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Daniel Donahoo

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Social Media and Anxiety

Posted: 02/16/2012 5:16 pm

Sometimes social media makes it impossible for me to do anything.

It stuns and silences me.

This is not due to an excessive checking and posting on a Facebook wall, or trawling through Twitter for hours on end, or because of the attitudes and views I am exposed to on these public platforms. My paralysis is due to an overwhelming feeling of dread that comes from reading a few profiles, counting friends and followers and bookmarking hundreds of links that I'll never find the time to read.

It is a daily battle between social media and my anxiety.

This is not a "Facebook is bad" rant. I have benefited significantly from social media. I am a model user. I have secured clients and income on Twitter. I have met a range of fascinating people in real life thanks to my social media activity. My various streams provide me with entertainment, information and space for reflection. They are extraordinarily useful tools in my work and in my life. But, increasingly I am finding the need to develop strategies to try and combat the impact social media is having on my ability to get things done and on my health and wellbeing.

Let me explain. It goes something like this:

I open my Twitter feed of a morning.

I feel excited by the day ahead and want to see what the world is up too. I begin to scroll through my stream. I see that an academic has just posted 11 links in a row, all look interesting and I open all the links instantaneously, scan a couple and sigh at the large number of tabs in my web browser that are left unread, before ducking back to my Twitter account. I see a re-tweet from a colleague I respect, it is a tweet from another researcher whom I have never heard of.

I check out their profile. They have 15K followers.

How have I not heard of this person? I think. Why are we not connected? I make a mental note that I need to email this person, and quickly click over to their website from their profile. Their website is very impressive and I begin to feel worried that maybe the work I am doing is not as relevant given the work that this individual has done. As I flick back to Twitter I notice the original retweet, it's a 40-minute YouTube lecture by the person I've just decided is a very clever and leading thinker who I'd never heard of.

I'll never get around to watching it, I think.

Today had involved me addressing some key issues and writing documents for clients. But now I'm feeling a little shaky. I notice that my heart rate has increased and my focus has become a bit scattered. I check my iPhone which shows me exactly how many new followers are on LinkedIn and Twitter. I get a buzz from the fact that a respected journalist has recently followed me and I consider whether I should tweet them and say something twee like "Thanks for the follow."

What is that? "Thanks for the follow" -- except a desperate attempt to be liked a little bit further, I think to myself.

I mentally put myself down for a while, and then think I should be posting to Google+ more and I should really write a blog post about that video that I need to watch and link to it and email and tweet that clever person I just started to follow about it... and...

And, it is about at this stage, only 10 minutes into the day that I am overwhelmed and don't know where to start and feel like I need some chocolate.

It is 8.30 a.m.

For someone like me, who has constantly battled with the issue of pleasing other people, social media is a blessed curse. It helps me to tackle my fragile ego by fabricating it into an extroverted version of my introverted self, but it offers more opportunity than ever for second-guessing and anxiety.

When you have anxiety your worry doesn't make sense, it is just a quiet dread that builds inside that nobody else sees. You are worrying about what other people think about you and trying to remind yourself of your own value and worth, while trying so desperately hard to prove it. In that sense, web 2.0 offers a rabbit hole to chase yourself down forever.

I have been working on the strategies I have developed in my real life, to take into my virtual world. Some work, but some don't.

What I do know is that it is unrealistic to think I can read everything in my Twitter stream, unlikely I'll be up to speed with every new development online and be across the latest memes and viral videos. Yet, I still place this expectation on myself. The need to continue to engage with social media, despite its negative impact, is all emotional.

You can say the digital world is an emotionless space, but it isn't. Emotion makes social media. You can say I should just turn off my stream, or stop worrying about it. You can be logical and know exactly how I can improve this situation. But, none of those things will work for me (or possibly others). You see, we are in a battle with our neuropeptides -- the chemicals that come spilling out of the hypothalamus when we feel threatened, or excited or overwhelmed with fear or with love.

Social media offers my body the chemical hit. It makes me feel euphoric and despondent all at the same time and I am loathe to give it up. So, I don't. And I shouldn't.

What I am doing is working on ways to better manage my engagement. This is not about "time management" or "improving my productivity." This is about my mental health in the digital age.

Nothing is just good or bad. Social media offers a lot, but there is a range of hidden and impactful consequences for different people, in different ways. My experience is just one.

We need to consider how the rise of new and emerging technologies impacts our health and wellbeing, and how we support people who find themselves in situations where their use of technology it is not as healthy or productive as it could be.

For more by Daniel Donahoo, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.

 

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