Your brain responds to negative information by activating your “lizard brain”, particularly a structure called your amygdala, a collection of cells near the base of your brain.
This sets off your natural response to danger in your environment. You become hyper-vigilant and start scanning the terrain for threats.
In other words, you’re on high-alert and your mind and body are laser focused on potential harmful situations that may arise.
Your limbic system switches into fight-or-flight mode and sharpens your reaction times in an effort to save your life. Your pulse spikes, your body may grow stiff, and you aren’t able to relax.
“The part of our brain that governs doomscrolling is ancient,” says Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, a Harvard physician. “It’s an adaptive response to stress, meaning our species has learned to keep going and thrive and survive. Scanning for danger, looking around, making sure we’re all OK; that is a normal and healthy response to stress.”
But if you combine that evolutionary affinity for bad news with the marketing tactics that social media companies use to keep you hooked on their content, doomscrolling seems nearly inevitable.
Larry Rosen, co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, explains it this way:
“The problem is that tech companies have set up a system where you feel that you can’t stop: infinite scrolling, auto-play, and other tricks keep you glued to the screen. If you find a doom-and-gloom article online, and you want to continue in that vein, it’s hard to stop because there’s always more, and you don’t want to miss out.”
The pandemic, as Dr. Nerurkar explains, is a real time of acute stress. “What we’re doing is, we’re always scanning for danger.”
Our brain is already revved up into fight-or-flight mode by the global pandemic, so it’s only natural that we be on the lookout for even more danger on the horizon.
This preference for negative news has now become an example of evolutionary mismatch.
While it was helpful to our savannah-dwelling ancestors, nowadays the bad news comes from every corner of the globe and in reality, it often has little to no impact on our daily lives.
We simply don’t need to consume it. We choose to.
The physical reaction is real, though, and doomscrolling is an unhealthy habit to get into.
With the constant threat of COVID-19, the protective mechanisms of your amygdala can be switched on way too easily—and the hyper-vigilant behavior which results may become compulsive.
“Too much negative information biases our perceptions,” says Rutledge. “A steady diet of gloom and doom makes the world seem more dangerous and uncertain than it already is.” Brooks adds, “The more we doomscroll, the more worried we get, the more we want to look for things about negative news, and we keep checking, and it makes us worse.”
“Doomscrolling is not healthy because it can lead to a sense of helplessness and a sense that there is nothing effective to be done,” says Mari Verano, a marriage and family therapist. “Doomscrolling is looking repeatedly at ‘proof of the bad,’ which strengthens the brain’s negative bias.”
Doomscrolling has any number of negative consequences on your life, and wasting your time is the least of these.
Last July, the New York Times reported that Americans were spending nearly 50 percent more time on their screens than they had before COVID-19.
You could be getting a lot of work done in that time. This is also time you could be spending with family and other loved ones.
They’re your real support network, not social media, or the internet. Whatever you’re searching for, Nicole Spector of Today says you might feel “a sense of helplessness and a sense that there is nothing effective to be done.”
All this time online is affecting our mental health, increasing our risk of stress, anxiety, and depression, as Today reports.
These negative reactions can then lead to heightened aggressive behavior and hostility.
And the effects aren’t just psychological. Spector also points out that physical reactions such as headaches, stomach problems, increased muscle tension, feeling tired easily, lack of appetite, trouble falling asleep, and poor sleep quality are also connected.
“Being constantly showered with fear-inducing content can lead to a variety of anxiety issues that can cause physical and mental discomfort,” says Dr. Pavan Madan, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry.
“Being exposed to excessive negative content can exacerbate depression in those predisposed to it. When faced with fear or threat, people may even resort to hostile or aggressive behavior. Staying up late at night while doomscrolling not only encroaches in your sleep time, but also makes it harder to fall asleep or have a restful sleep.”
“Anxiety and stress,” says Pamela Rutledge, “are the byproducts of uncertainty about the safety of the environment. Uncertainty triggers the desire to search for information to feel more in control. When we search for information in this state, we are particularly sensitive to distressing or emotionally threatening news. Rather than increase our sense of control, negative news validates our fears, heightens our anxiety, and increases our internal ‘need to know.’”
The sheer volume of the information out there works to further heighten anxiety, she goes on to state. It’s impossible to keep up with everything, and you’re not only anxious about the environment, but preoccupied with missing something that might be vital to your survival.
So, you keep looking and fall into a downward spiral often seen in chronic depression and anxiety. Looking for news in an environment full of negative content triggers anxiety.
Anxiety makes you want to know more so you’ll feel more in control. The need to know more makes you scan even more news, and around and around you go.
“This downward spiral,” Pamela Rutledge reports, “will only stop when we actively override our instinctive tendencies.”
Self-regulation and minimizing the time you spend consuming negative information is far easier said than done, and doomscrolling is especially difficult to control if you’ve been at it for a long time. It takes a good bit of determination, focus, and cognitive energy to overcome the instincts and emotional reactions that drive that type of negative behavior.
In other words, you’ll need to become far more self-aware if you want to overcome the habit of doomscrolling. And even more importantly, you’ll want to replace that toxic habit with a positive one so that you’re filling up the time usually spent scrolling for information with things that uplift you.
That’s the easiest way to overcome this habit and create positive routines that add value to your life.
Pamela also goes on to say:
“If you use the metaphor of the elephant as the instinctive, emotional brain and the rider as the cognitive, rational brain, it’s easy to see what we have is an elephant run amok and the rider will have a big job to get the beast back under control.”
These days, it’s typical that you’re socially distanced from your support system of friends and family. You’re worried about what is on the horizon, by what is to come, as well as unseen enemies.
Your sense of trust has been shaken, and you’re worried that you won’t be in control of your life. You’ve experienced a situation that we haven’t dealt with before and your anxiety may be at an all-time high, particularly when you’ve grown accustom to spending so much time taking in negative content.
Studies have linked poor mental health to regular exposure to negative news sources that cover traumatic events like natural disasters, terrorist bombings, and of course, the global pandemic.
The more news you consume, the more likely you are to become stressed, anxious, and depressed. And it isn’t your fault—many of us have become doomscrollers, even if we never intended to.
A 2014 study followed 4,675 American citizens following the Boston marathon bombings. The study collected information on how much media they consumed and what reactions they had. Study participants who spent more than six hours a day following media coverage of the event were nine times more likely to also have symptoms of acute stress than those who watched only a minimal amount of news.
This sort of research can help us understand how we respond to negative, toxic news and how it can affect our mental health.
Research psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver says, “We’ve had so much news from COVID-19 and the economic breakdown to the reckoning with racial injustice combined with hurricanes and firestorms. It’s clear the stress of the election has added to all this.” We’ve seemed to go from one crisis to another lately, without time to process the information or recover from the bad news. “So much of it is open-ended and uncertain at the moment,” adds Graham Davey, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Sussex. “That alone is something that people find extraordinarily stressful.”
Psychologists call this an “intolerance of uncertainty,” and it’s a vicious cycle that’s hard to get out of. According to Davey, “There will be a lot of people out there … who find listening to the news stressful and anxiety-provoking but can’t stop doing it because they need to know what on Earth is going on.”
In the 1990’s, Davey started to notice that the news was taking on increasingly negative tones where bad news was all that was being highlighted, and good news rarely shown. “The number of TV channels began to increase,” he says, “and the news had to compete with entertainment for its viewers.”
Davey and his colleagues created a study to determine how both positive and negative headlines affected people’s moods and overall well-being. They welcomed 30 people and split them into three different groups: those that consumed primarily positive news, those that watched a combination of negative and positive news (in balanced segments), and those that primarily watched negative news stories.
The moods of each participant were measured before and after the study and the results were clear (and predictably so): Those who primarily watched negative news ended the study in a far more anxious and fearful state of mind than those given the neutral or positive news.
“It also had a knock-on effect,” says Davey. “People in the negative group were more likely to worry about their own private concerns.”
In other words, reading or watching negative news can make you anxious about far more than the content you are watching, but all of the stressors in your life that may suddenly feel difficult to manage.
In another study, Roxane Cohen Silver studied the effects of media coverage during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 1,770 American adults completed an online survey one to three weeks after the attacks. The survey asked how much TV news they watched and about their mental and physical health.
Silver then followed up with these participants, giving them similar assessments for the following three years. Results showed that TV exposure at the time of the attack was associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress even two or three years afterward. And you didn’t have to live near where the attacks occurred, says Judith Andersen, a health psychologist at the University of Toronto who collaborated with Silver on the study. “It was dependent on how much media you consumed.”
And all of this is just compounded by your technology. All of the digital information you’re gathering, from your internet searches to your social media interactions, are ruled by complex algorithms that provide more of the same.
Further, social media platforms and internet search engines are designed to learn your habits and content preferences and so they keep providing more of what they believe you like in order to keep you engaged for longer periods of time.
So, even if you don’t intend to, your search habits are directly contributing to the level of negative content you consume every day.
“Searching for danger will increase ‘threatening’ content, amplifying perceptions of danger and vulnerability, and further increasing negative emotions,” says Rutledge. “We are drawn to danger signals like moths to a flame in that primal attempt to feel better, unwittingly feeding ourselves the very emotions we wish to avoid.”
It’s going to take a conscious effort stop this doomscrolling habit, outsmart Google, and take control over your news feeds, social media, and your search results by changing the type of content you’re regularly searching for.
It will take some time and consistent effort to begin changing the
algorithm that provides you with your daily helping of negative news, but it’ll be worth it in the end when you feel the positive effects of lowering stress levels and protecting your mental space.
“Otherwise,” warns Rutledge, “the nature of online information flows will continue to feed the elephant.”