Last week I fell into panic mode. It started with intense chest pains each time I logged onto Facebook to check the groups I belong to as well as scroll through my main feed. Each visit became shorter as the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression overwhelmed rational thought. By Tuesday I had a full-blown anxiety attack and needed my mom to watch Sienna lest my little girl see me hysterically crying, screaming, "It's all crashing down! It's all crashing down!" while I sat against a wall, head in my hands. What exactly was crashing down is meaningless in hindsight because of the utter absurdity of the thoughts careening through my head: I suck; I'll never be as good as HIM; I'm a failure; my family would be better off without me; I'll never be successful enough. I've invented enormous expectations for myself thanks to those placed on me as a kid by family and school.
On Tuesday I wrote a message in a dad bloggers group to which I belong that indicated I was giving up on Facebook and leaving the group because I believed I'd never reach an elite blogging level that would lead to sponsored campaigns, TV appearances, and going viral. My post elicited a bunch of worried comments, phone calls and IMs that I ignored because I felt I didn't deserve them. I believed myself to be an outsider, a kid not invited to a birthday party. I spent most of the next three days in bed with Elaine and my parents watching Sienna. I stuttered my way through therapy but found no relief. I didn't fully recover until Saturday or Sunday, and now I'm slowly getting back on Facebook, but I need to limit myself because I still get chest pains, though minor at the moment.
Just imagine -- a huge anxiety attack followed by three days in bed feeling pathetic, insufficient, alienated and even suicidal all because of the thoughts triggered by a social media platform.
That is depression mixed with Facebook.
Facebook and its impact on mental health has been researched for years. Multiple studies have shown that the amount of time and the ways in which people use the social media platform can, in fact, be linked with depression. The University of Missouri, for example, released a study in 2015 indicating Facebook is linked to feelings of envy, which can in turn lead to depression, but what if the user already has this overwhelming, narcissistic, mentally and physically-taxing disease? In order to illustrate how dangerous Facebook can be for depression sufferers for those that don't have the disease -- and to reinforce you are NOT alone for those that do -- here are five major effects Facebook has had on me.
1) Isolation -- Depression is an isolating disease because you spend your life horrifically alone in your head. Imagine being in a room filled with friends, family and loved ones and still feeling utterly lost and abandoned. Now compound that with staring alone at a screen reading about other people's lives, hoping and waiting for someone to comment on or like something you wrote. This can trigger a sense of bleakness to the nth degree in a depression sufferer.
Even more interactive Facebook components such as participating in a discussion or conversing via IM can have detrimental effects. The people with whom you're interacting are flesh and blood, but they're not physically in your presence; online they're wisps in the wind. If they're "Facebook Friends" and nothing more, they can be reminders of the lack of closeness in your life -- whether real or perceived. My two best friends, for instance, live in Maryland and Florida while I'm in New York. Each time I interact with them on Facebook it's like a piercing reminder that they live hundreds of miles from me and I'm lucky to see them in person a couple of times a year. When I close the computer I'm almost immediately punched by a deep sadness increasing my loneliness on the friendship front.
2) Comparison Game -- Depression sufferers almost always reflexively play the "comparison game" in almost every form of life. They devote huge amounts of energy in measuring themselves against others and irrationally coming up lacking. It's an awful form of pessimism, fixation and envy. Combine that with Facebook and this damaging "game" worsens. Such aggrieved people see a friend excitedly announce a new job on Facebook and think, "Why not me? I'm worthless," and off down the rabbit hole they go. Logically they know all they're doing is feeding the disease, but this isn't a rational game.
This is the depression aspect that most afflicts me. I log onto Facebook, see that a friend from elementary school's just bought a new house, look around my small apartment and lament that I have so little financially -- this despite knowing I have a beautiful, loving wife, an incredible daughter, and a great deal of caring friends and family. I chastise myself for not having the money to provide my family with a house. I hate myself for not being able to afford the "American Dream."
My thoughts, my unrelenting self-thrashings, happen so quickly that it's nearly impossible to breathe. I see words or pictures and within seconds my chest hurts and my hands tremble. I compare myself to other dad bloggers. I look at their poetic writing styles, book publications, television appearances, viral posts, brand campaign invitations, and I feel miniscule. Does it matter that they've been blogging for five years compared to my two? Do I think about how their kids might be older than Sienna giving them more time to blog, to spend on Facebook, to make names for themselves? Do I think about my own accomplishments as a blogger? No. Instead my self-loathing increases; the disease digs its talons even deeper into my brain.
The comparison game is also addicting. Sometimes I spend hours on the site scrolling trough post after post, my feelings of inadequacy intensifying to the point where I'm on the verge of tears. Yet I'm unable to stop until Elaine, seeing my pain, slams shut the computer for me. I've yet to find a way out of this trap, to avoid this trigger. I've spent a lot of time in therapy trying to figure out a way -- deep breaths, shouting at myself that I'm being absurd, snapping myself with a rubber band each time I have a negative thought -- but it remains troublesome. Hopefully my therapist and I will figure out something that works for me.
3) Fantasy/Reality -- Piggybacking on the comparison game is the fact that Facebook posts never show the full story. That friend who got the new job might have marital issues or suffer severe debt. The friend who bought the new house might be an alcoholic or abusive. In my experience, the majority of Facebook users post only things of a positive nature, but a depressed person cannot see this and instead takes everything at face value. If so and so bought a house she must have everything she wants in life. She's better than me. If so and so got a new job he's clearly rolling in dough compared to my living check-to-check. He made it. I didn't.
Depression fills in the blanks with fantasy allowing absurdity to consume truth. I can't tell you how much time I've spent envying friends' Facebook lives only to find out they're unhappy beyond the screen. And while these revelations might help get me to see reality initially, depression refuses to lift its boot from my neck. It pushes harder than before forcing me to expend so much energy in reminding myself that what I'm reading or seeing isn't real that eventually I give out. I move on to someone else and that awful jealousy over what may just be a happy mask returns with a vengeance.
4) Arbitrary Numbers -- Like all social media platforms, Facebook is a numbers game. How many friends do you have? How many people commented on your post or picture? How many likes did your video get? If you suffer depression and receive few comments or likes on a picture or post, you're predisposed to taking it personally -- they didn't like it so they don't like me. Rarely does it enter the brain that people might not have seen it or are too busy to comment.
Further, people with the disease are inclined to "collect" Facebook friends even if they don't like the person. This happened to me when I friended someone I thought I was close with between elementary and high school. Truth is, he was always an arrogant jerk who often belittled me. After a year of him ignoring me, making snarky comments and untagging himself from pictures of the two of us, I decided to unfriend him, but I couldn't make myself do it. Something in my head told me I deserved this humiliation. It took me months to finally do it and when I did, when I finally pressed that key as my fingers trembled and tears streamed down my cheeks, it felt like less like relief than failure.
But the worst Facebook numbers game (at least for me) is how many people send birthday greetings. I always send out birthday wishes figuring it takes just a few moments of time to bring a smile to someone's face, and while I know I shouldn't expect it in return, I do anyway. Each year I'm afraid to check Facebook until because I think I might jinx something. Usually I get 100+ birthday wishes, which is nice, but still bugs me. Remember, depression is narcissistic. This year I discovered that only 36 out of my 600+ Facebook friends sent me birthday wishes. The sheer grief, the magnitude of self-hatred I felt in that moment sent me spiraling. I wound up bawling in my Elaine's arms. It didn't matter that all of the most important people in my world called me nor did I care that Sienna was able to understand and wish me happy birthday for the first time in her life. Only 36 people sent me sent birthday greetings on Facebook!
Depression is like living with blinders on. You can't see the good, only the bad. Hence I was obsessed with my other 500+ Facebook friends. Why didn't THEY wish me a happy birthday? I cried myself to sleep that night thinking of numbers: 36 out of 600+. It turned out that during one of its upgrades Facebook changed my birthday to private which explains why I received so few posts. And while that revelation made me feel a little better, the sting still lingered. It's absolutely insane that I disregarded the real life love I received on my birthday from my best friends, my family, my wife, my daughter while pining for birthday wishes from online friends, many of whom I barely know, but that's what the disease does. Arbitrary numbers and depression mix about as well as onions and milk.
5) Falling Behind -- It's impossible to keep up with Facebook because people are always posting one thing or another. Thus it's highly plausible that as a user, you're going to miss cool pictures, announcements or humorous posts. And the more friends you have, the more you're going to miss. When faced with this, depression sufferers often feel like they're falling behind which leads to guilt that they're letting their friends and family down.
This happens to me constantly. I scroll and scroll and scroll, but I just can't keep up. It feels like I'm in a race running through thick mud as the finish line moves further and further away. Negative thoughts bombard me -- What did I miss? Will my friend hate me because I didn't like a picture of his kids or comment on his post? What if I missed a birthday? What if someone said they were having a baby? I CAN'T KEEP UP!
And then the debilitating guilt and fear and the horrid, selfish aspect of depression set in. I'm letting people down. My friend will hate me because I didn't comment on their post about their daughter's first word. They're not going to like something I post out of spite. They're going to forget me, unfriend me, even banish me from a group. It's a vicious cycle because the more I spiral, the less I check Facebook and the more I "fall behind." And even though I know it's illogical, I have immense trouble stopping my depression from ensnaring me in its massive grip.
These are just five reasons why Facebook can be dangerous for those suffering from depression taken from my own experiences with the platform and disease. I'm sure there are many more. If you're on Facebook and suffer depression, what aspects do you find exacerbate your mental illness?
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.