Here’s Why Doomscrolling Is So Bad for Your Mental Health

Taking in so much bad news is hard on your brain; here's how to break the habit.

Posted Nov 25, 2020

Who hasn’t had this happen to them, over the past nine months: You’re at home, lying on the couch, bored, worried, and unsettled, and you load the headlines to see about the latest bad news. Then, two minutes later, you do it again. Or: You’ve just woken up, and you grab your phone and, for the next half an hour, you lie in bed doing nothing but paging through sarcastic political commentary on Twitter. Or: It’s 1 a.m. and you haven’t budged from your laptop for the past two hours as you seek more and more information about the coronavirus.

In case you don’t know the term, you’re “doomscrolling,” continually refreshing your screens to fill them with new, possibly even-worse-than-before information about… well, about almost anything taking place in 2020 (a year so monumentally unpleasant it has inspired its own snarky t-shirt).  Doomscrolling — alternately known as “doomsurfing” — was a term first coined on Twitter, and it’s awfully easy to find yourself doing it.

 Rawpixel/PX Here, CC0
Source: Rawpixel/PX Here, CC0

In fact, it’s human nature to attend to novel information, and especially to information that might help you respond to danger. The human brain reacts to that sort of stimuli by activating the limbic system, and in particular, a structure called the amygdala. It’s this primitive neuroanatomical trigger mechanism that sets off a reaction to danger in the environment: We respond by enhancing our vigilance and scanning our surroundings for new threats. The limbic system switches us into fight-or-flight mode, sharpening our reaction times in an effort to save our lives. But with the genuine threat of COVID-19 now chronically present, the protective mechanisms of the amygdala can be switched on much too easily, and the hypervigilant behavior that results may become compulsive.

Doomscrolling is bad for you in a number of ways. Most obviously, it’s a ghastly waste of time; swiping through worrisome opinions on Twitter, for instance, where each page has no bottom and new tweets are always appearing at the top, can vacuum up hours on end. In July, when coronavirus infections were peaking for a second time, the New York Times reported that Americans were spending almost 50 percent more time on their screens than they had before COVID — time we might otherwise be spending in contact with our friends or loved ones. And all this time online is elevating our risk of experiencing more stress, anxiety, and depression (according to Today), which, if it develops further can lead to increased hostility or heightened aggressive behavior. No matter what you’re searching for, you may feel “a sense of helplessness and a sense that there is nothing effective to be done,” as Nicole Spector reported on Today. The consequences of excessive doomscrolling aren’t limited to psychological effects, either: Spector also connects it to multiple stress-related ailments like headaches, stomach problems, increased muscle tension and fatigue, lack of appetite, trouble falling asleep, and poor sleep quality.

But as 2020 grinds on, you can take action rather than passively accepting the physical consequences of internet-induced anxiety. Rather than constantly looking for confirmation of your worst fears online, you might try searching for something that makes you smile, or creates feelings of gratitude and delight. (Hello, cat videos?) New York governor Andrew Cuomo knows this: Since COVID-19 came to the state, he has been doling out daily bites of good news — called “Deep Breath Moments” — in pandemic-related emails to his constituents. 

You should also, as Brian X. Chen suggested in The New York Times this July, take regular breaks from screen time. Perhaps try to reduce your news consumption, Chen recommended, by scheduling times of day in which to check the news, rather than continually reloading your browser with the latest headlines. Hold yourself to a limit: Set a timer for just 10 or 15 minutes, and stop reading the news when the alarm goes off.

Don’t become a passive doomscroller, either. Be sure to set your phone to opt out of news alerts that might cause a burst of anxiety when they pop up. Maybe even stop using your phone as an alarm clock, so that you don’t go straight to the headlines first thing in the morning. This can help you become more of an active, intentional phone user rather than a passive consumer of news, or someone who picks up the phone as a default. You could also try looking into screen-time-reducing apps that allow you to set limits on particular websites, or other apps, or on your phone itself. Or, as Today recommends, you might go even further: Try replacing your phone with something that brings you peace of mind, instead of anxiety (like a book, a graphic novel, or an e-reader).

When you’re away from your phone, make sure you find ways to stay connected to the important people in your life. Video calls can be a drag, but it’s still refreshing to see and talk to people who know you for who you are (and not just who you are at work). You might also look into “watch party” apps, or even just try harder to connect privately via text. Best of all, maybe it’s still possible to set up some kind of socially-distanced get-together in person. 

And while you’re making efforts to keep up your most important relationships, don’t forget to take time for yourself. It’s a cliche to urge everyone to practice good self-care, but nowadays — when the boundaries of work life, home life and social life have eroded — it could be more important than ever.  Be sure to make the time to participate in activities you enjoy, no matter how simple they are. Keep pursuing those COVID hobbies; if you feel as though you’re struggling to find the time, schedule them in. The New York Times suggests setting calendar appointments for even the most mundane activities, like leaving your house for a brief walk around the block. 

Whatever you do, and whatever new habits you’d like to build, please recognize that they will take some time to establish. It may not be easy to stop reacting to your every bad-news-tracking impulse; for the foreseeable future, more bad news may still be on the way. Even so, you can give yourself the time and space to cut down on a bad habit, and replace it with the good ones that work best for you — as slowly and gradually as you need to. 

References

Chen, B.S.  (2020, July 15).  You’re doomscrolling again. Here’s how to snap out of it.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/technology/personaltech/youre-doomscrolling-again-heres-how-to-snap-out-of-it.html

PR Newswire.  (2020, October 26).  ’Doomscrolling’ is as bad for your mental health as it sounds.  Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/doomscrolling-is-as-bad-for-your-mental-health-as-it-sounds-301159663.html

Spector, N.  (2020, August 6).  'Doomscrolling' is bad for your mental health. Do this instead.  Retrieved from https://www.today.com/health/how-stop-doomscrolling-its-affect-your-brain-t188725