Expert advice on how to unplug — and the benefits that come with it.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Even before the pandemic, many of us were attached at the thumbs to our phones. When March rolled around, and the United States shut down, the news became more than an addictive source of information and entertainment—it became vital to our lives.
But six months have passed, and though some of us have found a rhythm in the chaos, many of us have also realized that our nervous systems haven’t fully adjusted to 24/7 news and social media consumption.
This phenomenon has become known as “doomscrolling,” and it can have a real effect on our mental health and relationships with others. We tapped relationship expert Esther Boykin, LMFT, the CEO of Group Therapy Associates, to get her tips on putting the phone down, cutting back on scrolling, and incorporating more positive habits into your day.
Recognize what’s causing the obsessive consumption of media
“Much like our scrolling pre-pandemic, ‘doomscrolling’ is often a way to check out and numb from the stress and more challenging emotions,” says Boykin. In other words, we’re not just scrolling willy-nilly — we’re often attempting to escape.
“I think it’s important to note that escaping reality, especially in traumatic times, isn’t always a terrible thing,” says Boykin. “As humans, we aren’t designed to be in a constant state of heightened stress.” We may not have been designed this way, but this is, as they say, our new normal.
“Escapism in moderation and when done with intention isn’t all bad — but doom scrolling isn’t the ideal way to take a mental break,” she continues. “While the act of scrolling may feel like mindless entertainment, the content you absorb in the process will exacerbate the very feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, or fear that you are trying to escape.”
Ask simple questions to challenge the scroll
“One of the keys to recognize doomscrolling is to pay close attention to the content you’re seeing and how you feel when you stop,” Boykin says. “Get in the habit of asking yourself, ‘Why am I scrolling online right now?’”
Once you answer that question, there’s a follow-up to challenge yourself: “Does this content actually help or hurt my intention?” says Boykin. “If you say to yourself that you are wanting to stay informed, keep up with friends, or simply escape daily stress with fun or entertaining content, then you can more easily notice if that’s what your actual behavior is.”
So, if you’re hitting up Instagram to “keep up with friends” but you’re actually tapping into feelings of the ol’ “compare and despair,” don’t despair, but maybe put your phone away.
You’ve probably fallen into a negative pattern “if you find yourself feeling restless, anxious, helpless, or exhausted — more than before — after scrolling,” Boykin says. “The struggle with numbing is that we aren’t tuned into our feelings, and so it’s easy to miss how scrolling makes us feel.”
Start small and make realistic goals
It’s unlikely you’ll stop a chronic habit of doomscrolling overnight. Or, as Boykin puts it: “Start small — so often we want to make big changes to our habits and that process rarely works in our favor.”
Instead of throwing your phone out the window and canceling your wifi, go slow and be gentle with yourself. “Rather than trying to get off all social media or limiting yourself to 10 minutes a day, try to give yourself one day or half a day when you don’t get on social media or news sites,” Boykin suggests.
Identify your doomiest time of day
“Notice when you doomscroll the most and start to limit yourself,” says Boykin. “If you find that right before bed is your most prevalent time online, come up with other options, like reading, watching fun TV or movies, meditation, or podcasts.”
There’s a better chance you’ll have success by swapping out scrolling with something equally enjoyable and engrossing as opposed to just stopping cold turkey. “Small changes will add up to significant changes over time, especially as you see the improvement in your mood and general wellbeing,” Boykin says.
Face your feelings
It may sound like an unpalatable idea, but looking at your emotions head-on is the way to go. “I know that for many people it feels counterintuitive, but the best way to manage the feelings that you may be trying to numb or avoid is actually by facing them,” Boykin says.
“Give yourself space and a safe and supportive format to identify, explore, and ultimately process the feelings,” she suggests. “Journaling, talking with friends or family members, online support groups, and therapy are excellent ways to tackle the underlying feelings.”
Become an intentional curator
“I often advocate for people to become intentional curators of their social media,” Boykin says. “Unfollow and mute accounts that share a lot of negative, fear-inducing, or anxiety provoking content.”
Dig deep in this process — these accounts might not just be the most obvious ones. “That might include friends, family, and even media outlets that you enjoy on some level,” Boykin says. “You can stay informed and connect without allowing your feed to be inundated with content that isn’t good for you.
Practice mindfulness for a little counterbalance
“One great practice is to do a few minutes of grounding practices before and especially after doomscrolling,” Boykin says. “Try four-square breathing, where you inhale slowly for four counts, hold your breath for four, then slowly exhale for four counts. Repeat that four times and see how you feel.”
If you’re feeling especially seduced by your phone, let it work with you rather than against you. “You can also build a habit of using a meditation app on your phone before you start scrolling,” Boykin says. “A few minutes of meditation or listening to a soothing podcast or nature sounds can help you reset and feel more peaceful in the present.”
The practice of pausing before diving into social media will at very least allow you to start from a more grounded place, and “might decrease your time scrolling or help you identify the feeling you were trying to avoid, thus eliminating the desire to doomscroll,” she adds. If you do decide to hop onto the ‘Gram anyway, so be it—at least your heart rate will be a little lower when you begin.