Doomscrolling is easy to do but it can have real mental health impacts. Here’s what to know about it.

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It’s 11:30 p.m. and you know you should go to bed. But you think, what’s the harm of checking my phone quickly? As you do, a news notification pops up and the headline grabs you instantly, so you click and start reading.

You might have more questions, so you click on another… then another. Before you know it, you’re down a rabbit hole, clicking on one “suggested” article after the next, unable to pull yourself from what you’re reading because you just need more info.

If this has ever happened to you, you’ve experienced something called “doomscrolling,” which, despite being a newer term (it showed up on Twitter in 2018) is a very real thing that can affect your mental health.

Doomscrolling is the habit of scrolling through an excessive amount of news stories on the web and social media, despite it causing negative emotions.

It’s different from just reading the news or staying informed because the behavior can become somewhat persistent.

“Someone who reads the daily online paper and then goes about their day isn’t doomscrolling,” says Shannon Garcia, a licensed clinical social worker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“Someone who finds themselves reading seemingly endless news articles and finds it hard to disengage from the resulting emotions to the point of it affecting their daily functioning is doomscrolling,” she clarifies.

Signs of doomscrolling

  • checking the news multiple times a day
  • spending long periods of time reading news stories
  • feeling the urge to check the news repeatedly because you feel like you’ll miss something important
  • reading multiple articles about the same news topic
  • fixating on negative articles for hours
  • feeling on edge or sad most of the day after reading the news
  • neglecting other responsibilities because you’re repeatedly checking in on the days’ headlines or because of how the news affects you emotionally
  • having a hard time sleeping after reading the news

“When scary things happen in the world — pandemics, mass shootings, racial injustice — things feel out of control and that’s scary,” says Garcia, and adds “reading the news can be a way of reassurance-seeking… to reduce our anxiety,” as a 2016 review also finds.

“Subconsciously, our brains may think if we keep reading the news, maybe we will see something that will make us feel better, provide an answer, or tell us how to stay safe.”

The problem is: there isn’t always new information or positive news to make you feel better. So, when this behavior becomes compulsive, all you might really be doing is just consuming more and more bad news, over and over. And that can keep you in a state of hyperarousal.

Doomscrolling during the Covid-19 pandemic

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made doomscrolling more of an issue because the pandemic evolved so quickly,” explains Garcia. “We were relying on the constant news updates to stay informed. This likely created a habit of checking the news more often.” And that habit became hard to break as the pandemic stretched on.

We also just found ourselves on our phones and computers a whole lot more: one survey found that screen time in the United States increased by 55% from 2019 to 2020.

The pandemic also coincided with a rise in misinformation, which fueled emotions like anger, fear, and anxiety that kept us reading.

Consuming large amounts of negative news can lead to or worsen mental health conditions — particularly if you already have a history of:

For example, one 2020 survey found that excessive media consumption about COVID-19 led to increased levels of anxiety, as well as stress, sadness, and fear.

Another German study found a connection between the frequency, duration, and diversity of news consumption to intensified depression symptoms and pandemic-related anxiety.

How does it affect the brain?

“Our brains are designed to protect us and look for threats,” says Garcia. “Doomscrolling is basically telling your brain that there are limitless threats that we must be aware of. Therefore, your brain remains on high alert.”

Your brain being continually exposed to high levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, can cause hyperarousal.

New research is just beginning to explore how doomscrolling could cause what trauma practitioner and strength trainer Laura Khoudari refers to as hypoarousal from doomscrolling.

In her book “Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time” she explains how you might become emotionally numb, physically “frozen” in one spot and lose track of time and bodily needs while doomscrolling.

Like any habit, it’s difficult to stop doomscrolling abruptly, but there are things you can do to find balance:

Make a schedule

You might find it helpful to set up a routine with yourself for when and if you’ll check the news.

“I found I was doomscrolling in the mornings on my phone before getting out of bed,“ Garcia says, “so I decided to not bring my phone in my bedroom anymore. This forces me to consume news at a different time of that day and that works for me.”

If you decide to do this, consider turning off news notifications to help keep yourself on your schedule.

Mix up your activities

If you’re feeling the urge to check the news again, even though it’s only been a few minutes, consider doing another activity you enjoy instead.

For example, you could pick up a book and read that instead, go for a walk with your pet, or call up a friend and chat.

Outsmart your algorithm

When you read bad news, particularly on social media, your algorithms are going to keep recommending other stories on the same or related topics. But you can switch things up by seeking out the good news.

“I recommend my clients find good news sources, such as the Good News Network, or follow positive news accounts on their social media,” says Garcia.

Other campaigns like this one out of Iceland, aim to replace the habit of doomscrolling with what’s being called joyscrolling.

Being aware of developments in the world — good and bad — is a big part of being an adult. But finding balance can help you feel better and maintain your mental health.

If simple steps to break the habit aren’t working, though, you might consider reaching out to a mental health professional.