From cutting back on doomscrolling to avoiding fake news: How to protect your mental health in times of war

A prudent selection of the information you consume, in particular when it comes to catastrophic events, can avoid obsessive cycles that can affect our psychological wellbeing

Mental health

After a poor night’s sleep, which saw him have a few nightmares and wake several times, Ramón starts the day by looking at the headlines on his cellphone. Two years ago, he would seek out the latest data on the coronavirus pandemic, but now he is consumed by the war in Ukraine. He surfs another two or three media outlets, to see if he has missed any details about the catastrophe.

While he is eating his breakfast, his mind is filled with images of bodies covered with blankets, death tolls, the wounded and refugees. Disheartened, he asks himself what else could possibly happen. Later he checks his phone again, this time to look at what’s happening with his pension plan. His savings have fallen more than 5% due to the instability.

Ramón is under a black cloud for the rest of the day. He can’t see the light in a world that’s dominated by chaos and cruelty. Throughout the day, he checks the news five or six more times, only to feel helpless on seeing that things in Ukraine are the same or worse. He has one last look at his cellphone before going to bed, something that will not help him sleep well.

This is the routine that millions of people follow every day, and that was dubbed “doomscrolling” or “doomsurfing” during the pandemic. It could be defined as an addiction to bad news. While knowing what is happening in the world can be an act of empathy and compassion, if checking the news becomes an obsession, psychological distress can take root.

Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, explains that overloading ourselves with negative news raises stress levels and leads us to make rash decisions. In the words of the author of The Influential Mind, that mental state sees us “cancel trips, even though the terrorist attack took place in another part of the world; shares are sold, even when holding onto them is the best option; and reckless political campaigns attract followers, even if they bear no relation to reality.”

But everybody can seek a balance between so-called “infoxication” and the voluntary ignorance of a hermit. Here are three measures that help with a healthy mind, without having to live in the dark.

1. Stop doomscrolling. If your regular reading of the newspaper – in print or online – is within a certain timetable, our minds will find it easier to assimilate the latest developments and separate what we have seen from our activities during the rest of the day. The habit of looking at the news when we have a free moment can be substituted with reading the less-alarming sections of a daily, such as sport and culture, or an e-book for relaxation. Looking at shocking news just before bed should be discouraged.

2. Protect yourself against fake news. On social media and messaging apps, there are all kinds of dubious information and videos. In the early stages of the invasion of Ukraine, many people thought that images of Russian troop movements that came from the videogame ARMA 3 were real.

3. Measure the effect that bad news has on us. Everyone has a different sensitivity to images or news with a high emotional impact. There are those who can disconnect from the content they have just consumed and move on to another activity, and then there are those who are more emotional and can end up in a state of anxiety and sadness for the rest of the day.

Here, each person needs to be their own doctor and decide on the dose of bad news that they can take on without coming apart at the seams. If necessary, conversations that only serve to raise our alarms and make us feel worse should be avoided. All things considered, we need to be as together as possible to compensate for the disasters in the world, each doing our bit in daily life for peace.

Educating for peace

As well as choosing and rationing the information we consume, we can counterbalance the bad news with small initiatives that promote understanding and solidarity.

A century ago, psychiatrist and educator Maria Montessori warned that the seed of violence is planted when there is lack of education. “Everyone talks about peace but no one educates for peace. In this world, they educate for competition, and competition is the beginning of any war,” she said.

This work is not just limited to the classroom. It can be fomented in our day-to-day lives via the topics of conversation that we choose and the way we treat others.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS