Your 'Doomscrolling' Breeds Anxiety. Here's How To Stop The Cycle

Jul 19, 2020
Originally published on July 20, 2020 3:02 pm

So many of us do it: You get into bed, turn off the lights, and look at your phone to check Twitter one more time.

You see that coronavirus infections are up. Maybe your kids can't go back to school. The economy is cratering.

Still, you incessantly scroll though bottomless doom-and-gloom news for hours as you sink into a pool of despair.

This self-destructive behavior has become so common that a new word for it has entered our lexicon: "doomscrolling."

The recent onslaught of dystopian stories related to the coronavirus pandemic, combined with stay-at-home orders, have enabled our penchant for binging on bad news. But the habit is eroding our mental health, experts say.

Karen Ho, a finance reporter for Quartz, has been tweeting about doomscrolling every day over the past few months, often alongside a gentle nudge to stop and engage in healthier alternatives.

Ho first saw the term in a Twitter post from October 2018, although the word may very well have much earlier origins.

"The practice of doomscrolling is almost a normalized behavior for a lot of journalists, so once I saw the term I was like, 'Oh, this is a behavior I've been doing for several years,' " she says.

If Ho's daily reminders aren't enough to break the habit, clinical psychologist Dr. Amelia Aldao warns that doomscrolling traps us in a "vicious cycle of negativity" that fuels our anxiety.

"Our minds are wired to look out for threats," she says. "The more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get."

That grim content can then throw a dark filter how you see the world, says Aldao.

"Now you look around yourself, and everything feels gloomy, everything makes you anxious. So you go back to look for more information."

The cycle continues.

Aldao, the director of Together CBT, a clinic that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, has worked with her patients to cut back on doomscrolling.

Here's some of her advice on how to temper the doom:

Set a timer

I work mostly with clients who experience anxiety and part of what I've been doing with them now for weeks, for months, is actually setting limits to how much they're scrolling. And I literally tell them, "Set up a timer."

You do want to know what's happening in the world, so the solution isn't to never go online again, but it's finding boundaries.

Stay cognizant

Going into it, opening up your phone, reminding yourself why you're there, what are you looking for, what information are you trying to find. And then periodically checking in with yourself — have I found what I needed?

Swap 'vicious cycles' for 'virtuous cycles'

Whether it's ice cream, connecting with friends, sending something funny to a friend — those are the things we should spend more time doing just to build positive emotions in our lives.

Danny Hensel and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the audio for this story. Emma Bowman produced it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

You know the feeling. You get into bed. You turn off the lights, fully prepared to go to sleep. But instead, you look at your phone to check Twitter or Facebook one more time. Then you're on that journey, reading post after post about the pandemic or the other horrors of 2020. And you scroll, and you scroll, and you scroll. Minutes become hours.

There's a word for this - doomscrolling. How do you get out of this dark rabbit hole? Amelia Aldao has some ideas. She's a clinical psychologist in New York and the director of Together CBT. She joins us now.

Welcome.

AMELIA ALDAO: Hey. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Doomscrolling - do you do it?

ALDAO: I do. I will have - sometimes I do it. And I did it this morning even as I knew that I was going to be talking to you guys about it, so fail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Fail. All right.

ALDAO: Fail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, that makes you an expert in my view or at least someone that I can commiserate with. Is this common in your patients? Do they do it, too?

ALDAO: Yeah, it's incredibly common. I mean, it's incredibly common with everyone. Our minds are set up to look for threats. We are built to look for potential dangers. And what's happening right now is that, you know, the more time we spend scrolling, the more we find those dangers, the more we get sucked into them, the more anxious we get and then the more we look for information that confirms that anxiety. And then that's how we go down the rabbit hole of doomscrolling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I imagine this has become more common now during the pandemic because there is - let's face it - a lot of doom to scroll.

ALDAO: Exactly. Exactly. And I have - I work mostly with clients who, you know, experience anxiety. And part of what I've been doing with them now for weeks, for months is actually setting limits to how much they're scrolling. You know, and I literally tell them, like, set up a timer 'cause, you know, this - they want to know what's happening in the world. So the solution is not to never go online again, but it's finding boundaries, setting limits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is a good suggestion - set boundaries, have specific times when you can actually look at the news. But I want to just rewind a little bit. How can doomscrolling be damaging our minds?

ALDAO: Basically, it keeps our minds trapped in a vicious cycle of negativity. When you consume content that is very negative, that makes you anxious and makes you sad, it begins to filter how you see the world. Now you look around yourself - everything makes you anxious. So you go back to look for more information and more information that, again, makes you feel more and more anxious. So it's almost a vicious cycle of the emotions that we feel, the anxiety that we feel and then the information that we process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should note, of course, that some people who are sort of scrolling endlessly through the news often have no choice. They may be in minority communities and are looking for reporting and information to keep themselves safe. What advice do you have for them?

ALDAO: I think the best way to deal with it if you need to find information for all kinds of places is to try to be as tactical as you can - so going into it, opening up your phone, reminding yourself of why you're there. What are you looking for? What information are you trying to find? And then periodically checking in with yourself - have I found what I needed?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't think we have enough time to talk about my second problem, which is after doomscrolling, then trying to make myself feel better with ice cream and chocolate. However...

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...This is good advice.

ALDAO: Yeah. You know, and to kind of build on that, instead of vicious cycles of anxiety and negative information, virtuous cycles of positive things in your life. So whether it's ice cream, connecting with friends - those sort of things that we should spend more time doing just to build those positive emotions in our lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Amelia Aldao, a clinical psychologist in New York and the director of Together CBT.

Thank you very much.

ALDAO: Thank you.

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