Two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has left a psychological reservoir overflowing with stress, anxiety and anger. Road rage, air rage and restaurant rage are among the most notable rage-worthy byproducts. And now a world already on edge has dived into doomscrolling — the endless online consumption of bad news — about the war in Ukraine.
“Being on edge means that we are in sort of threat mode,” says Dr. Javeed Sukhera, Chair of Psychiatry at the Institute of Living and chief of Department of Psychiatry at Hartford Hospital. “Our brains are designed to go into self-protective mode when we’re experiencing stress or threat. That threat mode isn’t supposed to last two years, though, and therein lies the problem.”
Research in the pandemic’s first year by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, found COVID-19 as a substantial source of anger, particularly among those who use social media as a source of information.
More than half (53 percent) the UK population, for example, said they’ve felt anger toward other people they know because of their COVID-related behavior. Among those who got a great deal of COVID-19 information from Twitter, that anger level increased to 69 percent.
“And so, what’s happened with the pandemic,” says Dr. Sukhera, “is we’ve got people on edge, but that capacity to stay on edge has become depleted, especially as we’ve seen wave after wave of unpredictability.”
Anxiety, as explained by cognitive theory, is the likelihood of overestimating the potential for danger. Fueled by uncertainty, people often resort to doomscrolling, spending inordinate amounts of screen time seeking more and more detail on the negative news.
Researchers in the United Kingdom and Canada found only 2 to 4 minutes of nonstop COVID-related news resulted in “immediate and significant reductions” in optimism and positive emotions among study participants. Accompanying stress and and anxiety proved fatiguing and ultimately affected the nervous system, causing exhaustion.
“It’s important that we first start by validating how we’re feeling, validating something that’s normal in the context of stress,” says Dr. Sukhera. “Once we’ve done that, we should be making space, ensure that we take time to process and deal with that stress, rather than continuing full-speed ahead.”
A new study by University of Florida researchers in the journal Technology, Mind, and Behavior, published by the American Psychological Association, also suggests doomscrollig only increases anxiety and fear.
“Although information-seeking is generally an adaptive coping strategy in times of threat,” the researchers wrote, “doing so during a pandemic may be less helpful. Unlike most world events, the threat of the current pandemic affects many life domains (relationships, education, work, leisure), and there is uncertainty about how long it will last, and what will happen next. Even a few minutes of exposure to COVID-related news on social media can ruin a person’s mood.”