Rein In Your Doomscrolling Habit With A Mindfulness Practice

Scrolling never ends and getting trapped in a doomscrolling spiral can happen much quicker than you might expect. Explore what doomscrolling is, why it happens and how to stop this damaging and anxiety feeding habit.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

It’s a nice day. The weather’s pleasant and you’re feeling cheerful. You’ve just spent the afternoon with your favorite people, doing the things you love, and in this state of mind you begin to understand what people mean when they talk about being blessed. You’re feeling pretty content with life when, without skipping a beat, and for the first time in hours, you reach for your phone. And then all hell breaks loose.

You were a picture of serenity and peace a moment ago, but within a few minutes your mood blackens as your fingers flick through page after stressful page on your phone. You soon feel awful. You are partaking in a COVID-inspired bad habit that is so pernicious it’s earned its own name: doomscrolling.

What Is Doomscrolling?

Coronavirus has changed a lot about our world. People are coining new terms that reflect our collective experience of the pandemic’s affect on our mental health, and our coping strategies.

Even if you’ve never seen a formal definition (Merriam Webster is paying close attention) you probably already know what doomscrolling is: the irresistible compulsion to continue to browse online content, especially news, even when it continually depresses, stresses or angers you. Falling down dark rabbit holes that seem to lack any natural end, we find ourselves fueling fires of anxiety, compelled by morbid curiosity to watch the slow-motion train wreck that has been 2020.

Doomscrolling can leave us feeling utterly shattered, depressed, sad, apathetic, filled with rage or so irritable that it starts to spill over into the rest of life. To find ways to dial back this damaging habit, we first need to understand why it happens.

The Neuroscience Of Doomscrolling

Evolutionary psychologists will tell you that your appetite for bad news persists because at some point, knowing how to identify and focus on potentially threatening sensory information was essential for our ancestors’ survival. When it comes to detecting a threat, it’s better to have a few false positives than to risk overlooking a potentially life-or-death piece of information. And since positive information in our environment doesn’t affect our survival as directly, we tend to ignore or downplay it.

In other words, our brain is almost primed to notice bad news. While you can picture this working for humankind 2000 years ago, our world has changed: we now inhabit an almost infinite informational environment, i.e. there is bad news on tap.

While we’ve evolved the tendency to seek out information when we feel uncertain or threatened (and thus increase our sense of control), this doesn’t work as well in the modern world, where information simply yields… more information. Much of what we encounter invariably reinforces our original anxieties, trapping us in a self-amplifying feedback loop that has us feeling less in control, not more.

The stresses of social distancing, of confusing or inconsistent information, a lack of trust in the institutions meant to keep us safe, an awareness of daily environmental and political catastrophes, and the threat of an invisible enemy (a virus) can leave many of us feeling trapped and out of control. Socially distancing indoors, we turn to the internet to soothe our fears and give us information that will calm, focus and empower us. But twenty minutes of social media use later, and we’re only left with a low-grade feeling that things are far worse than they first seemed…

Time To Step Back – But How?

When we surf online, there is no natural limit. The scrolling never ends, the news cycle runs at fever pitch 24/7, and every possible media channel is designed to do what it takes to seize your attention and hold it for as long as possible. This means it’s up to us to consciously moderate our own online browsing behavior.

Trapped in a doomscrolling spiral, things can seem infinitely more threatening than they really are. Distorted through endless narratives created by others, we end up with a warped picture of the world that heavily favors the negative. We already understand the dangers of establishing “filter bubbles” around ourselves, but the risk is heightened when we pull into these bubbles only that information that most confirms the worst.

The internet is a powerful tool for expanding awareness and cultivating a sense of empowerment. Information is a beautiful thing. But in order to navigate our way through the ocean of data now available at our fingertips, we need to practice a degree of discernment and self-awareness. The truth is that the human brain did not evolve for certain kinds of stimulation. Nevertheless, we do possess the ability to become aware of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and take actions according to what we consciously value in our lives.

How To Stop Doomscrolling

It’s often our judgments, expectations and over analysis of our experiences that causes us the most anxiety. Getting caught in an anxiety spiral, we lose touch with the plain facts of the situation as it stands. Our stories stress us, and the internet is all “story”! Scrolling through distressing news sites and social media can feed our rumination, so that we uncritically take in the doom and gloom, and disconnect from the grounding present.

When faced with such vast quantities of distressing information, it’s understandable that we feel under threat and out of control. But the way to regain control is to step away from the internal narratives we attach to our perceptions. We need to gain distance from these stories and judgments and anchor into the present again, where we can see things more clearly. 

Bringing consciousness back to the present moment helps us to realize that most of the time, things are actually OK. Without stressful rumination, life looks a lot less threatening. Practice noticing overwhelming negative feelings from device overuse and consciously put them aside. Take a breath, look at the anxious thread your mind has spun, and deliberately choose to let it go and return to the here and now instead.

Today, we could not face a more formidable intrusion into our conscious awareness than being constantly attached to our devices. When used mindlessly, phones lead us down the path of distraction and addiction, compulsively feeding our own anxiety. Learn more about how to overcome phone-induced anxiety and setting digital boundaries.

Reconsider your internet use – is it time for a technology detox, so you can recalibrate? Slow down and go into nature, have a nap, do some exercise, listen to music or spend time with a loved one to interrupt the doom spiral and remind yourself that the bulk of anxiety is often in the story, and not in the sensation itself.

Practice Meditation To Overcome Doomscrolling

Buddha is said to have talked about the “first darts” of the inevitable suffering of life, and how they are different from the “second darts” we inflict on ourselves when we engage in mental rumination, resistance or grasping for certainty because of the first darts.

Gaining conscious control over your own emotional state and where you put your attention won’t magically make the world a less crazy place. There will still be enraging political news stories, heartbreaking environmental disasters, inequality, and of course, the ongoing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But you are always in control of your own reaction, whenever you choose not to throw those second darts. Meditation helps to activate and strengthen this awareness.

We have put together this playlist that helps to keep conscious control of your mind when facing bad news stories and for a mindful smartphone and social media usage:

  1. Bringing Mindfulness to Habits of Distraction Hugh Byrne 8:11
  2. Finding Balance With Technology Mindful Living Retreats 12:26
  3. Mindfully Using Our Smartphones Neil Tranter 21:35
  4. Returning To Peace And Compassion Michael Mackintosh 24:03
  5. Detox Your Digital Mind Laura Thorne 8:44
  6. Digital Mindfulness Barbara Vidal 12:10
  7. Practice For Digital Detox Ruth Kent 9:12
  8. Cultivate Presence Annie Godin 10:25
  9. Digital Anti-Virus For The Mind Mark Joseph 10:18

Or practice on your own with this meditation:

  1. Sit comfortably and take a few moments to relax and come into awareness of your breath in the present moment.
  2. Allow anxieties to float into awareness and for a while, simply note and accept them. Notice how these emotions feel in your body. Watch in particular how your mind might be jumping in to make a judgment about something (“Everyone around me is completely crazy”), or concoct a story about your experience (“Everything just gets worse all the time, and I can’t fix any of it. I’ll never find a job in this climate, and I have no other skills, and who knows where I’ll be in 5 years’ time…”). Notice how these stories and judgments fuel the emotions.
  3. Take a deep breath and come back to the moment. Visualize yourself putting down the stories and judgments for a while, and simply maintain mindfulness of the here and now, and your breath.
  4. Return now to the anxieties you examined earlier, but this time, choose to let your stories and judgments drop away. Notice your mind wanting to hold onto them, but let them go. Keep returning to the breath and tell yourself, “In this moment, I release judgments and stories.”
  5. Now look again at the situation that is causing you anxiety, but without any narrative attached. Simply look at the situation as it is, with total curiosity and acceptance. Notice how it feels different. 
  6. Spend a few moments opening up now to the possibility of your next action. What single thing can you personally do about this situation? Don’t worry about solving the entire problem all the way to the end, or stress about the next dozen actions – just take a moment to identify the single next thing you can do.
  7. When you’re ready, come back to the breath and then gently open your eyes.

Train your awareness: Explore Insight Timer’s large and fully free library of mindfulness meditation with more than 4,000 guided practices.

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