Pandemic Perspectives: Managing Post Panic and Doomscrolling
Lots of us are understandably feeling pretty low on energy and capacity at the moment. We have weathered a lot, suffered in all sorts of ways, and are now being isolated from one another physically in the depths of winter (at least here in the northern hemisphere) - it is literally and metaphorically no picnic. We are doing what we can: hanging onto hope, looking for joy in ordinary things and waiting for better times ahead, times that will come.
Amid the larger sorrows and losses of pandemic life, I think it is easy to overlook the attrition that is taking place on our nervous systems and our energy by the constant stream of news and social media that the vast majority of us are consuming on a daily basis? Don’t get me wrong, I love the easy accessibility of news and ideas sitting in my phone apps in my pocket, and I enjoy lots of brilliant connection, education and entertainment that is facilitated online. But, unless you are super disciplined with how you use your phone and other tech it is likely you are checking your mobile devices more than you realise - a recent study shows on average 58 times a day for between 3-4 hours a day, that is roughly 50 days a year solidly on your mobile devices (Source). Yikes.
Furthermore, the news (and endless commentary on the news) that we are consuming right now has never been more nerve-jangling: endless Covid announcements, theories, counter-theories, scare stories, true stories, fake stories - and it is so hard to decipher the accuracy and veracity of what we are reading on Facebook, Twitter and/or our favourite news sources. Everywhere there seem to be conflicting accounts of who to blame for Brexit woes, the state of the NHS, the collapse of political security in Washington, climate change...on and on it goes. There is an endless supply of viewpoints, commentary and debatable data. There are more arm-chair epidemiologists and political theorists than you could shake a Gallup Poll at, more screeching disagreements and bitingly insulting word battles than it feels healthy to witness in any 24 hour period. Haven’t many of us found ourselves on occasion weighing in on a social media post or news article comment thread, sucked into a feeding frenzy of indignation and argument only to feel slightly queasy and regretful half an hour later when we find ourselves still fuming or embarrassed by our own contributions?
Psychologists tell us that our brains are simply not designed to cope with this constant, enervating media consumption. Even the BBC which generates so much of the news cycle in the UK is reporting serious concerns. I have a hunch it is wearing lots of us down, whittling away at our energy, our sense of respect for one another and our ability to remain calm.
What can we do?
So what can we do to preserve healthy boundaries in the ways we interact online in the pandemic and beyond, and so take better care of our frazzled brains and mental health? Here are three suggestions, and they really are just ideas, they may or may not suit you and I am not being prescriptive but just sharing some things that have really been of help to me.
Perhaps the most obvious thing we can do is do a quick audit of how much media we are actually consuming? You may well have done this already but if not it is worth the time it takes to dig a bit and investigate your habits. Your phone will tell you your screen usage time in your settings, of course. Urghh, I can’t bear to tell you what my figures were when I looked a few months ago, and if you haven’t looked at yours recently, you may be in for a shock too? It is profoundly uncomfortable to consider when a habit becomes an addiction of sorts. In the last few months, I have been shocked by how habituated I have become to checking the news on my phone, and scanning social media for updates. It is only when you attempt to distance and detach from something that you realise how attached and controlled by it you actually are?
I have set my phone to block my screen usage until 8:30am, so I don’t start checking the news for the first hour or two of my day. If I am brutally honest, some mornings it leaves me twitchy and angsty and sometimes I don’t make it to 8:30. This feels ridiculous and embarrassing. I am determined to get this boundary for myself in place and I can already notice that it is beginning to get easier. It is great to have breakfast, do some stretches and prayer/meditation before my adrenaline is cranked up by the news or the latest dose of outrage on Twitter, the difference really is tangible. If you want to reduce the number of hours you give to checking news and social media on your phone why not try taking a look at your screen usage stats and decide for yourself what seems reasonable and healthy for you and set up restrictions on your phone if you feel that might be useful? These are simple, practical steps - and horribly uncomfortable at first, but give it a go and see if it helps, maybe consider it an experiment instead of something set in stone? Be curious about how it affects your mood and anxiety levels to have times of day free from doom-scrolling and feeling agitated by what you find out online?
Secondly, we can ring-fence enjoyable screen-free activities with new fervour - unplugged walks, runs and bike rides without political podcasts and online interactions streaming through our earpods; mealtimes with no phones on the table; listening to music or watching films without the flicker of phone updates, times of meditation and prayer where we are free to befriend silence again? A wonderful by-product is that we become far more present to the things we enjoy and the people we are with, fully immersed and attending to the present moment rather than having our minds exhaustingly pulled about in multiple directions at once?
Thirdly, you could try a very simple and short practice which has been a huge help to me. I call it the ‘The 5-Breath Pause’ and it really helps me step out of online reactivity and cool down the anxiety or frustration it so often creates. It is loosely based on the Breath Space mindfulness meditation, but I have adapted it for the specific purpose of regulating my stress response as I consume online content. Read through the practice, below, and feel free to adapt it to a shorter or longer version as suits your own needs in the moment. A couple of tweaks if you need them: if you don’t like shutting your eyes, try just softening and lowering your gaze to help you focus, and if turning your attention inwards to the breath is uncomfortable, try focusing on the grounding sensation of your feet flat on the floor or, alternatively, the sensation of air on your relaxed, gently upturned hands resting on your lap.
So, imagine: You have just read something infuriating or anxiety-producing online and you can feel your adrenaline spike and your reactivity soar, perhaps you are ready to pounce back with a defensive or outraged response or re-tweet some scary-sounding new set of data or news story. Or maybe you are more likely just to spiral into your own well of anxiety or despondency, perhaps get lost in minutes of swirling fear or hot fury? But this time, pause. Resist your cortisol-spiked response for just a minute or two, you can always go back and respond any way you wish, but give yourself the gift of this pause first. Then for those beautiful, intentional couple of minutes put away your mobile device. Then you might want to give yourself a quick stretch, maybe roll your shoulders if you feel very tense and constricted. If it is ok to do so, close your eyes and, with friendly curiosity, ask yourself these three straightforward questions: What am I thinking right now? What am I feeling right now? What are the sensations in my physical body right now? Try and name them as accurately as you can, seeing them as passing states being experienced rather than who you are (ie I am feeling anxious or angry rather than I am anxious or I am angry). By doing this you are getting in the habit of observing your reactions rather than being pushed around by them or overly grasped by them. Try very hard not to either judge yourself for what you feel or to sugar-coat or deny what is going on for you - it just is what it is and you are a normal human that feels all sorts of things, so that is ok. This could take less than a minute or as long as you need.
Then, perhaps with a hand over your heart, turn your inner attention with a more narrow focus to the sensations of your breath, each inhale and exhale, for a minimum of five slow breaths. With each breath see if you can imagine anchoring yourself to something that feels solid and good - to the present moment, or to Love, to the presence of God, perhaps simply to the ground beneath your feet. If you can slow the out-breath just a little that can help calm your nervous system a bit - and exhaling through pursed lips (as if you were sucking a straw) can really help with this if your breathing feels shallow, fast or tight with stress. Similarly allowing the belly to soften a little and allowing the inhale to fill the abdomen rather than the higher part of the chest can be a useful shift. But there is no pressure to alter the breath, nothing to fix, just see how it goes? See what is there for you. I find it useful to count the breaths going in and out on the fingers against my breastbone so I can focus my mind on the sensations of the breath itself. I usually take about five breaths but you can take as many breaths as feels good and calming. Finally, with your eyes still closed, return your attention to your thoughts/feelings/bodily sensations and see if anything has altered? Is there a new thought arising or a different emotion or physical sensation (or release a release of sensation)? Then, as you open your eyes, give yourself an encouraging intention to make a more conscious response to what was bothering you before, a decision that feels grounded rather than given flight by adrenalised reaction. It may be that a strong word or action still absolutely needs to be taken, but now you will be doing it after more reflection and with clearer purpose.
I wish I could remember to do this more often, even a shorter micro-pause for 30 seconds can be really useful. Creating a pause for yourself and becoming more self-aware and compassionate is transformative because as Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, so brilliantly put it in his book Man’s Search for Meaning: “Between stimuli and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” I am slowly learning to locate the freedom in that space and as this simple practice is becoming a more regular habit, I am finding that I make less clumsy responses that I regret and am having more mindful interactions online which feel life-giving and foster connection rather than division or misunderstanding. I am less hijacked by anxiety and more able to handle the latest headline with a measure of equanimity rather than panic. I am far more able to stay calm and ‘hold my center’, as the Quakers so eloquently put it. Sometimes after pausing to breathe and reflect, I decide I still need to speak out about something online but when I do it feels more peaceful and more intentional, it actually feels more powerful.
I hope you find these are helpful and actionable ideas. I know that we are all doing our best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but if we can also navigate our daily online activity in ways that feel a bit more gentle and intentional, that is a much-needed kindness we are doing ourselves and others. It is like a pebble of self-care dropped into the lake of our communal online conversation and the ripples of grace and calm reach further than we might imagine.