When the pandemic began last year, Priyanka Agarwal remembers feeling a sinking feeling in her chest as she scrolled through her social media feeds. On one hand, people fancied the existential benefits of focaccia bread. On the other, WhatsApp groups buzzed with bizarre stories, videos, and cures for Covid-19. The 34-year-old author says, "It drove me nuts. My mind would snowball into worry with the slightest of the bodily sensation as a COVID-19 symptom. I remember one post about disinfecting a banana. It made me wonder if I was taking all the precautions."
Last year, we were worried about how to cope with working from home. One year later, as the second Coronavirus wave hit India, the worries are vastly different: Double masking, finding hospital beds, refilling oxygen cylinder, caring for Covid-19 patients, and constantly hearing one tragic news after the other. "It unnerves me. I have started to keep myself busy, away from social media," Priyanka says.
Abhishek Mande-Bhot, a 38-year-old independent writer, shared how his own social media habits are unraveling as the pandemic rages. "It's hard. You can't take your eyes off something. You want to know the worst that is happening around you. You want to constantly stay updated on every news around the pandemic. The more online you are, the more likely for you to be aware of where to ask for help if the need arises."
Added to the stress and anxiety that many are dealing with as the country skyrockets to the top of COVID-19 charts, there is a social media tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes. Its success depends on people clicking on clickbait images and stories. It is a reminder that while scores of good Samaritans are leveraging social media to help, there are people out there scamming vulnerable people. But knowing it does not make it easy.
What is doomscrolling?
Experts have coined a term for this.
Doomscrolling or Doom surfing is the activity in which we get addicted to negative news found online despite not quite enjoying those pieces of news. It may have its base in the evolutionary principle of 'fight, flight or freeze', a survival mechanism our ancestors deployed when they faced danger. Dr. Sonal Anand, Psychiatrist, Wockhardt Hospital- Mira Road, feels that scrolling through endless negative content online helps activate neurotransmitters that send our bodies in an overdrive.
As a result, fearfulness, palpitations, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts are some of the common consequences being observed among people. "We are hardwired to perceive threats in our immediate environment and be prepared to fight back. There has been a definite increase in clients who experience panic attacks caused by the constant overpouring of news around lack of beds, oxygen cylinders, medicines, and the general stigma surrounding COVID-19," Dr. Anand explains.
Dr. R Mangala, Consultant Psychiatrist at Schizophrenia Research Foundation of India (SCARF) concurs, "Social media and WhatsApp forwards are also driving vaccine misinformation and hesitancy. Many people who have fears about the vaccine attribute it to these social media forwards they receive." She explains that anything that appears on social media as a possible remedy is consumed without thinking. The fake message that camphor is used to increase levels of oxygen is one of the many such disinformations.
"The fact that people are consuming such kind of content is a manifestation of the anxiety and a lack of control that people are feeling," Dr. Mangala said.
Mental health experts and advocates argue that this behaviour could have its roots in psychological principle called negative bias. It implies our tendency to not only register stimuli but also dwell on them. This puts Mande-Bhot's views in perspective, "Every time I go online, a little bit of numbness creeps in. I cannot bring myself to write anything. I do not want to forget that we have been through in this crisis, by the people we have elected. I do believe that we shall overcome this phase soon, but there is a sense of anger and being lost that gets manifested in mindless scrolling."
So far it is clear that subjecting ourselves to incessant, heartbreaking headlines and distressing images of surgical masks, busy hospitals and morgues is bad for our mental health. But, this is also our reality and we can't be in denial.
What can you do to stop doomscrolling?
However, at this time, it is vital to take care of our mental health. Here are some tips suggested by mental health experts on how to regain control over our lives and bodies in uncertain times.
a. Limit your social media use: Dr. Anand believes timing your social media usage is a good place to start. "Get offline, practice some deep breathing and use progressive muscle relaxation techniques. This can help your body destress and relax," she adds.
b. Change your news consumption: Dr. Mangala suggests going old school when deciding the medium of news consumption. According to her, it is a better idea to move to long-form journalism offered by print newspapers and digital outlets that include the most important facts one needs to know, and are likely to have a constructive angle, incisive analysis and a pathway to a solution or best practice.
c. Get out of your head and get into your body: Multiple studies have proven that even a short bout of walking, lasting up to 10 minutes is beneficial for us when compared to no activity at all. Walking can not only help release stress but also helps us get out of our heads as we observe our surroundings. Mande-Bhot shares, "I walk 10,000 steps every day. It is my best defense mechanism."
d. Emotions matter. So, write them down: Researchers at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) has been engaged in understanding how emotions drive learning, decision making, creativity, relationships and most importantly health. In such an unprecedented crisis, YCEI experts propose that being grateful has even stronger links tomental health and life satisfaction than other positive traits like optimism, hope, or compassion. It is also associated with lower blood pressure, improved immune function and a reduction of the stress hormone- cortisol.
e. Spend time with family and friends: Keeping up with friends and family during a pandemic is challenging, but it is not impossible. Even if you stay alone, find ways to reach out and connect, even if you are still at home. Most people are probably experiencing many of the same feelings, worries, and dread that you are also feeling. Instead of staying inside and facing them alone, reach out to friends or family. Chances are, they will be happy to blow off some steam with you.
Dr. Mangala suggests having specific time, dedicated to family time and group activity, without any devices involved. "We should allow each other to open up and talk about anxiety. We should hold safe and comfortable spaces, including the younger members of the family."
f. Seek professional help: Last but not the least, do not panic. Learning to distinguishing between anxiety and COVID 19 symptoms can help avoid unnecessary burden on our healthcare systems. "A person feeling overwhelmed and anxiety can experience chest pain, breathlessness, chills, dizziness- symptoms that might look like COVID-19 symptoms. "In such cases, it is always a good idea to seek professional help," adds Dr. Anand.
The author is a freelance writer and a fellow at @SRFmentalhealth.
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