I have recently learned a new term: “doom-scrolling.” Doom-scrolling is obsessively scrolling through your phone or computer reading news stories or social media posts about catastrophic events—climate change, mass shootings, hate crimes, political strife—the list goes on. Covid has made this worse. During the two years of Covid, we had to include reading all the terrible stories about crowded hospital wards with people on ventilators gasping for air. I confess that on bad days I have yielded to the temptation to doom-scroll, and had to hold myself back from the habit and give myself a news holiday.
Now it seems the term “doom-scrolling” has been shortened to the more generalized “doomer”—someone who not only scrolls online but thinks obsessively about all the terrible things that are happening or could happen. It’s understandable; our current time is not, by any stretch, peaceful or happy, though whether it is worse than earlier historical periods of crisis is arguable. I recently came across an article on this subject by Jane Coaston, host of “The Argument” podcast, entitled “Try to Resist the Call of the Doomers.” After cataloguing all the issues of our time that make people feel that the end is nigh, Coaston interjects an unexpected insight about herself, saying, “It might surprise you to know that I am an increasingly optimistic person.” She comes to this position consciously, observing that if you want things to change for the better, being a doomer is not the way to go. Being a doomer leads to depression, sadness, and a sense there is nothing you can do. Optimism leads to constructive action. She gives a couple of examples, saying, “I have used optimism to help people around me change their minds on marriage equality and qualified immunity reform and have argued in favor of those ideas because I believe they are good.”
This makes sound psychological sense. The psychological term for being a doomer is “catastrophizing,” or “catastrophic thinking,” and a recent article on BBC discusses this condition and ways to work your way out of it. Catastrophic thinking is basically thinking the worst of a situation; so, for example, if you are about to fly in an airplane, you imagine that the plane is likely to crash and kill you—and then you keep thinking that for days before. Objectively and factually, planes rarely crash and airplane travel is much safer than, say, travel by car, but for the catastrophic thinker the thought of the plane crashing becomes an obsessive refrain. The first step in working your way out of this loop is to step back and entertain an awareness that you are thinking catastrophically. The next step is to substitute more positive and logical thoughts, such as “airplane travel is safe, planes rarely crash.” A third step is to recognize your tendency to catastrophize and try to anticipate it and head it off before it happens.
Some people, through genetics or life experience, are prone to always “thinking the worst.” I tend to be one of those people. The day after my fourth birthday, my mother died— probably the worst catastrophe that can happen to a young child. That trauma is deeply embedded in my brain, so it is hard to tell my unconscious that another imagined catastrophe won’t happen when it knows that, at least once, it really did happen. I also have had a couple of health worries that really did lead to life-threatening illnesses. My unconscious thinks, see: I’m not imagining things. I have spent much of my life retraining my brain not to react that way, and I can testify that over time if you work at it, you can improve. I must say, though, parenthetically, that during my years as a software developer, imagining all the bad things that might happen in a software application and incorporating protections into the software makes you a better developer.
Then there is the fact that some looming catastrophes—such as climate change—really are happening. It isn’t illogical to think of climate change as a catastrophe, or to anticipate what might happen to climate—it is just being realistic! In such cases, the best you can do is to remind yourself that while such a catastrophe seems likely to happen, it won’t happen suddenly—like the death of a parent—and thinking about it all the time won’t prevent it, while adversely affecting your mental state and quality of life. There may also still be ways of ameliorating its worst effects. That said, on the issue of climate change, so many people are so distraught about its destructive potential—which you can read about in the daily headlines of dire floods and heat waves killing thousands—that some mental health professionals have made a specialty out of treating people for these climate fears and anxieties. I don’t know what they call themselves—climate therapists? Probably not.
So, we could say in sum, that being a doomer is a downer. But it is worth the effort to fight against the tendency to be a doomer, especially since, as Jane Coaston observes, an optimistic attitude is what we need to work positively against coming doom. That may be the new challenge of a challenging era: to recognize impending doom when it is legitimately impending, but not be defeated by it. That’s how the British got through the blitz, after all. It’s astonishing what people can do by working together when they absolutely have to and there is no other choice.
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