Thursday, February 20, 2014

Social Media and Your Mental Health

I love social media. In addition to the obvious benefit of being able to find old friends, keep in touch easily with family that live further away, and share 2,000 pictures of my dog with anyone willing to look at them, it's been a wonderful way for me to connect with those who I don't know personally, but who share a similar cause, situation, or goal. For instance, I have found a wonderful group of fellow women business owners on Facebook. The group is based in the U.K., so it's certainly not one that I'd have come across without technology. Furthermore, I was introduced to the group by a women I'd connected with on twitter previously. I've also made numerous connections with other mental health advocates, which has helped me both in sharing my story, and in educating myself - after all, there's always something new to learn and a new perspective to gain. I've found shared bonds with people I knew, but didn't know on as deep a level. I've had several people reach out to me to share their own mental health story, telling me how glad they are that I'm sharing mine, and here I was thinking all we had in common was being in the same class twenty years ago.

Social media, for all of its benefits, has its share of perils when it comes to mental health. First off, even those who spend every other status message complaining usually aren't sharing their real troubles. "Stuck in traffic again" or "the dog got up on the counter and ate my dinner" generally isn't the worst thing people are going through (and if it is, bravo! Now please stop complaining!). If everyone's lives were as good as they made them sound on social media, a lot of therapists would probably be out of a job. Now, I'm not blaming people. Even with how much I share, I am aware that nobody wants to hear every time I'm in a depression or have a panic attack or didn't make a phone call that I needed to because of my phone anxiety. I run a Facebook support group for that. I don't put it on my status message. That's not why people are on there. They're there to see the 2,000 pictures of my dog. Ok, maybe not all 2,000, but I'm willing to bet those are probably way more appealing than the negative alternative.

But it's tough to reason with our brains when we're seeing others' status messages. As happy as I am for my friends having children, I'll admit that when I see five statuses in a row about pregnancies and new babies, I get a little "woah is me, I'll not experience that" and click off for a bit (if you're unfamiliar with the backstory, you can read about that here.) I'm sure the same that goes for the person who just went through a breakup and sees all of their friends getting engaged and married. To sum it up, social media makes it easy to compare others' triumphs with our struggles and see our lives as unfulfilling or ourselves as less adequate. When you're prone to depression, anxiety, panic, or mood cycling genetically, the effect is magnified further.

Social media also allows us to know "everything" that everyone else is doing. I've personally had the experience of being left out of plans and finding out on social media. We can see when people have read our messages, and know when they aren't replying, leaving us to wonder why. The flip side is, social media makes us feel all-knowing, even when we aren't. Maybe someone didn't reply because they were waiting for a doctor's appointment and got called back to the exam room right after they read our message, and then forgot all about it through the course of a busy day. Maybe I wasn't included in the plans because two of my friends had had a disagreement and were trying to talk it out over a drink, and it wasn't the big night out I thought it was when I saw the picture. But for those of us with anxiety or depression, those who battle self esteem and confidence issues (they don't always go hand-in-hand, but it's not uncommon), any reason for us to feel anxious, upset, less important, or unworthy, sets us in motion, regardless of how accurate it is. The brain can have a difficult time sorting out real from imaginary - it's why techniques such as mental imagery can be so powerful for improving performance, and why nightmares can be so terrifying even after we wake up and know that they weren't real.

In addition to the way it affects our emotions, social media can take away personal connection. Regardless of how many "friends" or "followers" I have, when I'm really feeling bad, I need to feel a real connection with someone I'm close with. And no, a like or retweet doesn't fulfill this need. I'm not saying this connection has to be in person. If you live far away and give me a text or email or call (ok please don't call me, I really do have phone anxiety) that's fine, because you've personally reached out to me and we're having a one on one conversation. Social media makes it easy to forget this. It's easy to invite friends out and then they spend half their time looking at their phone. It's easy for people to forget to contact to you to see how you really are because they've seen your status updates and figure they know all there is to know. It's easy for friends to share as much with virtual strangers as they do with you. For people who need that personal connection in a time of struggle, social media makes it easy to feel forgotten.

So use your social media. Enjoy it, have fun with it, connect with old friends and new ones. But know your limits. Understand when you need to take a break, when you must stop comparing, when you're literally letting it get to your head. Then, go outside and get some fresh air, or snuggle your dog (that would make a cute profile picture for later!), grab a drink with a friend and make a rule to not look at your phones during that time, or partake in a favorite non-electronic activity. Like everything else in life, it's about balance.

Just for good measure, here's a cute picture of my dog. 


  1. Great blog, Maya and what it reminds me of is T. S. Eliot's often quoted lines that we "prepare a face to meet the faces that we me." Social media, as every one know is hyper-reality or to be the more quaint, the play within the play. Everyone is an actor. People decide the image they want to project and then work on them. While it can be disheartening to to recognize that none of it is "real", its very artificiality at least provides for some emotional distance. While when you are talking with a person face to face it is always difficult to know what is really going on in their heads - with social media, you know it is all image and that gives a person the option to ignore it or even opt out.

    1. That's a very good point. I guess we are all starting on the same foot if we know that everyone shows only what they want to show, and that we're just as able to pick and choose as others. I tend to think of it as (and I'm steeling this from somewhere, it just happens to go with the play analogy) I see everyone's grand performance, while they see my dress rehearsal, but really, that's not necessarily the case. And as you said, at least you know it's more of a play, as opposed to in person, where you're more likely to think people are being genuine and honest. I also think groups on Facebook, like the one I run (shameless plug :-) can help because they are closed groups that only members can attend, and for the purpose of people getting away from having to "put on an act" and genuinely open up. Of course you still don't know how accurate things are, but it helps that the purpose of it is to take off the mask, so to speak, so I believe people are more encouraged, and relieved, to do so.