Published: 7 December. Written by: Natasha Tiwari, award-winning psychologist
Have you found yourself obsessively checking the news on your phone throughout the pandemic? You could be a doomscrolling. Natasha Tiwari, award-winning psychologist, offers some useful tools to step away from the phone…
Feeling anxious if you can’t check your phone for regular updates? Or perhaps your daily Facebook usage has gone through the roof since the start of the year. If so, you’re not alone.
Doomscrolling – a term that has gained huge popularity since the very start of the pandemic – is the tendency to scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening or depressing. It can create an almost addictive pattern of behaviour, sinking us deeper into what’s already proved a challenging year.
Understanding our behaviour during the pandemic
As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I see daily the toll that the pandemic has taken on individual and collective mental health. What’s more, the ways in which so many of us have tried to cope have – in some cases unwittingly – caused even further stress and anxiety.
The pandemic has changed all of us in one way or another. For many, we’ve actually developed ways of behaving that are akin to a trauma response. A traumatic episode is one where the mind and body have been overwhelmed.
Most of us have had to move much of our daily lives online, relying heavily on technology for work, school, socialising and wellness, among other things. But in that process, we’ve conditioned ourselves to be on screen – at the height of the pandemic, on average, people in the UK clocked up 6 hours 25 minutes each day watching TV and online video content. That’s 40% of their day, and a rise of almost a third over the previous year. And Twitter reported a 24% increase in daily users in April due to the pandemic. This has brought with it a whole series of unwanted symptoms and side-effects.
Our massively increased consumption of content has exacerbated our sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), and also the fear of not being able to keep up with everything that is happening online. We see others ‘making the most’ of lockdown, and for many that’s led to a guilt of not doing enough, achieving what others have or enjoying ourselves.
We quickly sink into a place of comparing ourselves to friends and followers, and that internal critical voice will never have us live up to unrealistic expectations of what we ‘should’ be doing.
Combine that with the information overload during what has actually been a very frightening time: the Covid-19 pandemic has been referred to as the first true social media infodemic, a term that outlines the perils of misinformation spreading during a disease outbreak.
At the same time as we turn to the news and social media to assuage our fears and attempt to gain some control, this constant barrage of information is overwhelming and traumatising, and acts as fuel to the proverbial fire that is anxiety and chronic stress.
So, why do we doomscroll?
From an evolutionary perspective, we’ve come to be the way we are in an attempt to help us to survive. Our brains are hardwired to detect anything negative that might harm us, so we can defend ourselves.
But the threats to our wellbeing today are different from when we lived in hunter-gatherer times. Rather than an obvious immediate threat that leads us to fight or flight from danger, the things that threaten us now are more subtle and, with nowhere to expend the immediate adrenaline hit, we get caught up in long-term stress and anxiety.
That stress then becomes even worse as we resultantly become hyper vigilant for more threats, increasingly scanning the news and scrolling through depressing social media, further compounding the problem. As we find ourselves constantly doing this, the impact adds up and accumulates, creating an excessive and compounded stress response, frying our adrenals and leading to chronic anxiety and eventually burnout.
Add this to the fact that the sheer volume of information available to us is utterly overwhelming and we’re left in a traumatised state of unconscious constant alert. Since it’s impossible to keep up with every single news headline or social media post about the pandemic – but unconsciously we believe we ought to – the attempt to ‘keep up’ causes further stress and anxiety.
And all of this is without accounting for the fact that phones, even at the best of times, are not all that great for our mental wellness. They are designed to be addictive and to hijack our dopamine systems, creating artificial feelings of satisfaction and pleasure.
How to change your doomscrolling pattern
If your doomscrolling habit is feeling out of hand, there are things you can do to regain your mental wellness:
- Set boundaries around how you scroll, and designate a particular time of day to check the news or social media. Set a timer to limit how long you do this for, so that you’re in control of your news consumption.
- Don’t scroll after a certain time in the evening, and definitely aim to allow two hours between scrolling and sleeping. You need quality sleep to combat stress and anxiety, and doomscrolling right before your rest time will impede on your ability to enjoy truly restorative sleep.
- Keep a sense of perspective. Get into the habit of thinking about things that give you joy and make you feel grateful, and make the decision that you’re going to do more of these things when you can.
- Write a list of alternative activities to do when boredom strikes, such as reading a book or listening to music. Take a walk and absorb the fresh air, or call a friend (sans video!) to regain a sense of connection to people away from the virtual world.
- Reconsider how you use your phone. Set boundaries around how you use your phone. Decide on the specific purpose for using it, rather than it being a toy to alleviate boredom. For example, to check emails at set times or read up on a specific topic. This will help you become more conscious of what you use your phone for.
Taking control of your doomscrolling habit is one of the best things you can do for yourself right now. Putting into place habits and rituals that protect you against overexposure to negative news cycles will start to put your mind in a state of resilience and strength, and start to safeguard your mental health. And if you find it difficult, be kind to yourself. Habits aren’t formed overnight. Treat this like a practice, and in the long term, you’ll enjoy the rewards.
Find out if you could be facing burnout here.
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