Are You Guilty Of Doomscrolling? Experts Explain The Anxiety-Inducing Habit And How To Stop It

Words by Naomi Chadderton

6 min read

If the simple act of reading headlines is turning into an emotionally draining exercise, know that you are not alone. Now more than ever it’s vital to learn how to stay up-to-date without suffering from headline anxiety

From war and climate change to the never-ending pandemic that is Covid-19, turn on the television, scroll through Instagram or open a paper and it would seem that most news these days is bad news. With the future suspended in limbo, there’s no denying the importance of staying informed on what is coming next, but the more we try to keep up with the latest breaking news, the lower we often find ourselves feeling. Add a 24/7 cycle of social media and always-accessible smartphones into the mix and it’s no surprise our already-overloaded nervous systems are at breaking point. “Doomscrolling is a coping mechanism where an individual tries to manage helplessness by continuously scrolling distressing news in an attempt to obtain as much information as possible,” Farah Dahabi, clinical social worker and mental health first aid director at The LightHouse Arabia tells MOJEH. “All it really does though is provide a false sense of security, and is seriously damaging to our health.”

If everything you’re reading seems like a lot to process right now, that’s because it is, and feeling overwhelmed with current events big or small is a natural reaction to the traumatic times we are living through. “Reports on devastating events, whether it is close to home or on the other side of the world, can cause us to feel powerless or even defeated,” adds consultant psychologist and founder of Blue Lights Wellness, Dubai, Dr Jeanina Khouri. “While reading the media and keeping oneself informed is in essence being part of a global community, when very little can be done it can cause distress and anxiety.”

Headline stress disorder is a term first coined by American therapist Dr Steven Stonsy in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, and at this particular moment in history, it couldn’t ring more true. From the devastating Ukraine crisis to the buzzwords like ‘the new normal’ that continue to circulate without giving us much clarity on what this looks like or ways to move forward, ironically we look to the news for answers, only to find that there are no answers. “Headline anxiety is very much real, and 24/7 access from anywhere in the world with the option to share among family and friends is inevitably contributing to this matter” says Dr Jeanina. “While not yet formally classified as a stress disorder, it imposes similar symptoms such as nightmares, heightened anxiety and a loss of hope for positive outcomes, whilst amongst others it could reveal itself in physical symptoms such as migraines, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue and pain in the chest, often due to extreme worry.” Studies into the psychological effects of television bulletins have also revealed negative news coverage causes us to worry about issues in our own lives too, or maybe you are grappling with what Harvard researchers have recently dubbed ‘pandemic brain’ – even after lockdown, its study participants demonstrated elevated brain levels of two markers or neuroinflammation resulting in fatigue, loss of concentration and other mood changes. However you’re feeling, all is not lost.

Yes, staying informed is important, but so is being mindful of your own wellbeing, particularly if you already struggle with depression or anxiety, and if any of this feels a little too close to home, know that it is possible to keep up- to-date while maintaining your own sense of happiness and calm too. Start by staying aware of how you feel while you are consuming the news, and if you notice an increased heart rate, or a quickening of the breath, pause a moment and get your breathing back in control. “Box Breathing was developed by Navy SEALS and hacks the body’s rest and digest system to soothe us during high stress,” advises Farah. “Take a deep abdominal breath and hold air in your lungs for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and hold your lungs empty for four seconds.” Detachment is another key coping mechanism for headline anxiety. Deleting social media or never watching TV may be unrealistic, plus work or family commitments can mean we’re never truly off-grid, but Dr Jeanina explains that every little can help. “If you’re feeling overwhelmed, start by taking a step back and asking yourself how you can detach for a while,” she says. “Maybe take a social media break, or simply take a few days off on reading into the events that heighten your anxiety. Counteracting negative events with positive ones is also crucial to reducing worry and stress.” Turn off notifications and be sure not to bookend your day with scrolling either – avoid first thing in the morning or right before you go to sleep, refocusing back on the details of your real life rather than allowing the news to influence your waking or resting moments. “I also find that journaling before bedtime, writing out your worries and keeping a gratitude list of things to be thankful for can really help,” she continues. “Repeating positive affirmations or even writing a mantra on your mirror is something I often recommend to my clients to help them stay in the moment and rewire their thoughts positively.”

The evenings tend to be worse for anxiety, but if you find it hard to sleep after a day of devastating news and political corruption, there are plenty of techniques to ensure you get some quality shut-eye. Prepare for bed in the usual way but keep clear of screens, not just to avoid scrolling but also the blue light that can stimulate your brains and affect your sleep. Try lighting a candle, using essential oils or listening to mindfulness apps that feature meditation and bedtime stories. “Remember we are searching to soothe difficult emotions, not solve or intellectualise them,” adds Dr Farah. Studies have shown that light exercise like evening power walks can also function as an antidepressant, clear the mind and help bring on that much elusive slumber, so why not up the ante with a walk along the beach? “The scent of the ocean has proven to have positive affect on anxiety and stress reduction,” she explains.

It’s a tricky balance between accepting world events can upset you while acknowledging the fact there are people much worse off than you, but this distance from trauma doesn’t invalidate your own anxiety, it simply creates a spectrum. That’s why the most important thing is to be compassionate to yourself, rest when needed, speak kindly to your ‘own self’ and remember that it’s ok to not be ok. “Allow yourself permission to feel difficult emotions like grief, sadness or anger,” concludes Dr Farah. “There’s no such thing as bad feelings.” Meeting the emotion with compassionate curiosity allows you to move towards and through complicated feelings and, if you’re lucky, get a good night’s sleep.

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