We have known for many years that our devices were designed to be addicting. We chase the dopamine hit of one more post, one more video, and one more click. We don’t want to miss out on the next big thing, so we never truly disconnect. Many of us fall asleep with our phones in our hands, and they are the first thing we pick up in the morning.
In the last few years, a new phenomenon has emerged: “Doom scrolling.” Doom scrolling is when we can’t tear ourselves away from the 24/7 news cycle. We seek out every opinion, every study, and every new development. This is a darker version of not wanting to miss out. We pile on the stress and the anxiety with a bottomless feed of bad news.
The Role of Stress
In Dr. A’s Habits of Health, we talk about how our stress response is a survival mechanism. The spike in energy and heightened awareness feed our fight-or-flight instincts, which are incredibly valuable when predators may be lying in wait.
That same response is not as useful when we are lying in bed at night, unable to sleep because of what we’re reading in the news.
In the course of our modern, chaotic lives, our stress response may be activated several times a day, but unlike ancient times, it’s almost always in response to mental threats that don’t elicit a physical response. Instead, we internalize the stress, bathing our brain and heart with damaging substances that create systemic inflammation.
Addicted to Stress
Because the initial stress response gives us a jolt of energy and self-confidence, we can actually become addicted to it. The result? Chronic stress and a decline in brain function.
Over time, ongoing stress reduces the neurotransmitters in the frontal lobe of our neocortex, where most of our abstract thinking occurs. At the same time, norepinephrine is shunted away from our limbic system, which is what controls our emotions. These factors can lead to anxiety, poor work, performance, depression, feelings of helplessness, and lack of meaning.
This is a dangerous spiral, but if you’ve ever wondered why it was so difficult to tear yourself away from your phone in dark times, you might now understand why.
Build a New Loop
How can you prevent those excess stress chemicals from just sitting there inside us causing all that damage? Exercise, of course! Exercise is a wonderfully effective way to dispose of those stress chemicals in just the way your body was designed to.
At the same time, though, we should be working to change the habits that fuel those chemicals in the first place. Once you develop the awareness of your own addiction to stress, look for new routines to add to your lifestyle. Instead of laying in bed at night looking at your phone, turn your phone off, take a warm bath, and listen to relaxing music as you slip into bed.
If you find yourself mindlessly browsing social media for hours on end, find a new hobby. You could go for a walk, pick up painting, play board games with your family – that time is yours, and you can choose to exchange those hours for stress or for treasured memories. I hope you choose the latter.
You may not be able to transform your stress addiction overnight, but every step forward is a success worth celebrating. Let’s give yourself something to celebrate today!