When the pandemic hit, coronavirus was pretty much all the world could think and speak about for the best part of two years. Many of us found ourselves consistently reading up on the latest figures and advice on how to stay safe. But, whilst we tried our best to stick to reliable sources of information (like the World Health Organisation), that didn't stop us scrolling through Twitter in the depths of the night, compulsively consuming stories that were downright terrifying...
But it's not just during a global pandemic that we do this. In fact, whenever there's a tragic or scary story or in the news – take the recent overturning of Roe v Wade for example – many of us gravitate towards every piece of information we can get our thumbs on, no matter how bad it makes us feel afterwards. If this sounds familiar, then you too might be a victim of doomscrolling. So what actually is it?
What is doomscrolling?
According to a recent analysis by Bupa, there's been a 247% increase in searches for 'terrible anxiety in the morning', rising significantly since the start of 2022. As for what's causing said anxiety, experts say that doomscrolling – endlessly scrolling through negative news articles – could be having a big impact on our mental health.
"When news topics are particularly negative or provoke strong emotions, it can feel especially tempting to keep up to date with what’s happening," explains Fatmata Kamara, a specialist nurse adviser for mental health at Bupa UK.
"Many of us catch up with the latest news before we’ve even got out of bed – immersing yourself in negativity so early in the morning may set a precedent for the rest of the day," Kamara adds. "Doomscrolling can become a vicious cycle for your wellbeing, particularly if you already have a mental health condition."
What are the impacts of doomscrolling?
"When you hear or read negative news, your body treats it as a threat and goes into 'fight or flight' mode," Kamara tells us. "This means that your body is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, preparing you to combat the perceived threat (the news), leaving you more likely to experience mood swings or feel irritated, stressed or depressed."
The expert continues: "Over time, heightened cortisol levels can also harm your physical health, leading to issues like tension headaches, poor immune system performance and bodily inflammation."
Why do we doomscroll?
Despite the obvious negative effect of compulsively checking the news, doomscrolling is a common habit. So, what's the psychology behind it?
"We don’t set out with the intention to scare ourselves," Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells us. "Obsessively checking and searching for information is what we call a 'safety behaviour', and it’s driven by the need for reassurance."
This 'safety behaviour' is similar to behaviour that's seen in OCD, notes the psychologist. "Feeling anxious about something and using compulsions as a way of managing that anxiety is common for a lot of anxiety disorders," Dr Touroni adds. But the problem is, "the 'safety behaviour' that was supposed to relieve the anxiety often ends up amplifying it."
On top of that, another reason that we seek to consume a constant stream of negative news, even if it ends up making us feel worse, is a drive to understand what on earth is going on.
"When we’re faced with so much uncertainty, we’re going to be drawn to anything that helps us gain some understanding of what’s happening," says Dr Touroni, specifically referencing our overconsumption of content during the pandemic. "The goal is to gain mastery over something which feels scary and unpredictable, but the strategy itself can end up increasing our anxiety."
When you think about it like that, you can understand a little better why you're logging on to Twitter 65 times a day, or why you're watching live updates on the news like a hawk. But this kind of perspective can also empower you to step away, if it's causing harm.
How to stop doomscrolling
"It can be hard to break out of the habit of doomscrolling," Bupa's Kamara points out before noting that there are some "simple" adjustments to your routine that may help you manage your news intake and feel better.
Review where you get your news from
"Do you get push notifications that cause you to spend lots of time aimlessly scrolling through the news? If so, try and switch them off. Likewise, if you find that you’re following certain accounts on social media that make it harder to step away from on your phone, think about how they make you feel, and consider if it’s worth taking a break from them – whether it’s unfollowing them or muting the account."
Set small goals
"Setting a big goal is a sure way to set yourself up for failure, so instead, think about the small ways you can switch up your behaviour that will lead to longer, lasting changes. For example, try setting aside time to keep your phone out of sight during your day. Even 30 minutes during your commute will make a visible change."
Use your phone to limit your time
"Many smartphones now have inbuilt technology that allows you to limit on the amount of time you spend on certain apps each day. Use these options to help reduce your scroll time and encourage you to place your focus elsewhere."
Make time for non-tech activities
"Pairing a tech timeout with a fun activity can be really helpful, encouraging you to keep occupied without needing a phone. For example, you could plan an afternoon with friends or get involved in a team sport that enables you to be present rather than focused on your screen."
Assess the change in your mood
"Once you’ve started breaking out of your habits, take a step back to notice and record how you’re feeling. If you’re still regularly struggling with feelings of anxiety, irritation or depression, it could be a sign that you have a mental health condition, so be sure to speak to a health professional."
For information, support and advice about mental health and where to get support, visit Mind’s website at www.mind.org.uk or call Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 6.00pm).
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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