How to Stop Doomscrolling and Feel Better

Anxious times drive many to doomscroll, but it's not doing you any favors
Drawn To Doom Nhmag Illustration

Illustration by Madeline McMahon

In a year filled with fear, loneliness and anxiety, Americans have understandably sought escape, or at least reassurance. Our chosen routes to refuge are not always the wisest, however. Drinking more cocktails, overindulging in comfort food or burrowing deeper into the couch to binge-watch TV will not do our health any favors.

And then there’s “doomscrolling,” or obsessively scanning the news and social media for the latest bad news. It seems counterintuitive — if you’re stressed, why seek out upsetting news? Experts say most often, doomscrolling is fueled by anxiety and a desire to gain control in a time of uncertainty.

“It’s prevalent especially now because there’s been so much bad news,” says Ralph Sperry, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., director of behavioral health at SolutionHealth. The pandemic alone would be bad enough, but in recent times we’ve also seen political chaos, bitter division and social unrest, and economic devastation.

“People, like animals, want to be aware of any threat that’s around so they can be prepared,” Sperry explains. With unease on so many fronts and COVID-19 potentially lurking around every corner, doomscrolling has been some people’s attempt “to get a sense of where the threats are,” Sperry says, “[and] to feel like they can get some control over this very chaotic and what seems to be a threatening world.”

The problem is that it doesn’t work. Instead of preparing or calming us, doomscrolling “only makes people feel more anxious and out of control,” Sperry says.

Indeed, continuously questioning and Googling in an attempt to find answers can “keep you in an area of uncertainty,” says Elizabeth Ellis Ohr, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in private practice in Portsmouth. “If Googling becomes a compulsion, and you spend hours and hours Googling to an extent that it causes you distress and interferes with your functioning in your work or home roles,” Ohr says, it might be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

To stop doomscrolling, it can be helpful to ask yourself why you do this: In your mind, what is the purpose of doomscrolling and is that purpose served when you do it? “As people become more aware of what they’re hoping to achieve with doomscrolling,” Ohr says, “they might realize that doomscrolling is not helping them to achieve what they hoped to, and so they should engage in a different behavior that would, in fact, serve their desired purpose.”

Doomscrolling is an addictive behavior, Sperry points out, so a good initial step to curb it is to take stock and acknowledge that it affects you emotionally and perhaps physically. Then, Sperry says, take action to stop it. Limit yourself to checking the news, say, once a day at a certain time. (Preferably not just prior to bed; screen exposure and upsetting news near bedtime can interfere with sleep and set you up for feeling tired and cranky the next day, not to mention elevate your risk of health problems.) Also, try to achieve more balance in your life, with time carved out for family, friends, exercise, good nutrition and hobbies.

When you’re online, Ohr advises, get a full picture of everything that’s going on in the world rather than taking in only negative information. This will not only help you feel better, it will counteract the algorithms that online news sources and social media employ to keep us looking at our screens as they feed us more of what we’ve seen in the past. In effect, reading only bad news online begets reading more bad news online.

Actively look for glimmers of good news and silver linings. There’s no getting around the fact that COVID-19 has been upsetting and horrible, but maybe during the pandemic you’ve had more time to be with your family, to pursue a hobby or to enjoy the natural world. Embrace those opportunities instead of burying yourself in bad news, and take time to savor them.

Steps to stop doomscrolling

The past year has brought a deluge of distressing news, but wallowing in it by doomscrolling can make us feel worse than we already do. The following tips can help break a doomscrolling habit:

• Become aware of how much time you spend looking at bad news. If you find yourself driven to doomscroll, recognize that it isn’t helping you, and only makes you more anxious.

• Website and social media designers want you to stay on their site, and they use a variety of tactics to keep viewers hooked. Turn off the color on your screen to make images less appealing and remove apps that you struggle to stay away from — or at least make those apps less accessible.

• Doomscrolling is similar to other addictive behaviors, such as cigarette smoking, says Ralph Sperry, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., director of hehavioral health at SolutionHealth. “You have to wean yourself away from it,” Sperry says. “Some people can do that themselves, some can’t, some need help to do it.” Setting limits is the key, but it also helps to substitute alternative activities that are pleasurable and healthful. Instead of doomscrolling, play a game with a family member, go for a walk or a run, call a friend, or do something else that makes you feel good.

Categories: Health & Wellness