What’s doomscrolling and how to avoid it: Advice from a practicing psychiatrist

When it comes to the news, how much is too much?

Sometimes being informed has a downside. As of May 2020, per the American Psychological Association, more than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feelings of anxiety and fatigue, as well as resulting sleep loss.

But 1 in 10 report checking the news hourly, and 20% say they constantly check their social media. So what’s happening? And crucially, what can be done about it?

As defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "doomscrolling", sometimes referred to as "doomsurfing" is what happens when you can’t seem to stop consuming news or swiping and scrolling through social media. And you keep at it even though you know it’ll make you sad, anxious or angry.

Given the present situation with a global pandemic, and the resulting economic crisis, this behavior is understandable (even if it’s not very recommendable).

Many of us are paying extra close attention to the news, hoping for answers that are yet to come. Or we’re heading to social media hoping for connection and escape, but can’t seem to force ourselves to close out apps, feeds or browser windows that have become a source of stress.

While it’s easy to get into a cycle of doomscrolling your mornings, lunch hours and evenings away, this unhappy cycle can be broken.

Sure, it won’t be easy. Especially now, when the updates and news that crowd our constantly pinging devices all feel urgent and important. And we’re not saying the issues that are keeping so many of us awake at night (will schools stay open, are coronavirus numbers up, will I lose my job) don’t matter.

We’re just saying that maybe, reducing your exposure to the news and potentially limiting your screen time is likely to be beneficial to your mental wellbeing.

How to cut back on stressful scrolling

Ready to get a handle on your doomscrolling and feel better? Keep reading for practical tips to help you protect your mental health during these difficult times.

1. Turn off alerts.

This is step one because it’s hard (verging on impossible for many of us) to stop an activity when your devices are continually cueing you to continue.

If you’re having trouble staying away from the news and social media, silence all unnecessary alerts on all your devices.

Without the constant pings to remind you to dive headfirst into a pile of bad news, it’s easier to limit the time you spend scrolling.

2. Schedule your screen time.

Here, we’re not talking about work or other projects that you do onscreen so much as the time you spend consuming doom and gloom via news sites and social media.

By slotting in a few times of day you’re allowed to check up on the news, you can feel informed without constantly running the risk of feeling down.

Because unless you’re a journalist, or perhaps a politician, you probably don’t need to be up-to-the-minute. And if you do need to be on top of current events as they unfold for work, protect your off-hours by switching off the news.

@martinsanchez via Unsplash

3. Don’t check first or last thing.

Seriously. It’s not a good idea. Studies show our routines have a significant impact on our overall mental wellbeing. And how we begin and end our days may be especially key to how we feel about our routines (and each day as a whole).

So, if you can, try to take a few minutes in the morning and evenings without rushing into the cycle of checking the news, email, and social media.

Screentime when you wake up has been linked to unhappiness and per former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, may "hijack your morning routine". And when it comes to after dark device use, not only does the blue light from devices disturb our sleep-wake rhythms, the anxiety of taking in bad news right before bed can also disturb sleep.

4. Set a time limit.

This will help you avoid getting sucked into an endless negative cycle. Biologically, our minds are wired to look for threats. Unfortunately, that means that the more we doomscroll, the more untold dangers and risks we’ll find, and the more anxious we’ll feel.

And strangely enough, this anxiety typically motivates us to check for further threats more often. Set an alarm to interrupt this cycle and get your mind back to your present reality.

5. Have a why in mind.

Before you even swipe your device open, be conscious of your reasons for consulting a site or app. After a few minutes, check in with yourself. Have you found what you were looking for?

Have you wandered off task and into a dark and unhappy twitter thread?

Searching for things online is a lot like meditation. Your attention wanders, and that’s okay, the important thing is noticing when it does and bringing it back to the subject at hand.

To become more aware of this in general, you may want to start a daily mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is widely recommended to help people centre their attention more successfully.

6. Make a switch.

If you find yourself doomscrolling throughout your day, think about another behavior you might be able to replace it with.

The easiest way to break a bad habit may be to replace it with a new behavior you’d like to adopt.

Could you spend your breaks between video conferences dancing away your worries, reading a book (nothing too stressful) or deep-breathing? Instead of starting your day with an anxiety-inducing round-the-web check for the latest, could you wake up and journal with a cup of coffee or tea or take five to ten for self-care with a mental wellbeing app?

Do you find yourself doomscrolling lately? What are some ways you disconnect from the news and social media? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.