Doomscrolling: Compulsively Searching for Relief During Catastrophes  

Doomscrolling: Compulsively Searching for Relief During Catastrophes  

A new set of phrases have entered our modern lexicon. Doomscrolling, and its twin doomsurfing, are a new form of a behavioral addiction wherein the affected person compulsively engages with internet media sources in an attempt to manage their emotional and physical discomfort. While the condition has been chronic for more than a decade, it morphed into an acute condition in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic entered our lives in a profoundly unsettling way and catastrophizing became part of our everyday life. One of my patients, a student at a prestigious European university, described doomscrolling to be a “soul eating demon.” His parents started contacting therapists looking for help after they became alarmed when he stopped attending to his personal hygiene, gained more than 20 pounds as a result of “comfort eating,” developed insomnia, and lost all interest in his friends and family. He’d been spending an increasing amount doomscrolling to the point he was consumed by end of the world conspiracies. By the time of our first session, he identified as a doomsdayer.

While doomscrolling is not officially recognized as a clinical condition, it exists in large measure around the globe and among people of every social, economic, and age group. In my clinical practice, I treat doomscrolling as a behavioral addiction that manifests as a host of negative affective states that include both depression and anxiety. While doomscrolling initially provides relief to a person’s discomfort, in short order the behavior elevates to a point in which the individual suffers severe and negative consequences.

From a physiological perspective, a person who doomscrolls experiences elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol and suffers from impaired cognitive functioning due to the hyperactivation of their limbic system. Most people who doomscroll have disrupted sleep patterns, engage in some form of substance misuse, and suffer from mild to extreme eating disorders. The patients I’ve treated complain of symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to insomnia, from stomach cramps to constipation, from hyperactivity to a sense of floating through life in a dissociative trance.

The treatment of doomscrolling should follow the same clinical protocol as other behavioral addictions. For starters, people need to acknowledge it exists. Once they recognize it’s a disorder shared by many others, they can begin see how it is detracting from the quality of their lives and set boundaries around their online media consumption. To be effective, these boundaries must be clear, firm, and achievable. So, rather than prescribing online asceticism, a person must cultivate healthier online practices and develop healthy mechanisms to process their angst over world affairs.

Central to this work are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), interpersonal psychotherapy, physical exercise, changes in diet, and practices that soothe the central nervous system such as acupuncture and deep tissue massage.

We are living in a profoundly unsettling world. Uncertainty, disruption, and danger seem to lurk around every corner. To manage the angst of our modern world, we need to learn when it’s healthy for us to move intentionally and with guardrails into the darkness that surrounds us—and when it’s healthy and productive avoid it completely.

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