It’s 11 pm and you need to sleep, but you can’t put your phone down. When you do decide to finally turn in, your mind is racing over everything you’ve just read.
You wake up exhausted, but the first thing you do is grab your phone to check the headlines.
No, this isn’t your regular deep dive into Instagram. You’ve gone down an entirely different rabbit hole: doomscrolling.
What is doomscrolling?
Doomscrolling and its cousin doomsurfing refer to excessively reading upsetting news on your phone or computer.
While the term doomscrolling has been around for a while, it has garnered more attention this year as people are obsessively reading bad news on social media and other platforms, without boundaries around when to stop.
“There is such a hyper focus on all the negative right now because so much else has shut down,” says Kari Stephens, a clinical psychologist who sees patients at UW Neighborhood Northgate Clinic.
Without our regular activities, entertainment and distractions, we are constantly discussing and reading negative news, and this fixation is harming our health.
How does doomscrolling hurt your health?
Ruminating on anxiety triggers can exacerbate depression and anxiety, Stephens notes. And while there haven’t yet been clinical studies on doomscrolling itself, the action can lead to this kind of harmful rumination.
If you are a frequent doomscroller, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop clinical depression or an anxiety disorder; however, you may notice your mood worsen or your anxiety rise.
“Managing this stress is important. Psychological first aid teaches us to trust in our own resilience and coping strategies. Use your own barometer to see if doomscrolling is making things better or worse, and set some boundaries,” Stephens says.
Why is it so hard to stop scrolling?
You’ve checked in with yourself and decided that the hours reading bad news are causing you anxiety, but somehow it still feels nearly impossible to stop.
“With doomscrolling, a lot of it can come from anxiety about what will happen next. It’s attempting to control the uncontrollable,” Stephens says.
Even if you want to stop scrolling, it can be hard to put down your phone when you occasionally read an article that is intellectually fulfilling and gives you a better grasp of what’s going on.
The fact that you sometimes find one of those useful, unicorn articles creates intermittent reinforcement, a type of behavioral conditioning where your actions are only rewarded some of the time.
Stephens notes this is the most powerful form of promoting behaviors and is the type of reinforcement seen in gambling.
In the cases of doomscrolling, intermittent reinforcement means even though the majority of the time you scroll you feel worse, the chance that you might get information that is helpful keeps you reading long past bedtime.
What can you do to prevent yourself from doomscrolling?
Stephens has three keys to prevent doomscrolling: limit the amount of time you do it, the number of sources you read and the time of day you scroll.
Decide in advance how much time you want to spend reading the news each day and what reputable news sources you want to check out, then do your best to stick to it.
If you’re slipping into a doomscroll, you can set a timer or go directly to the news site you want to read. You can also replace that extra doomscrolling time with a positive activity, like going for a walk, listening to music or practicing gratitude.
While Stephens’ first two tips help curb the scrolling, the third deals with managing the doom.
“Are you reading the news at a time when you have capacity to do this? Or is it right before bed?” she says.
Being intentional about when you read the news can help you be prepared ahead of time and can prevent rumination, especially before bed when racing thoughts can impede your sleep.
How can you read the news without triggering anxiety?
While avoiding all anxiety might not be possible when reading the news these days, reducing the intensity of it is.
It goes back to being intentional: Get specific about what news you need to know, set aside time to read it and then plan for a way to unwind once you’re done.
“Anxiety and stress management strategies are good for this,” Stephens says. “If you’re going to take time to read the news and it’ll key you up, plan time to wind down after.”
This can include a whole array of activities, from watching a funny video to exercising to playing a game with your kids — anything that helps create a different, more positive emotion.
“It’s a way to give yourself a boundary, so you don’t sit there spinning from what you’ve just consumed,” Stephens says.
Setting boundaries also includes letting your loved ones know when you need a breather from conversations about upsetting headlines. This not only helps you feel better, but it will let your friends and family know it’s OK for them to also take a break when they need it.
Ultimately, it all comes down to balance.
Being informed is important, but so is paying attention to your mental health. And you’re the best judge of finding equilibrium between the two.
“Pay attention to your ratio of catastrophizing and focusing on the positive — and try to swing the positive way,” Stephens says.