How to stop doomscrolling when tragedy strikes—and what you could focus on instead

Young woman using smartphone at home.
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On Thursday morning, residents in the capital area of Kyiv woke up to explosions after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of of a special military operation in eastern Ukraine. NBC News reports that as of Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that at least 137 people were killed and 316 injured.

The news coming out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is distressing, and it's just the latest in a week of heavy news on top of years of instability during the pandemic. You might be watching headlines, going down a doomscroll spiral and feeling helpless.

The limits of doomscrolling

Journalist Karen Ho actually knows this for sure: She's the creator behind the Doomscrolling Reminder Bot Twitter account, which sends automated messages encouraging users to prioritize their wellbeing, and saw a spike in engagement this week. It's a tough balance: She's neither a medical professional nor a geopolitical expert but understands "people are just concerned for humanity right now." Through her account, she reminds people to know the limits of their news intake.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, says doomscrolling is essentially a coping mechanism referred to as "monitoring," where you try to gain control over a situation by getting as much information as you can.

But monitoring can be especially draining right now if you, like a lot of people, are experiencing chronic levels of stress and anxiety throughout the pandemic. It's also unhelpful when you can't channel your information into direct action.

"Many of us have little to no influence on the conflict in Ukraine at the moment," Mendoza-Denton says. "That doesn't mean we're not invested or that we don't care. But the reality is, we're not the ones making the decisions."

Focus on what you can do

What can help is focusing on what you can do, even if it's small. There are lots of resources to donate to humanitarian efforts here and in Ukraine, join a protest or learn how to contact your political representatives to respond and provide aid.

Also, practice setting healthy boundaries with the news, and learn how to find reliable sources. If your office has a TV in a common area, consider changing it from the news if it's not part of your job.

You can also make a difference through your personal interactions with friends and colleagues who are impacted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Offer specific forms of support, Ho adds: Does your friend need a meal? A person to vent to? Gossip to take their mind off things?

With colleagues, you might offer to take a project off their plate or at the very least acknowledge it's a tough time. It's a good thing to do as a person who cares and is also something within your control, Mendoza-Denton says.

How companies should — and shouldn't — respond

Leaders might not be aware of how many people in their workplace are directly impacted by the invasion, says Jen Porter, managing director at Mind Share Partners, a national workplace mental health nonprofit. Workers might be concerned because they have family or friends in Ukraine or Russia, their loved ones are active duty military members, they are a former military service member or they are experiencing trauma having gone through similar events before. "Remember how many people this is impacting who may never speak up about it," Porter says.

If you're in a workplace where you feel you can, Porter says it's a good time to advocate for how your manager and organization can support you. Otherwise, organizations have their own responsibility to respond to the news: "Companies are made up of people, and people are impacted by events like this," Porter says. "You can't just separate them."

The most basic thing employers should do is recognize this is a trying time and offer a safe, nonjudgmental space to talk about the issues or how they're feeling, says Columbia Business School professor Vanessa Burbano.

Porter cautions against leaders from rushing to make a statement before they're educated about the situation and how their employees are impacted. "Have they done the research about how to talk about someone with a family member deployed, or a military member who's suffered a loss in this space?" Porter says.

What leaders can do is set the tone and reemphasize a commitment to employee wellbeing, such as by modeling vulnerability, sharing how they're personally impacted, and taking time off or making use of wellness resources as they cope with the news.

Senior leaders can also make sure managers are trained to discuss sensitive topics with compassion, and that they have the power to actually grant flexibility to those who need it, like by changing deadlines, canceling meetings or approving time off.

Managers can take it upon themselves to find out what mental health resources are available and point employees toward them, Burbano adds.

Finally, employees might find it helpful to be reminded of other company offerings, like time off to volunteer with an aid group in their community, or an employer match on charitable donations.

Check out: The psychological reason it's so hard to work after traumatic news, and how to cope

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