Your phone alarm goes off at 6 a.m. You check some news sites and Facebook. It’s bad news after bad news. Coronavirus cases keep climbing, and so do deaths. Children might not be able to go back to school. Your favorite restaurant has gone out of business.
Everything is awful. The world as we remember it has ended. Next thing you know, it’s 9 a.m. 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 has become so common that there’s internet lingo for it: doomscrolling.
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 mind-set, which can often last for hours.”
Fret not. This isn’t just more bad news. Health and wellness experts maintain that we’re aren’t doomed yet. 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 experts recommend.
Create a plan to control your time. 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 realize you don’t want to live your life in a hamster wheel of complete news consumption,” he said.
Step Two is to create a realistic plan that you can stick with and repeat until it forms a habit. 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. You can set a 10-minute timer to remind you to stop scrolling. Another trick is to wear a rubber band around your hand while you’re 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. Stuck at home, browsing the web has become the default work break. Instead of staying glued to a screen, take a stroll around the block, hop on the exercise bike, prepare your favorite snack. And yes, set calendar appointments even for your breaks, Gazzaley said.
Practice meditation. Exercises in mindfulness not only take us away from our screens but they also can prevent us from sinking into a dark place.
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 that we can’t see many people:
Take some breaths and think about the people who have helped you in the past. These 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.
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 has begun shifting many work and personal calls to the phone while taking a walk, which lifts his energy and helps him stay focused.
He 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 hold frank conversations 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.
“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.