Mental Health

Doomscrolling more than ever? Here’s what you can do about it, according to an expert

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Lauren Geall
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Has the recent rise in coronavirus cases left you doomscrolling more than ever? Here’s why – and what you can do about it.

It’s almost instinctual, isn’t it?

You brush your teeth, clamber into bed and pick up your phone – and before you even realise it, you’re scrolling. You haven’t thought much about it, but before long, your brain will be crammed full of information about Covid-19 case numbers and debates about the latest changes in restrictions. It’s only when the clock shows 01:00 that you realise you even started doing it.

If most of your evenings have looked like this over the last nine months, you’re not alone. Doomscrolling – aka the act of endlessly scrolling through bad news articles, posts and websites – has become a habit for many of us during the coronavirus pandemic, often to the detriment of our mental health.

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This has been especially true recently, as case numbers have risen and debates about the new English lockdown have raged online. Like many people, I’ve found resisting the urge to doomscroll increasingly difficult over the last couple of weeks, even though I know it’s bad for me and probably (read: definitely) won’t make me feel any better. So what is it that continues to fuel this instinct to scroll?

According to psychotherapist Ruairí Stewart, aka The Happy Whole Coach, it could be to do with our survival instincts, which are being placed under pressure during the current situation.

“Your brain, through millions of years of evolution, has become instinctively hardwired to pay attention to potential threats to your survival,” he explains. “We are all constantly scanning our environment for perceived threats, on both a conscious and subconscious level. People tend to zone in and give their attention to negative information because from an evolutionary perspective, it has the potential to impact on their ability to cope or survive.”

A woman scrolling on her phone wearing a pinnafore dress
Doomscrolling is a response to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Stewart also points out that doomscrolling may give us a sense of being in control – something we’re sorely lacking at the moment with the uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.

He explains: “People tend to doomscroll due to a need to feel in control. All this anxiety and uncertainty around safety in their environment can trigger this behaviour. Uncertainty fires off the need to search for more information coming from a need to feel more in control.

“However, when you begin to scroll in an already heightened state of anxiety, you’re more vulnerable to fear-based news and media reports which can have an adverse effect and make you even more anxious and fearful. So rather than increasing your sense of control, it can seemingly validate your fears, reinforcing the notion that you need to keep scrolling and getting up-to-date information in order to stay safe or be prepared.”

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Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist at Private Therapy Clinic, agrees. She says that, on top of doomscrolling to try and seek certainty when we’re feeling anxious or unsure, we also doomscroll to distract ourselves from uncomfortable emotions.

“Any type of continuous scrolling, even if it’s targeted to find certain types of content (like content about things that are going on in the news at the moment), will still give us a bit of relief and distraction from any difficult emotions we might be experiencing,” she explains.

However, while doomscrolling may feel like it provides some distraction from our own emotional experience of the pandemic, in the long-run, the negative emotions triggered by the content we consume while scrolling creates a vicious cycle.

A woman scrolling on her phone
Doomscrolling: the distraction provided by scrolling can lead to more negative emotions in the long-run.

“Doomscrolling may give us some relief from the anxiety that we’re currently feeling by putting us in a state of distraction, but it can also trigger other emotions and more negativity, which is really not very good for our mental health,” Dr Spelman adds.

Indeed, as Dr Spelman highlights, doomscrolling isn’t very good for our mental health – at all. While it may feel like it’s helping us to cope in the short term, in the long-run, the negative emotions triggered by consuming so much information can be incredibly tough on our emotional wellbeing.

“Doomscrolling can leave you feeling worried, stressed or anxious, and may exacerbate some existing mental health conditions,” explains Fatmata Kamara, specialist mental health adviser at Bupa UK. “If you’re already feeling negatively impacted by the pandemic, doomscrolling could make you feel worse about things.”

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She continues: “When we see a perceived threat (whether it’s physical or psychological, like doomscrolling), our bodies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Our stress hormone cortisol increases, and you may find yourself feeling depressed, irritated or experiencing mood swings.

“If your cortisol level remains high over a period of time, it can affect your physical health, too. It can lead to tension headaches, inflammation in the body and impact your immune system.”

With all this being said, giving up on doomscrolling isn’t always that easy. Indeed, while many of us know that consuming so much negative information isn’t good for our mental health, it can be difficult to even recognise when we’re doing it in the first place. So, what can we do to get this harmful habit under control? We asked the experts for their advice. 

Set social media boundaries

“This is an invaluable habit to create,” Stewart says. “Have specific time limits that you allow yourself to use your phone. You can simply set a timer to indicate when you’ve had enough.

“This requires willpower but will help you to stay in the present. Studies have shown that once we go over a threshold of 2.5 hours of social media consumption related to the current pandemic, we are at a higher risk of depressive symptoms developing and worsening. 

A similar study was conducted in Russia which showed that more than 30 minutes a day of Covid-related media consumption was enough to significantly increase anxiety levels on the subject.”

A woman scrolling on her phone
Doomscrolling: setting boundaries (and sticking to them) is an important first step.

Swap scrolling for your favourite hobby

“When you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, it’s a good time to replace your scrolling with a relaxing activity,” Kamara recommends. 

“For example, reading a book, heading outdoors for a walk, speaking to a loved one or doing a home-workout has lots of benefits for both your mental and physical health – and can provide you with some much-needed escapism.”

Work on your self-awareness

“Tune into how you are truly feeling throughout the day,” Stewart says. “Check in with yourself and really ask – how are you actually feeling in the present moment, are you scrolling to avoid doing something or feeling something?”

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He continues: “Mindfulness and meditation practices are a great way to develop self-awareness and tune into your physical body. Yoga and breath work are also great practices that help develop physical, mental and emotional awareness around your current state of being.

“When you truly tune into how you feel you can look at what needs may have been driving the behaviour or urge to scroll in the first place.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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