a breath, take a walk, take a shot, do what you need to.
10. Is this pushing me deeper into despair?
"Notice especially if the things you’re reading are making you withdraw from the people in your real life," says Dr. Brenner. "As terrible as things may look, life has always been full of both the bad and the good. Hopelessness and feelings of doom paralyze you."
And if you don't have the bandwidth for optimism during this, I get it. Toxic positivity has no place in a dire, urgent moment (or ever). But it's the hope you should never let go of—the idea that there could be a someday that looks better than today's news. Because, inevitably, there will be.
But until then, maybe just book yourself an hour away from your iPhone.
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