I have a nasty habit. Maybe you have it, too. I have a drive to stay up to speed on what’s happening in the world, which is, in itself, a good thing! But this drive can quickly turn into an unhealthy tailspin of compulsive behavior wherein I am refreshing my go-to news websites over and over until I get a bit spun-out, depressed, angry, anxious, or, most likely, some combination of the above. If this is something that you can relate to, then I’ve got a simple strategy that may help you remain an informed and engaged human but also avoid the newsy doom-spiral.
I’m not telling you “don’t read the news.” I have had relatives in the last year tell me, “I decided to stop reading the news, because it just upsets me.” Well, yes. Getting upset is a normal human reaction to reading upsetting things—particularly if the news effects you personally in a deep and destabilizing way—but it’s important to stay informed.
I would also note that this routine suggestion is not intended for everybody. (There are plenty of people, such as reporters, who have no choice in the matter.) As neuropsychologist and research scientist at Stanford University Kelly MacNiven told me, “This isn’t necessarily a problem, unless it’s a problem for you.”
Some people already have media consumption habits that are useful and healthy for them, and that’s great! This is intended for people for whom news consumption has become compulsive, obsessive, cyclical, and ineffectual, and who want to change those habits—or, perhaps, just take a break from them for awhile.
This is a super straight-forward system: You are only allowed to check the news twice a day, and you are not allowed to check it anywhere near bedtime.
That’s it. That’s the system. For me, that translates to reading the news in the morning (generally while eating breakfast) and then again in the late afternoon, after work/before dinner. For each news session, I personally set a maximum time limit of 45 minutes. Here’s why.
Most of the time—unless insurrectionists are storming the Capitol—news isn’t really developing quickly enough for you to be compulsively hitting refresh button every few minutes until you fry your brain by micro-dosing cortisol all day. Twice a day keeps you informed, but it also keeps you off the constant doom IV drip, so your mind can recover in between sessions.
What we are trying to do here is break the cycle of compulsive behavior. Neurological pathways are kind of like the routes water takes, in that they both want the path of least resistance and so tend to follow along the route they’ve taken before. This, of course, digs deeper grooves in the earth, which makes the water even less likely to divert with each additional repetition. This is one of the ways we get deeply ingrained habits and why it only gets harder and harder to break them even when we know they’re bad for us and/or causing distress. By sticking to a twice-a-day check-in schedule, you’re sort of diverting the water before it gets to its habitual path.
“I think that analogy is pretty spot-on in terms of habit formation,” said MacNiven. “And we do have the ability to change where the water goes. Habits are often triggered by external cues, which could be environmental, or sexual, etc. So, one of the keys to changing them could be identifying what initiates the internal response that leads to that habitual response. Chances are there’s something in your environment triggering that, so step one might be identifying what those things are.”
For many of us, that’s our phones. My phone beep-boops, and I look down to check the notification. It was a text from a friend, but right next to it in my notification tray is a news update, which might lead me down a rabbit-hole before I even realize it. MacNiven points out that many of these news services work on algorithms and are designed to identify your patterns and give you more of what you respond to. If you are clicking something out of fear or anger, the algorithm will feed you more things that are likely engender a fearful or angry response. Turning off notifications from news apps—even temporarily—may be a powerful way to short-circuit this feedback loop, or at least keep it from invading your non-news time.
MacNiven also brought up Hebbian Learning, as did another expert I spoke to, Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. The quick summary of Hebb’s Law is generally, “The neurons that fire together, wire together.” Manly described it this way: “We’re are training our brain with everything we do, and the more we repeat an act, be it positive or negative, then the more we are inclined to repeat it. That comes from an atavistic instinct, when we program our brain to be on the lookout for things and when we look at something from a fight-or-flight response.”
This is one of the reasons she liked my comparison of this system to a “diet,” because just like with a food diet, it’s not merely quantity that’s important but also quality. She encourages people to consume news mindfully and from high-quality sources. She also likes reading a physical newspaper, because it’s two-dimensional, easy on the eyes, and it isn’t constantly updating and flashing new information at you. She added some words of caution about TV news and video, because when you watch, “you aren’t just consuming the news, you’re consuming their expressions and their tone. We watch these angry, yelling people, and our brains perceive it as a fight, which triggers our own fight or flight response because it feels like we’re close to danger.”
That fight-or-flight response is one of the things that triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone.” Adrenaline is liable to spike your heart rate, making sleep more difficult. Excess cortisol has a whole host of negative effects on your body. According to the Mayo Clinic, “This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.” This is why I strongly suggest reading the news in the evening but not while you’re trying to wind down for bed.
By limiting the amount of time we spend each day exposing ourselves to those triggers (and ideally, choosing higher-quality sources for information), we can at least limit the flow of new, incoming stressful stimuli. When we close off that tap, we give ourselves the opportunity to breathe, to process the information we have already received, and to do other important things for our lives take care of our basic needs, connect with others, and recover.
Last week was pretty bad for me. I constantly broke my own rule, was stressed out and depressed most of the week, got very little done, and am in fact, turning in this very story late because of it. Clearly, I don’t always follow my own rules. But there are things you can do to help get there, at least some of the time.
Deleting apps for social media off of your phone may help. There are also numerous focus-centric apps you can install that will block you from using certain other apps or accessing certain websites during time periods that you set. It may also be worth recruiting a friend or two to try this system with you, then setting up a regular time to talk through the news with them. This last part about getting support is important, especially since we find ourselves in the middle of a serious, collective mental health crisis.
As MacNiven noted, “The psychology in doomscrolling is nothing new. We’ve always been interested in negative news, but right now there’s this perfect storm of circumstances: There’s all this bad stuff happening in the world, our more organic ways of informally getting information and news have been taken away, our social decompression mechanisms (like hanging out with friends) have been taken away, too, and we have such total, constant access to social media and the news.”
One final thought. In our phone call, Manly said, “When you are doomscrolling, you’re training your brain to look at the negative, accept the negative, and be helpless in response to the negative, because you’re not doing anything proactive.” I think that’s absolutely right. That feeling of helplessness only contributes to our anxiety, and trying to fill that hole with more information only makes it worse. So, instead of simply consuming on a loop, figure out what you can actually do. Donate if you can, write or call your representative, amplify the voices of others. Taking action, even if it’s a small one, may help you step away from the bad news funnel for a few hours without feeling like you’ve done nothing.
In short, stay informed, and take action when you can, but you can do that while creating better, healthier, and more sustainable habits.