The human brain has evolved to detect change. So, when things turn out differently than we’d hoped, we can easily start to dwell on the negative. In this manner, the brain has a negativity bias. Allowing this to determine how we behave during the pandemic can have catastrophic effects on our mental well-being.
It’s so easy for us to get overly focused on gathering information to support our survival, especially as external events exacerbate this inherent need (eg COVID-19 new variants). The key word is “overly”. The amount of time and effort we put into gathering this information is entirely within our control, and therefore so are the effects of it.
The human brain didn’t really evolve to keep us happy. It evolved to keep us alive. And what kept us alive was the ability to be hyper-sensitive to problems and threats, like predatory animals or harsh weather. Today, our challenges are usually much less severe, but, for all our wonderful evolutionary adaptations, our brain and nervous system don’t really know that. The brain treats a stressful situation at work the same way it would deal with an encounter with an approaching wild animal (although the overlap can sometimes occur of course). It replays the situation over and over, so we never forget about it. That’s a really helpful thing if we spend our days out in the wilderness, but not so much when we’re in the practice all day not surrounded by predators. Research shows that the more negative a statement, the more likely we are to perceive it as truthful, given our tendency to pay more attention to the negative (Hilbig, 2012). So how often do you reach for the news feed on your phone each day?
Many of my clients say it’s because they are desperate for that one headline which indicates that the pandemic is ending. Just a bit of hope. And the sooner they read it, the sooner they will feel better. And that makes perfect sense. On the day when news that the Pfizer vaccine was 95 percent effective came out, a brief survey of 40 UK veterinarians in therapy indicated that a whopping 85 percent of them felt their mood lift that day, for the whole day, instantly. This was soon followed by news of the new variant, cancelled Christmas and rising deaths and their mood instantly reverted to that of sadness, fear and anxiety.
Others say it’s because they want to see the latest meme or TikTok for a brief minute of respite from reality. It brings joy which we can instantly forward a laugh many times. I love spreading this joy, but it’s so brief and fleeting. Nevertheless, we can use it as an exercise in not swiping to the news.
Many therapists recommend checking your newsfeed a maximum of twice a day during the pandemic. If the pandemic draws to a close suddenly, that headline will stay. Statistically, the chances of the latest headline being uplifting, as opposed to upsetting, are slim.
So, how do I stop doom scrolling?
Reduce the time you spend accessing the news. Turn off news notifications – there is no reason to get a news alert six times a day, and certainly no need to stay updated during the night. The news will still be there in the morning. “Screen time” isn’t just for kids. You can set limits for your personal phone use. It’s nearly impossible to estimate your daily screen time accurately by guessing, so taking control in order to be self-compassionate is a positive move.
Make it less entertaining. Another way to trick your brain: make it less fun by shifting your phone to greyscale. You’re basically removing some of the incentive for your brain to continue to scroll when you make it more boring.
Have a non-screen reading item at the ready for those times you do wake up in the middle of the night.
Flip the narrative and show some gratitude. Can you really express gratitude when you’re stressed and agitated? Make a conscious decision, instead of checking the news, to send a (potentially delayed) email or text of appreciation to someone.
Focus on what you can do rather than on what you can’t do: if all we’re allowed to do during lockdown is meet one other person outdoors, go for a walk with a friend. With your phone switched off and your full attention on your friend.
Decide how much you want to read the news and then decide how you are going to control yourself. For example, when you feel yourself reaching for your phone because you have an urge to read the news, decide how to postpone that “fix”. Pause. Take 10 mindful breaths. Ask yourself if you can skip this catchup. Take control in a self-compassionate way so that, each and every time you unlock your phone, you’re doing it mindfully rather than mindlessly. Every time you don’t unlock your phone is a win over doom surfing.
Some find it empowering to turn their phone off for a few hours a day. They are in control of their phone rather than the other way around. That’s unthinkable for others of us.
The world isn’t all rainbows and lollipops. Getting control of your doom scrolling does not mean ignoring the real issues that exist. But, if you find yourself seeking out more and more negative stories, your brain may be hooked and it’s time to take it back.
So, the next time you “need” to look at your phone, be self-compassionate and in control rather than on autopilot.