In a pandemic, bingeing on doom-and-gloom news feels irresistible. These health experts offer ways to break the habit.
Your phone alarm goes off at 6 in the morning. You check some news sites and Facebook. It's bad news after bad news. Coronavirus cases keep climbing, and so do deaths. Children can't go back to school. Your favourite restaurant and barbershop are still closed. People are losing their jobs.
Everything is awful. The world as we remember it has ended. Next thing you know, it's 9am. You haven't climbed out of your pit of despair yet to even shower. You repeat this masochistic exercise during your lunch break — and again while getting ready for bed.
This experience of sinking into emotional quicksand while bingeing on doom-and-gloom news is so common that there's now internet lingo for it: "doomscrolling." Exacerbating this behaviour, shelter-in-place orders leave us with little to do other than to look at our screens; by some measures, our screen time has jumped at least 50 per cent.
We're not alone, exactly, with so many of us going through this. Yet doomscrolling, combined with screen addiction, could take a significant toll on our mental and physical well-being, according to health experts. The activity can make us angry, anxious, depressed, unproductive and less connected with our loved ones and ourselves.
"It's the path of least resistance to keep consuming passively through social media," said Dr. Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general who has written extensively about the impact of loneliness on personal health. "You have to pull yourself out of that. It's not just disengaging but also dealing with the impact that has on your mindset, which can often last for hours."
Fret not: We aren't doomed just yet, and there are approaches to modifying our behavior. We can create structure in our lives, for one, and practice meditation techniques, for another. Here's what the health and wellness experts say.
Create a plan to control your time
People are, by nature, information consumers, and the news is like digital candy being dispensed 24 hours a day. To resist information bingeing, we can create a plan to control how much we consume, similar to how people can create a dieting plan to lose weight, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and co-author of the book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.
Step One is to acknowledge the burden that doomscrolling creates for our health, Gazzaley said. "You have to realise you don't want to live your life in a hamster wheel of complete news consumption," he said. "It'll take a toll on you in the way that stops becoming valuable, and being an informed person is a diminishing return."
Step Two is to create a realistic plan that you can stick with and repeat until it forms a habit.
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Creating a schedule is an effective approach. Start by making calendar appointments for everything from mundane activities, like taking a walk outside, to business matters, like videoconferencing meetings.
Set aside certain times of the day to read the news, if you must — and if it helps, set a 10-minute timer to remind you to stop scrolling. Another trick is to wear a rubber band around your hand while you are reading the news, and when you believe you are succumbing to doomscrolling, snap the rubber band against your wrist, Murthy said.
It's also important to rethink breaks. Before the pandemic, one of our typical lunch breaks involved browsing Facebook. With nowhere to go out for lunch under shelter-in-place orders, browsing the web has become the default work break, an obvious trap that could lead to doomscrolling.
Instead of staying glued to a screen, take a stroll around the block, hop on the exercise bike, prepare your favourite snack. And yes, set calendar appointments even for your breaks, Gazzaley said.
Exercises in mindfulness can help us break the cycle of information bingeing or prevent us from sinking into a dark place altogether.
Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author of the book Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World, recommended this exercise to feel more connected with others in a time when we can't see many people:
— Take some breaths and think about the people who have helped you in the past. This could be your friends, colleagues and even the restaurant workers bagging your takeout food.
— While imagining these people, give them positive wishes. For example: "May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be safe. May you be healthy."
"You're gift-giving," Salzberg said. "It's a different way of relating and not feeling isolation."
Connect with others
Murthy's book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World underlined the importance of spending 15 minutes a day connecting with the people we care about most. That can help us feel less alone and resist doomscrolling.
But how can we connect with people when we can't easily see them? In the beginning of the pandemic, many of us turned to videoconferencing apps to virtually connect with friends, colleagues and loved ones. Now, more than four months into the pandemic, many are experiencing "Zoom fatigue."
Murthy said he, too, was getting tired of the neck strain from constant video calls and had begun shifting many work and personal calls to the phone while taking a walk, which lifts his energy and helps him stay focused.
Murthy also recommended that people try to form a "moai," a Japanese word for a social support group. This could be a small group of friends who regularly convene — on the phone, in video chat or in person at a safe distance — and agree to look out for one another. He and two friends formed a moai, and, once a month, they spend two hours catching up in a frank conversation about personal issues related to health, relationships and finances.
Changing behavior can be tough to do on your own. So you could even tell your moai that you want to stop doomscrolling, and they could hold you accountable. Murthy said that his moai conversation with his friends was coming up and that he planned to talk about having a cleaner relationship with social media — because he, too, occasionally gives in to doomscrolling.
"The idea of carving time out for people you care about, whether it's 15 minutes or more, is all the more important in a world where the lines between day and night, weekday and weekend, have been erased," he said.
Written by: Brian X. Chen
Photographs by: Glenn Harvey
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES