Finding Clarity Through Compassion: What the Serenity Prayer Can Teach Us About Doomscrolling

by Sloan Drechsel, Hillside Intern

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This prayer, commonly referred to as the “Serenity Prayer,”  is often associated with twelve-step programs seeking to help those struggling with the centuries-old problem of addiction. However, the lessons of the serenity prayer can be applied to a distinctly modern problem- doomscrolling. 

Doomscrolling is the act of seeking out and continuously consuming negative content online, normally focused around current events. While doomscrolling has been prevalent since well before the pandemic, it was thrust into the forefront by the unfortunate combination of social isolation and an overwhelming onslaught of bad headline after bad headline. 

While it is intuitive to think that doomscrolling might negatively affect your mood, scientists have begun to look into this relatively new phenomenon and its consequences. Researchers in a 2021 study found that exposing a group of people to even a few minutes of negative COVID-related news coverage was enough to drag their mood down.

So, how can you avoid the negative emotional consequences of doomscrolling?

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change

One skill in your toolbox to fight the negative effects of doom scrolling is “Radical Acceptance” and comes from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). The idea behind this skill is that suffering happens when there is a combination of pain and nonacceptance. We may not have control over the situation or event that causes pain, but we do have control over whether or not we accept that the reality is what it is and that it is not something we wanted or something that causes us to experience pain. When we choose not to accept that things are the way they are, we often expend our energy fighting reality and ruminate on the painful feelings, which exacerbates into suffering.  Once we accept our reality, we can reduce our suffering, even if we cannot reduce our pain.

For example: a person gets a lower score on a test than expected – if this person’s stance is non-accepting, this person may continue to ruminate on not getting the score they wanted. Thoughts like, “I can’t believe I got this bad grade, I should have… could have…,” or “the teacher is unfair and doesn’t like me,” or “I’m not smart enough and I’m going to fail,” may surface and cause this person to get stuck in feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, sadness, or eventually shut down.

Practicing radical acceptance, in this case, is for this person to accept that they wanted a better grade and they didn’t get what they wanted. Instead of continuing to stay stuck on the painful feeling of disappointment, blaming, and thinking about the “what ifs” of the past that cannot change the current situation, thoughts after accepting reality may look like, “I am disappointed that the grade I got on this assignment is worse than I would have hoped. Despite this, I can do well on assignments going forward. This grade does not determine my worth as a person,” which frees the person to start a new narrative and work towards changing things they can control in the present such as making a plan tackling how to study more effectively for the next test. 

When confronted with an endless barrage of difficult headlines in our modern all-you-can-eat style buffet of news coverage, you may think to yourself: “I wish these things were not happening. Everything seems to be going badly, and people are in pain.” Practicing radical acceptance may look like saying, “There are a lot of bad things happening in the world, I am feeling compassion for the people affected by these bad things. In this moment in this one day, continuing to scroll endlessly through this bad news will not help these people. In fact, it will hurt me. I can stop consuming this information right now in order to be kind to myself and I can make a plan to do something that would help effect change for this situation in the future. 

It is important to emphasize that radical acceptance skill does not mean that you approve of a situation. This brings us to the next part of the serenity prayer: 

The courage to change the things I can

Doomscrolling can make you feel helpless to change the many things going wrong around you. However, focusing on one headline at a time can help fight this feeling. When you pay attention to one issue at a time, you can see more easily that there are people out there trying to fix the problem, and that there are real solutions being developed. 

For example, if you just watch all the headlines roll by about the many harmful realities of climate change, you might have missed the recent breakthrough in nuclear fission that has accelerated the possibilities for unlimited clean energy, or the game-changing international agreement reached during this year’s COP 27 summit to financially help victims of climate change. The heart-wrenching reports of tragic mass shootings are far, far too common, but sandwiched between them was the historic bipartisan legislation passed by Congress this year addressing gun violence. Deaths due to the ruthless opioid epidemic continue to rise, but pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS recently joined the ranks of many companies implicated for their role in the epidemic that are being forced to pay billions of dollars towards addiction treatment and prevention programs. By focusing on one issue at a time, these glimmers of good news become much easier to see. 

The wisdom to know the difference

In today’s world, negative news coverage is increasingly difficult to avoid. Understanding that you are in control of your reaction and maintaining a sense of empowerment are crucial skills in the face of doomscrolling. 

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