How to Stop Doomscrolling

Doomscrolling, meaning obsessively scanning social media and websites for bad news, triggers the release of stress hormones that can affect your mental and physical health

DoomsurfingTry to resist the temptation to keep refreshing your social media for the latest news.

With Stephanie J. Wong PhD

Between the amped-up news cycle and a global pandemic, it can seem as if bad news is omnipresent and inescapable. If you're one of the many Americans who keeps refreshing your social media feed and other sites to keep track of all of it in real time, it turns out you're not alone. The compulsion is so common it even has a name: doomscrolling.

What is doomscrolling?

Doomscrolling – sometimes also referred to as doomsurfing – is a phenomenon where you constantly scroll or surf through social media and other news sites in order to keep up with the latest news – even (and, it seems, particularly) if the news is bad. Although the phrase is thought to have been coined sometime in 2018 on Twitter, it's picked up steam since then in our cultural lexicon, becoming more popular after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and April of 2020. Technology columnist Kevin Roose described it as “falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with Coronavirus content, agitating yourself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night's sleep.” Doomscrolling doesn't necessarily have to be related to COVID-19, but given how the Coronavirus has dominated the news cycle throughout 2020, a lot of people who are doomscrolling tend to fixate on news about COVID-19 or Donald Trump.

How doomscrolling affects your health

“Doomscrolling can be a harmful habit, and detrimental to your mental and even physical health,” explains Stephanie J. Wong PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Mateo, CA. According to Wong, the current COVID-19 pandemic has created an “over-arching sense of anxiety and depression” among most Americans. Unfortunately, consuming more information, especially negative information, can reinforce that anxiety and depression in a vicious cycle.

Doomscrolling can also exacerbate pre-existing or developing mental health symptoms, says Wong. Even for people who don't have a previous underlying mental health condition, constantly consuming bad news can lead to catastrophizing, or focusing on the negative aspects of the world around you in a way that makes it more and more difficult to notice anything positive.

These mental health effects can then snowball and cause physical issues. When you experience stress – whether it's low-level stress from doomscrolling or a sudden, stressful event like a car crash – your body kicks into overdrive and releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

This evolutionary response, called fight or flight, initially helped humans run quickly from predators, and can still be useful today when faced with a dangerous situation. People in the middle of a fight-or-flight response powered by adrenaline and cortisol have been known to lift cars and perform other feats of strength, demonstrate heightened senses such as sight and smell, and remain awake for long periods of time to study for finals or prepare for a big presentation. However, releasing too much adrenaline and cortisol over a long period of time can cause burnout and worse. Long term activation of this fight-or-flight response has been linked to digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, weight gain, anxiety, sexual side effects, and high blood pressure, as well as many other health issues.

If doomscrolling is so hazardous to our health, then why do we do it? “I would liken it to a car crash, where you're watching something happen and you just can't turn away,” says Wong. “There is also an addictive quality to being on our phones, and this makes it difficult for people to pause or end negative behavior, like doomscrolling, since they become hyper-focused on the content and also the act of scrolling itself.”

Many people who doomscroll can attest that there's an addictive component as well as a tendency to catastrophize more, whether it's about COVID-19, Donald Trump, or just the state of the world in general. In one online editorial, self-proclaimed doomscrolling addict Elaine Roth describes the habit as something she's tried – and failed – many times to break. “Every morning I wake up and press refresh on the websites that track the number of positive COVID-19 tests in my town and state,” Roth writes. “Then I move to the news and read every word of every article that is no doubt pointing to the end of the world.”

Doomscrolling definition

Doomscrolling meaningDoomscrolling definition.

How to stop doomscrolling

Because news about the ongoing pandemic is everywhere and doomscrolling is a habit that can sometimes be addictive, quitting is easier said than done. Still, Wong says, there are ways to stop – or at least, cut back.

1. Set a time limit. Because doomscrolling can sometimes last for hours on end, setting time limits (and reminders) can help snap you out of a doomscrolling session. Set time limits on your social media to remind you when it's time to log off, or schedule an activity with a friend during the times you're most likely to doomscroll. Screen-limiting apps like Freedom (which blocks distracting websites) or Moment, which lets you measure how much time you're spending on your phone each day, can both help. 

2. Avoid social media. Actively avoid sites with a lot of news or chatter, particularly platforms that focus on the ways the world is struggling, Wong says. If Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter trigger doomscrolling sessions, consider deleting the apps entirely from your phone. You can still log into them from your browser, but it will take more effort, particularly if you log out and have to log back in each time.

On the other hand, sometimes social media can serve as a reminder to stop doomscrolling and get some rest. Since February, Quartz reporter Karen Ho has tweeted out nightly reminders to her followers who may have found themselves unwittingly inside a doomscrolling spiral. “Tonight was really long, confusing, and difficult. Why not take care of yourself and your mental health by turning off your phone, reading a book, and going to sleep early,” one tweet reads.

3. Create boundaries. People who have trouble with doomscrolling or who are prone to depression or anxiety should create boundaries around the media they consume, says Wong. Likewise, be mindful of what subjects you focus on and talk about, and how long you tend to discuss them.

3. Practice gratitude. Doomscrolling can cause you to forget about anything except what is wrong in the world. In order to fight back, “list a few things you're grateful for each day,” says Wong. It may seem silly at first, but research shows that making daily lists of what you're grateful for, even if it's just one thing, can help foster a sense of optimism and calm in unstable times.

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