Here’s what Doomscrolling is doing to your brain — and how to fix it

Many people suffer from chronic stress since the pandemic shutdowns. Added to this is the climate crisis, the rising cost of living and, more recently, threats to European and global security due to the conflict in Ukraine.

For some, it may seem that there is never good news again. This is of course not true, but when we doomscroll, that is, we spend too much screen time reading negative news, we can lock ourselves into the idea that it’s is the case.

Doomscrolling can promote feelings of anxiety and depression. For example, consider how sad and exhausted you might feel when watching a drama with tragic events and sad music in the background.

On the other hand, if you watch a funny movie or a romantic comedy with upbeat music, you can feel upbeat and full of energy. This is due to two psychological phenomena: “mood induction” (an intervention that can change our mood) and empathy.

Serotonin is an important brain chemical for mood regulation, and it can plummet when we’re chronically stressed or saddened by bad news for long periods of time. Studies show that it is even possible to exacerbate the effects of lowering serotonin in healthy people by inducing mood by playing sad music. Pharmacological treatments that increase serotonin are used to treat depression and anxiety.

Empathy is a good trait that helps us live successfully with others and promotes a thriving society. However, excessive empathy, when viewing tragic world events on the news, can lead to ruminating on negative thoughts, which impact our mental health and well-being. Constantly having negative thoughts can lead to depression or anxiety.

Such conditions can over time have a huge effect on our minds, leading to real cognitive impairments such as reduced attention or problems with memory and reasoning.

After all, if negative information diverts our attention and memory, it will drain cognitive power that could be used for other things. And when we constantly absorb negative news and store negative memories, we feel even more depressed, creating a vicious cycle.

The longer we are stuck in a low mood, the harder it is for us to think flexibly, switching easily from one perspective to another. This is how we can become “stuck” with a thought such as “this will never end” or “there is no good news” – leading to intense feelings of helplessness and helplessness.

However, you don’t have to be clinically depressed to develop attention problems. We know that attention is essential for cognition and mental health and that technology can affect it.

For example, one study looked at the effects of receiving real-time instant messages on their mobile phone while studying for a test. The group that was interrupted by messages took significantly longer to complete the test and experienced increased stress levels compared to the group that was able to study without distraction. We know that severe distraction problems are seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

So it’s not just the negative content we consume that can hurt our attention, the very technology we use to access it is also a problem. And it can ultimately affect our performance at work, school, or even in social settings.

Attention issues can themselves make us more anxious, creating another feedback loop. Focusing too much of our attention on threatening things, like obsessively checking the latest tragic news, can actually be detrimental to well-being. In severe cases, this can lead to repetitive controlling behavior, seen in obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). And we know that children with OCD and perfectionism have increased levels of anxiety.

Reset your brain

So what can we do about it? It is important to avoid the obsessive doomscroll but rather to be resilient and in control of the situation. To do this, you must have positive moments of respite.

So try to schedule something you enjoy that relaxes and de-stresses you daily, like reading a good book, watching a fun movie, visiting friends and family, or doing some mindfulness. Exercising or learning something new, like a different language or a musical instrument, can also be good – boosting both mood and cognition.

Another way to take control of the situation is to take action, perhaps joining or supporting a charity that helps civilians in Ukraine. When you do an act of kindness, it activates the reward system in the brain and gives you some power over the situation.

If you continue to be bothered by doomscrolling, you may wish to contact a clinical psychologist who can help you reduce this activity and its effects, through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy. Interestingly, one study showed that it is possible to improve your mood through cognitive mood induction – by rewarding people for their performance on a cognitive test.

In a modern globalized world with many forms of technology and a constant bombardment of information and stimulation streams – some good and some bad – it’s important to identify your goals. But it’s equally important to develop a strategy to reach them and avoid distractions. So the key is to try to stay positive and resilient – ​​for yourself and for others.

After all, what good is it to help solve tough global challenges, such as conflict and climate change, if we’re so depressed and cognitively drained that we can’t think of the best actions to take?

Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, University of Cambridge; Christelle Langley, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Cambridge; Chun Shen, Postdoctoral Researcher, Fudan University, and Jianfeng Feng, Professor of Science and Technology for Brain-Inspired Intelligence, Fudan University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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