You know the terrible feeling inside you when you go through an infinite scroll of bad news that’s only making you feel hopeless, small and helpless? That’s the definition of Doomscrolling.
Everything we do, every action we take, every decision we make, has a basis in the fundamental neurobiology of the brain and body. That neurobiology is designed to help us survive our surroundings and it is from those surroundings that it takes the primary cues that guide our responses. If we were to simplify the apparent complexity of the machinery of the body and mind that is engaged in this function we would come up with two lines of code that state simply:
Survive the moment.
Predict the future.
Both of these lines of code result in an operating system that needs data as fuel. Surviving the moment relies on the ability to correctly identify potential threats and opportunities and take action that negates the first and takes advantage of the second. Predicting the future (and we’re really talking about the immediate future) requires us to collect as much information as we can in order to better understand what is happening around us. We do all this while using our store of past memories, our current knowledge of the world and our understanding of how the world works (i.e. our expectations).
Our brain craves information. It looks back through its store of memories to find patterns that help it better understand the present. Its trove of knowledge allows it to run threat-assessment scenarios, pick its way through options based on its understanding of the risks involved and determine the best path of action that will deliver the outcomes we expect.
The external world presents us with a fluidity that renders most things we observe ambiguous. This makes things hard to understand and nearly impossible to predict. Yet, we try. In loose social contexts we actively engage in gossip as a strategy to obtain information, establish social bonds and gauge acceptable behavior with other individuals, based on what we know about them. In the digital realm we try to do ‘our own research’. This is where problems, usually, begin.
Information In An Information-Rich Space
We all reside in an information-rich space that’s made available to us through search engines and social media platforms.
Research suggests that when we are faced with uncertainty we are programmed to seek information to decrease it. The principle is simple to understand: the more we know about a particular situation the less we don’t know about it and the better equipped we become to predict some things about its evolution.
When we don’t know enough we feel anxiety and experience a rising level of stress. We are then forced to take action to reduce that anxiety and ease the stress we feel by acquiring more information on what we think we don’t know enough about.
The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, showed that when this happens people tend to endlessly crawl through reams and reams of negative news in the phenomenon now known as doomscrolling, despite the fact that research shows this has a negative impact on our mental and physical health:
“Doomsurfing and Doomscrolling lead to the experience of emotions of intense anxiety, uncertainty, apprehension, fear, and feelings of distress which in turn lead to difficulties in the initiation of sleep, poor quality of sleep, decrease in appetite, decreased interest in activities and low motivation to continue with tasks of the day.”
Neuroscience research shows that the reason we engage in such, self-harming, behavior lies in the tendency we have to engage in activities that strongly motivate us to … seek information to resolve uncertainty about rewards and punishments.”
As we seek information however we become:
“vulnerable to consuming inaccurate and incomplete information which rather than increasing our
sense of control decreases the control, validates our fears, increases anxiety, uncertainty and pushes us towards a vicious cycle of the constant need to know, a constant need to doomsurf or doomscroll over the internet.”
We believe that any half-way logical being would either stop this activity or devise specific coping strategies to stop doomscrolling from affecting their internal equilibrium, poisoning their mind and negatively impacting their behavior. Unfortunately this is not so simple to do. At least, not without better understanding the reasons that make us behave like this.
Cognition and Information Seeking Behavior
In a perfectly logical world we would seek out information which we would verify and validate and then use to inform the mental picture we put together. Unfortunately the speed at which external world events roll challenges us. When the information we have at our disposal is insufficient the two lines of code that run us create a sense of internal anxiety.
We feel there are threats coming we don’t understand. We seek to reassure ourselves that the future is going to be OK. We feel we don’t have the time to slow down and fill the gaps to our knowledge. When there is the additional pressure of a global stressor (climate change, financial meltdown, a global pandemic, mass immigration movement, extreme inequality, an unjust and very visible war) we become even less likely to take time to approach this logically.
So, here’s what happens next:
First, we then latch onto the first and most visible piece of information that comes our way. We form our opinion based on that. We then seek to further validate our belief by seeking out information that confirms what we believe and ignores everything else. This is called anchoring bias.
Second, our brain gives greater credibility and weight to every piece of evidence that supports our original opinion or hypothesis and dismisses everything that appears to contradict it. This is called confirmation bias. As you can imagine it only reinforces our belief that things are bleak.
Finally, in order to balance the bleakness we experience and the negativity it builds inside us, we overestimate the chances that the next item of news we encounter will be positive and underestimate the chances that it will be negative. This is called optimism bias.
All three of these are cognitive mechanisms that are designed to help us. When, however, we are faced with novel events that develop quickly and there is not much real or reliable information about them they trip us up and we fall into behavior that produces negative emotions. These emotions, in turn, degrade our ability to function properly by affecting our executive function. This is called compromised affect regulation.
Now that you know all that and understand it, you realize that really doomscrolling is a survival strategy the brain puts in place that goes a little haywire. This also means that it is within our grasp to bring it back under our control.
Three Effective Strategies To Stop The Doomscrolling From Depressing You
There are three steps you can apply to help you break the grip of the dread doomscrolling cycle on you by giving you back the sense of control that external events take away from you.
- First, Control Your Time. Doomscrolling gains its name by gripping you and keeping you repeating an activity in a loop. You desperately look for positive news, for instance, to help you feel better and all you keep on encountering is the opposite, yet you keep on scrolling. At that point your activity controls you. Break its grip by setting a specific time of the day you will access the newsfeed on the subject you are looking at and keep your time on it reasonable. By setting these boundaries you regain your sense of control over events that are beyond your control. This helps bring your level of anxiety down.
- Second, Stay Alert Of You. You are scrolling to find information on something specific, not to be filled with horror. Ask yourself as you scroll: Have I found what I am looking for? How do I feel right now? Check I with yourself. Don’t let the scroll absorb you so that you lose sight of who you are and what you are there to do. This changes the doomscrolling activity from something that sucks you in and drains you of hope to an activity you engage in with a specific purpose in mind and a goal.
- Third, Add Some Fun. Even if the world is going to end in the next twenty minutes and you and I know it, there is nothing that will change it if we break down and cry and feel nothing but blackness inside us. Sharing some jokes with friends, finding a piece of uplifting, positive news and sharing it, helping out someone do something, are all activities that make us feel happy. Happiness changes the chemical balance within us, reduces stress, releases many hormones that make us feel good and unlocks the cognitive centers that had been closed down by stress so we can actually mentally process things differently.
Doomscrolling is a new word in our vocabulary. Understanding the cognitive effects that run us is new. What we do to take control of our self in a world that feels chaotic needs intentional decisions and actions.