For many of us social media plays a big part in our daily lives – it allows us to stay connected with friends and family globally, network, discover information that enables rapid learning and brings awareness to important issues like never before. It can help us find new friendships, become involved in communities of shared interest, and seek or receive emotional support when times get tough.
Most recently during the pandemic, we learned how helpful social media was to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness when it became harder for us to connect with each other. Many individuals were able to increase social connection and it can certainly help those who struggle with social anxiety, have limited independence or live in a remote area.
While we can appreciate the benefits of social media, we must also be aware that it can negatively impact our mental health. As research continues to study the long term effects of social media and mental health, the literature does indicate it can promote negative experiences.
Feeling like you don’t measure up with your appearance and in life:
We might be aware that the images on social media are filtered or adjusted, it can still make us feel insecure about our physical appearance and what’s going on in our daily lives. For instance, it is common for people to share the positives about their lives or experiences on social media, while leaving out the not so positive aspects. This can lead to feelings of envy and overall discontent as we scroll through a friend’s account reading about their move abroad, exciting job opportunity or viewing filtered photos of their travels down south.
Through the constant comparisons, photoshops, filters, and fitspo and thinspo (terms coined to describe accounts that influence users to be fit and thin), social media can perpetuate a negative body image and impact our self esteem which can lead to unhealthy behaviours, like disordered eating.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO):
The idea of FOMO has been around for years before social media, however platforms such as Facebook appear to heighten the feeling that others are participating in more fun or exciting activities without us or living a lifestyle that is better than ours. The fear of missing out can negatively impact confidence and increase anxiety.
Social media can be addictive:
FOMO can fuel even more social media use, we may feel the need to check for updates throughout the day, or react to every alert received. You might be worried about missing an invitation, or will be left out of a conversation at work/school because you missed news or the latest update on social media. Perhaps you feel the need to like or respond to other peoples posts due to fearing your relationships will suffer.
Research has shown a chemical known as Dopamine is released in our brain when we engage in rewarding experiences – the brain is designed this way to feel pleasure when such experiences occur and one of those includes social connection (whether it is in person or online). Dopamine plays an important role in developing addictive and compulsive habits. Studies have indicated, social media apps and platforms release large amounts of dopamine into the brain’s reward centre at once which are similar to addictive substances such as alcohol. Consequently, when we are no longer on social media and sign off, we enter into a dopamine deficit state and our body attempts to adjust to an unnatural high level of dopamine that was just released. This may explain why we feel better on social media and not so great once offline, which in turn influences more social media use.
Anxiety and Depression:
As humans we are built to need and benefit from in person connection which positively impacts our mental health. There is no denying meeting with a friend or loved one, face to face, can help to improve mood and reduce stress. Prioritising social media instead of face to face interaction has been shown to increase symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Social media can open the door to cyberbullying for which youth are particularly vulnerable. Cyberbullying has been linked to depression and can even lead to symptoms of post traumatic stress in teenagers.
Social media can act as a band aid solution for underlying issues:
Some people spend time on social media when feeling low, bored or lonely, as a means to distract themselves from unsettling feelings or to even self regulate their mood. Without feeling or connecting to our emotions it can be harder to develop healthier ways to cope and manage our mood.
Can impact how we interact in person:
Excessive social media use with limited face to face interaction can affect our social skills in person. This is particularly true for those who struggle with social anxiety. Without exposure in person we may miss out on opportunities to face our fears.
We outlined a few signs that may indicate social media is affecting you:
- Constantly comparing yourself to others on social media.
- You feel worse after social media use.
- Spending most of your time on social media rather than with friends or loved ones in person.
- Unable to concentrate at work, school or be present in your relationships due to excessive social media use.
- Experiencing sleep issues, particularly if you use social media right before bedtime.
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression worsen.
- Low self esteem or confidence.
- Relying on social media to cope with your problems.
- You are a victim of cyberbullying or you are anxious about what others may say about you online.
9 ways to manage social media use for better mental health:
- Be curious about your behaviour. Begin to explore why you are turning to social media ( i.e., is it for distraction or entertainment?). Ask yourself what role does it serve in your life.
- Being aware of your triggers. Notice what type of posts, pages or content impact your mood and limit your exposure.
- Find a community online that is supportive and can help change your mindset.
- Try to follow posts that uplift or inspire you, rather than those that put you down.
- Moderate social media use and limit time spent online. A few helpful strategies:
- Use an app to track your time online.
- Turn off your phone at certain times of the day ( i.e., while having dinner with someone else).
- Avoid bringing devices to bed.
- Disable social media notifications or set your device to “do not disturb.”
- Mindfully limit how many times you check your phone during the day.
- Remove social media apps from your devices.
- Find a good balance between social media use and life. Set aside time each week to connect with others face to face, find a hobby, creative outlet or join a gym or club. Get involved in the community.
- Practice mindfulness by acknowledging what you see online is not necessarily reality. Acknowledge when you are experiencing thoughts of comparison and practice gratitude for the things that exist in your life (it may help to write them down).
- Help youth manage their social media use:
- Teach them that social media is not necessarily based in reality.
- Monitor and limit their use (social media breaks).
- Encourage teens to speak about underlying issues.
- Promote offline activities, in particular physical movement and exercise.
- Seek help and support. If you are struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety or poor self esteem, and can’t seem to manage your social media use, it might be helpful to seek out individual support from a therapist.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me”
Through the last two years, we as therapists have noticed an increase in folks who have sought out therapy for the first time in their lives, because “they don’t know what’s wrong”. This has been a refrain for all of us at various times during the pandemic. It is upsetting, frustrating, overwhelming…(all the feels) to not feel like ourselves, and to have no idea how to pull out of it because everything that usually helps does not seem to be working.
When we are feeling unwell and our coping skills are depleted, our minds can spin out of control with “what ifs” around possible chronic mental health issues, diagnoses, dependence on medications and the need for professional intervention. It is a scary reality to think we are stuck and unsure if these feelings will ever relent.
As I sat down to write this blog, I decided to google “Am I depressed or…?” to see what popped up. Here is a small sampling: Am I depressed or sad, lazy, tired, bored, burned out, bipolar? WOW! What a laundry list of inquiries, ranging from questioning and attempting to label emotions to querying mental health and diagnosis. We as therapists are pleased that people are becoming more aware of their emotions and mental health, and how they both impact their day to day habits and quality of life. We also worry that the feelings of hopelessness and the overwhelming volume of information on mental health that is all over the internet can actually exacerbate symptoms, rather than providing comfort or relief.
There are literally thousands of tools, therapy interventions and medical treatments used to assess, diagnose and treat depression that need to be utilized by a trained professional. There are also many valid informational and educational pieces on depression out there that you can use to first sort through the symptoms you are experiencing, gain an understanding of the severity of them, learn how to assess and incorporate day to day habits that may help ease symptoms, and finally help you to make informed decisions about seeking professional support.
Here is one, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), that provide useful information on depression, diagnosis, coping and treatment. Remember that this is not to be used as a substitute for professional advice and support, but it is from an accredited, professional organization that aims to educate so that you can self-assess before making decisions about reaching out for support.
I think I am depressed…now what?
One of the most studied and supported treatments for depression comes from psychiatrist Aaron Beck, called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). To put it very simply, one of the pillars of CBT is the Cognitive Triangle. This triangle helps us examine the intertwined relationship between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. When you are doing CBT with a trained professional, you are learning how to identify negative and intrusive thoughts that impact how you feel about yourself, your situation and your relationships, which in turn impact the choices you make about how you behave or respond. Again, professional support to help with this triangle is just one of the keys to managing depression, but doing a self-assessment check-in on your own can be a powerful way to understand whether or not to seek professional support to confirm a diagnosis, or treatment to help manage these thoughts and make some changes for the better.
Check Your Thoughts
Many of us resort to googling information on any issue we are faced with, whether it be a leaky faucet or our mental health. We do this because it feels safer to “DIY” our problem, so that we don’t have to say it out loud (because that makes it more real), and so we can hopefully find a solution that we hope will be an easy fix. The other reason we often start with Google is because we are feeling some shame around the issue and the act of even asking for help. Many of us hold longstanding and firmly planted beliefs around the concept of admitting to a problem (think perfectionism) and asking for help (think “weakness”, “incompetence”, and feeling “less than”).
Challenge yourself to really identify your thoughts around what you are experiencing, and how these thoughts may be roadblocking your ability to manage your moods, relationships and overall functioning. It is so easy to believe everything that pops into our heads. The truth is, a lot of what we think about ourselves is hyper-critical, and is driven by fear and shame. Newsflash: we don’t have to listen to these messages!
Check Your Feelings
As therapists, we hear clients using “negative self-talk”, whether it be out loud, or in their heads to put themselves down, name call, and shame themselves for experiencing what are actually normal and healthy feelings. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have resorted to “numbing behaviours” such as scrolling through our phones or Netflix bingeing because we have just not had the will or the energy to identify feelings, much less actually feel them! If this sounds like you, try to get into the habit of asking yourself “what am I actually feeling right now?” Identifying the feeling and actually naming it will help you manage it, rather than pushing it further within by seeking quick fix and feeling-numbing behaviours that actually take us into a perpetual shame spiral of negative self-talk.
Check Your Behaviours
Here comes your mother’s, fitness instructor’s, therapist’s, doctor’s voice: get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, eat your vegetables, go for a walk, and practice mindfulness. “YUP, got it,” you are saying (me too). The issue for most of us is not that we need this knowledge, it is ensuring that we actually practice these behaviours.
Let’s go back to the thoughts part of this cognitive triangle. When we are feeling depressed, our minds generally block out these simple, yet challenging habits which we know in our heads will help us feel better. Depression can almost act like a magnet that keeps us attached to our bed, sofa, phone or computer screen, thereby blocking out the will to incorporate habits that will naturally increase the happiness chemicals in our brains and will contribute to us feeling even a little better. Again, the shame-spiral of knowing that you already know what to do to feel better but not being able to push yourself to actually do it is activated, thus leaving you feeling further down and depressed.
Just having a basic understanding of this cognitive triangle can be helpful to become more self-aware of our feelings, moods and behaviours. The smallest bit of self-awareness and the tiniest of changes is progress. Drinking one glass of water instead of none, reaching out to a friend to walk and talk, or getting into bed 15 minutes earlier than usual is all part of living the change.
So if you are reading this and still asking yourself whether or not you need help to cope with this post-pandemic reality, the answer is YES! We all do. The past two years have been a harrowing and traumatic experience for every single one of us. For some, emotional and mental health issues that existed before the pandemic have increased in intensity and severity. For others, the current set of circumstances has led to new and uncomfortable emotions that have taken a toll on quality of life.
Seeking the support of a qualified, experienced therapist will help you sort through your own cognitive triangle and make choices around the next steps to take to alleviate the symptoms on one end of the spectrum, to seeking out more intensive and long-term interventions on the other. Regardless, reaching out for professional help will ensure you are getting outside of your head and that you are not walking the path to feeling better all alone.Learn More