News Anxiety: How to Avoid the Doomscroll
| Nina Chamlou
For as long as people had widespread access to daily news, there has been news-related anxiety. But the age of social media has dramatically increased the amount of time we spend keeping up on current events.
Instead of limiting news consumption to once a day, e.g., reading the morning paper or watching the local news before heading to work, many of us are immersed in a neverending news cycle.
Today, at least 1 in 5 Americans get their news through social media. And the average internet user spends more than 2 hours scrolling per day. And every year, that number steadily increases.
The term "doomscrolling" describes when the consumption of news leads to information overload and becomes a compulsive habit.
While some amount of worry can be useful for planning ahead, it is easy to cross the line from staying informed to inducing anxiety. But the pressure to stay up-to-date on serious topics like COVID-19, civil unrest, and climate change can make it difficult to stop doomscrolling.
So, how do you know when your news consumption has begun to affect your mental health? And what can you do to stop the cycle?
Featured Expert: Allison Chase, Ph.D.
Dr. Allison Chase is the regional clinical director for Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center in the Texas region. She specializes in children and adolescents, people with eating disorders, parental training and education, and family therapy. She has a particular interest in the effects of social media on mental health.
Prior to joining Pathlight, Chase owned a private group practice and taught undergraduate courses. She currently supervises Ph.D. students at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 2001.
Why Do We Doomscroll?
Addiction to reading the news is rooted in survival instincts, which we evolved to anticipate danger. Social media taps into this instinct.
"The media has done a very good job in figuring out how to grab our attention. There's a bit of a provocative nature to it and it's human nature to want to be able to solve things or inquire about things," Chase says. "So, when news or information is presented in a way that draws us in … it becomes very compelling."
But headlines often present us with situations that we have little ability to control or prevent. This can lead to feeling helpless, overwhelmed, anxious, or panicked.
"Nobody intends to always be anxious and uncomfortable … and yet once they engage and get consumed, then it becomes something that they can't necessarily stop"
– Allison Chase
According to Chase, people who experience dysregulation, the struggle to manage emotions, are more likely to take doomscrolling to an extreme.
"Nobody intends to always be anxious and uncomfortable … and yet once they engage and get consumed, then it becomes something that they can't necessarily stop," Chase says.
Similar to other bad habits, like nail biting or overindulging in processed foods, your brain can learn that doomscrolling is your go-to response for dealing with negative emotions. As a result, the pattern can become engrained.
This neurological function, sometimes called the "habit loop" or "automaticity," isn't always bad. In fact, it allows us to form routines, which help us operate more efficiently.
However, the brain does not differentiate between whether or not the processes it learns are helpful or not, which is why it's easy to develop detrimental habits. So, it's up to us to retrain our brains.
When Scrolling Becomes Unhealthy
Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate how doomscrolling and news consumption affect your life.
- How does doomscrolling impact you emotionally or socially?
- Do you have trouble paying attention at work or in conversation because you are preoccupied with worrying about the news?
- Is it difficult to complete tasks or show up to obligations on time because you can't stop scrolling through headlines?
- Do you experience a lack of sleep due to doomscrolling late into the night?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have crossed into unhealthy territory.
"Anytime the behavior that we're engaging in is interfering with our social functioning, our emotional functioning, academic, or occupational [goals]… or you're finding that you are snapping at your partner or your kid because you just spend so much time being aggravated or frustrated, we want to be taking a look at that," Chase says.
How to Manage News Anxiety
Chase emphasizes that there is no "one size fits all" solution. The key is to find an approach that works for you, which starts with recognizing your triggers.
Try to pay attention to what happens right before you feel the urge to reach for your phone. If your doomscrolling is brought on by certain thoughts, feelings, or situations – or centers around a particular subject – take note.
People who experience addiction have a higher likelihood of relapsing when exposed to certain triggers, e.g. walking by the bar they used to frequent, seeing an ashtray, or being near slot machines. The same goes for people with digital addictions like doomscrolling.
Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them so you can avoid falling into the habit loop.
Swearing off social media altogether can be too big of a leap for most people. Instead, think about ways you can alter the way you use social media.
For example, if there are accounts that you notice often cause you anxiety, mute or unfollow them. Also, consider disabling alerts for social media platforms. This way, you will be less tempted to open apps throughout the day.
If you are particularly consumed or obsessed with a specific subject, e.g. climate change, limit yourself to spending 15-30 minutes reading about it each day.
When breaking a habit like doomscrolling, finding positive activities to supplement the time you spend reading news can make a big difference. Try engaging with something non-educational that simply serves to make you smile.
This could be exploring a light-hearted hashtag, like #catsoftiktok, visiting the wholesome page on Reddit, or watching an ASMR video on YouTube. Though it may sound silly, studies have shown that watching cute animal videos can measurably lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
"I think it's also really important to get your body up and moving," Chase says. Disrupting your thought processes with physical movement is another strategy to break the monotonous cycle of doomscrolling.
If you are still having trouble gaining control of your doomscrolling, there are therapists who specialize in helping clients who struggle with social media use and anxiety.
"If you're having real symptoms of depression or anxiety… professional help, or at least a professional assessment, is always recommended just to see if you need more help," Chase says.
- Shearer E. (2018). Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source.
- Daily time spent on social networking by internet users worldwide from 2012 to 2022. (2022).
- Study: Quokkas Can Be Good For Your Health. (2020).
Feature Image: d3sign / Moment / Getty Images