Wellness Wednesday: How to stop doomscrolling

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Why is it so hard to look away from bad news, even when it becomes overwhelming? (Fitz_Carraldo / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Have you heard of doomscrolling? If you're like me, you may be guilty of it. I contacted an expert to help us understand what it is and how it can affect your mental health. Ariane Ling is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health and a psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill Riley connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health. Subscribe to Wellness Wednesday as a podcast on Spotify, Apple, RSS, Radio Public, Stitcher, or Amazon Music.

Jill Riley: What is doomscrolling, and why has that word become so popular?

Ariane Ling: Doomscrolling is the act of endlessly consuming bad news. Usually it involves social media on a screen, so you're on your phone. I think that it has been such a important word this year because I think it very much captures what we have all been doing as a collective for the past 16 months or so. But we're all mostly at home, we might be feeling more isolated than we normally are, or more wary and scared of being outside. And so what are we doing? We're on our phones consuming all this news that's ever evolving. There's been no shortage of bad news: not only coverage of the pandemic, but the social, political, and environmental unrest as well.

It's almost like we're hungry for that bad news, even though we know that it's making us feel anxious or stressed out. Why do people do this? In my experience, it almost feels like a compulsion.

It's really similar to why people might slow down when they see an accident on the side of the road. We, as human beings, are hardwired to assess for risk. We're hardwired to survive and to be learning. I think given what's happened in the past year, that creates this very vicious cycle of this: "I continue to feel unsafe, I'm going to look into my environment to see if that's really the case. And when I look into my environment, when I look into having more bad news that further reinforces a cycle, while there really are lots of bad things happening, and I really need to continue this cycle in order to maintain my safety."

It sounds like there are a lot of negative effects of doomscrolling. What are some of those negative effects? How does this affect one's mental health?

Absolutely. So you know, things that you've already said, about how it impacts depression symptoms and anxiety and makes us feel further stressed out: I've seen how it impacts other parts of life, not only physical and mental health, but sleep issues as well. We've also seen, in our clinic, an increase in substance use to really try to cope with all of this. Many people are describing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness as a result of just consuming so much bad news. Our brains are not equipped.

This is going to sound strange even coming out of my mouth, but are there any positive effects? Is there an opposite? Is there such a thing as joyscrolling? Can we even it out by trying to seek out good news?

With all things in life, moderation is the key. "Doomscrolling" has really taken off as a term [but] there is ever-evolving news out there. That's important for us to keep in mind. Being able to make meaningful decisions for your family about your safety might make you feel comfortable, so you need a little bit of news in order to make those decisions.

I love the reframe of "joyscrolling," because I think it further makes this experience of us being on our phones and consuming news a bit more intentional: to be mindful about what it is you are consuming and how it's impacting you. I would say that there are these small moments of joy throughout the year that people can capture. At least in our patient population, we've seen a lot of resilience. We've seen people really take this opportunity, this experience, to get in shape to learn how to confront their own biases and privilege, to have these conversations. I think that consuming uplifting, hopeful positive news is also very helpful in combating the effects that we might see from doomscrolling.

I think this is a good time to just talk about this topic, because, you know, the global pandemic is not over. We're reading about these new variants, especially the Delta variant, with this new wave of coronavirus. Do you expect some of this doomscrolling to increase?

I think we are we might be gearing up for an ever evolving story here. I'm hoping that it doesn't increase and that this is part of what it means to overcome and heal from a pandemic and what it means to maintain our safety throughout.

For anybody listening right now [who's thinking that] a lot of this is sounding a little familiar or relatable, what can be done to stop that doomscrolling habit?

One thing that I talk about with patients and with many people is: we can set a limit. We can be intentional and mindful about how much news we are consuming. I ask people to think, if they weren't using their phones, if they weren't on social media, how would they be engaged in their life in a different way? Would you be having a conversation with a friend, would you be reading a book? I think that awareness, first, is key. Then, you know, a small behavioral intervention might be: I'm gonna set a timer and keep a boundary on how much I'm looking at my phone or how much news I'm consuming.


Wellness Wednesday is hosted by Jill Riley, and produced by Christy Taylor and Jay Gabler. Our theme music is a portion of the song "F.B. One Number 2" by Christian Bjoerklund under the Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 International License. This week's photo is by Fitz_Carraldo (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). The image was altered: it was cropped, filtered to greyscale, and supplemented with a logo.


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