When Negative News Gets You Down: How to Reduce Anxiety and Take Control of Your Doomscrolling
Doomscrolling — when you get caught in a cycle of negative news content and can’t seem to stop — has real mental health impacts, from the inability to concentrate on everyday tasks to the disruption of sleep. Photo: Johannes Hicks/EyeEm/Getty Images
You wake up, put the coffee on and start scrolling through your phone. That funny capybara video is followed by news of war, protests, the pandemic and humanity’s overall bad behaviour.
Suddenly an hour has passed and you’re feeling unsettled, dispirited. You’ve forgotten to eat breakfast, and the tasks for the day ahead seem rather trivial. Getting excited about an upcoming vacation plans seems somehow inappropriate after viewing disturbing images from a war zone.
These days, our social feeds are full of bad news, mixed in with everything else— your friends’ Wordle scores, advertisements for European river cruises and updates about bird migrations from your ornithological club.
If it feels disconcerting, it’s not your imagination. Doomscrolling — when you get caught in a cycle of negative news content and can’t seem to stop — has real mental health impacts, from the inability to concentrate on everyday tasks to the disruption of sleep.
So how can you manage your well-being during an onslaught of negative news?
It’s not realistic to cut out news altogether — after all, it’s important to know what’s going on around you, particularly in this age of disinformation. “Attuning to negative information can be adaptive because it alerts people to the risks in their environment, thereby preparing them for similar threats in the future,” say the authors of this study published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.
The study examined the impact of exposure to social media at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were consuming news about government regulations, anti-government protests and shortages in the supply chain. During that time, average levels of anxiety and depression increased, as did reports of serious psychological distress.
Information gathering serves as a coping mechanism that is — under normal circumstances — beneficial. Educating ourselves about an upcoming medical procedure, for example, can help us feel more in control of the situation. But that’s not the case in an ongoing pandemic (or a war) because, as the study’s authors point out, “negative information is ubiquitous and unending, and no amount of information can eliminate the pervasive sense of uncertainty.”
Indeed, the more you seek out information, the more it amplifies your concerns. Cutting down on exposure may help, but the study found that even two to four minutes of COVID-related news led to “immediate and significant reductions in positive affect and optimism.”
What Can Help?
The study found that setting boundaries can help — like setting aside a specific chunk of time, at a specific time of day, to read the news and scroll through social media. This serves to stem the constant flow of negative news and give you back some control in your day.
If you’re in the habit of falling asleep with your phone in your hand (and using your phone as an alarm clock), buy an old-fashioned alarm clock for your bedside and charge your phone overnight in another room. If you can, make the bedroom a no-phone zone.
And if that still doesn’t work, you can block certain websites (or friends, for that matter) that constantly put you in a funk or a state of rage, or use apps designed to limit your usage on social media (like Attentive, Offscreen and Freedom, to name a few). And turn off push notifications, so you can avoid inadvertently going down the rabbit hole.
The aforementioned study also found that “kindness-scrolling” doesn’t have the same negative impacts as doomscrolling, so the authors suggest social media users “attempt to deliberately balance out negative emotions by seeking positive information.” You can also refrain from engaging with negative content — as difficult as that may be at times.
Seeking out acts of kindness on social media can help, but performing acts of kindness takes that to a whole new level. If you can’t stop doomscrolling the news about the war in Ukraine, for example, consider volunteering with a charity that’s helping civilians in Ukraine.
And if you’re still struggling, you may want to consider reaching out to a professional for cognitive behavioural therapy or other mental health supports. Find out what’s available and where to get help at CAMH.