Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?

The E.R. and Society

I was talking recently to someone who works in an emergency room as a nurse, and she told me about all the non-emergencies at the E.R. – among them, people seeking drugs, people sleeping off drunkenness, people with untreated mental illness.

What she described reminded me of this excerpt from a short story, “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” by Lucia Berlin (published in an anthology, A Manual for Cleaning Women):

“Fear, poverty, alcoholism, loneliness are terminal illnesses. Emergencies, in fact.”

Two Major Challenges in Mental Health Healing

Here are two big ones that make people feel discouraged after they’ve already started addressing their mental health issues:

Progress isn’t linear

When they start working on their mental health, people often expect (or hope) to experience steady progress. Whether they’re finding ways to manage anxiety or confront the effects of sustained abuse, they hope for a clear, stable path to success.

The reality is more messy, and the messiness can be discouraging.

You deal with difficult situations, the fragility of new habits, and the persistence of long-established patterns of thought and behavior. Just when you think you’re doing fine, new problems crop up. Long-buried emotions demand attention.

That’s not to say that you aren’t making any progress at all. It’s just that healing can be uneven and patchy. It often involves backsliding and reversion. Some areas of your life may improve dramatically and within a relatively short amount of time. In other areas, you may still feel shaky, like you’re fumbling in the dark.

A while ago, I came across an interesting, hopeful quote about how healing is more like a spiral than a straight path:

“We swing around again and again to the same old issues, but at different turns of the spiral. Each time we confront a similar feeling or reaction we have yet another opportunity to learn and to heal. Each time, we bring with us whatever new understanding we have gained since the last time we cycled through this particular difficulty.”

– Nancy J. Napier, Getting Through the Day

It helps to not see healing as the attainment of a perfect state. Healing gives you more strength and resources to deal with the inevitable messiness of life. It also opens up new possibilities for what you can do with your life and what you can experience.

regrets are powerful

Healing often brings with it greater self-awareness. In many ways, this is beautiful. You’re in a better position to make good choices. If you’re more aware of your emotions, you can also be more open to joy, excitement, and love.

But awareness can also bring with it pain. You realize that certain relationships in your life are damaging. You become acutely aware of things you’ve missed out on. Even as you grow stronger mentally and emotionally, regret may blindside you. Grieving what’s lost and coming to terms with regret become part of your healing.

There are different ways of dealing with regret – like focusing more on the future, focusing on what you’re doing with your life now, and changing the story you tell about your life, so that it’s more about what you’re overcoming and what you’re working towards, and less about wasted time and loss. Still, regret is undeniably difficult to deal with.

Dangerously Pretending That You’re Separate From Your Body

Maybe at some point I’ll write a longer post about this. For now, I just want to point out strong tendencies I’m seeing on multiple fronts – in commentary on sexuality, pregnancy, dieting, surgery, and other topics – where the body gets treated as something separate from you as a person.

The tendency to think of the body as an inert meat sack. Or as a mere machine. Or simply as a glove you’re wearing, nothing more. That the “real you” isn’t connected to your body.

That you can have all kinds of things done to your body or do all kinds of things to your body – physical harm, modifications, deprivations of different kinds, sexual acts you’re gritting your teeth to endure, the commodification of organs or the body as a whole – and that somehow this will leave your mental well-being untouched. (Or at least, you can move on quickly if you just don’t think about it too much.)

Ignoring the body is easier than ever with all the distractions around you. Is your body persistently sending you signals that you’re always ignoring? Even if you think your body is “misfiring” in some way – for instance, warning you of a danger that you don’t think exists – it’s still important to make note of how your body communicates with you. Maybe the danger is legitimate. Or maybe you’re experiencing an anxiety that you need to learn how to understand and soothe. Regardless, it’s important to engage with yourself. Ignoring your body isn’t a long-term solution. Any underlying problems don’t go away.

Talking about the body sometimes gets you accused of “reducing people to body parts,” but this usually isn’t the case. The body is made up of complex, interconnected systems, which of course include the brain. People’s experiences of worthiness (vs. degradation) and well-being are deeply connected to their bodies. Mistreatment, whether from others or perpetuated by the self, undermines the self.

Coping With a Pandemic When You (Think You) Have No One

The COVID-19 crisis is marked by turmoil, grief, and anxiety for many people. Having others to rely on during this time can mean a world of difference in how you’re coping. But what if you’re alone? (Or truly feel yourself to be alone?)

There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for dealing with social isolation and related problems. Your age, health, job, and living arrangement are among the factors affecting what will work for you and what won’t. But I’m going to offer some potentially useful links here. If you have some suggestions of your own, please share.

The following links apply to people in the U.S., where I live. If you’re outside of the U.S., you can use these for ideas when looking for analogous services in your country.

Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

Synaptic Sunday #13 – Neuroscience of Gratitude

What is gratitude, and what is its impact on mental and physical health? What systems in the brain are associated with it? How can one cultivate gratitude? Why does it seem to be felt and expressed so much more easily in some people than in others?

Here are some of the ongoing efforts of neuroscientists and psychologists to better understand gratitude:

1) Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude

Recently scientists have begun to chart a course of research aimed at understanding gratitude and the circumstances in which it flourishes or diminishes. They’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits…

2) The Grateful Brain

3) From the Bottom of My Heart

Put yourself in the position of a Jew during World War II who escapes to France penniless and is forced to beg on the streets. A passerby gives you roasted peanuts — your first morsel of food in several days.

You are allergic to peanuts.

Do you feel grateful? Or bitter, anxious, awkward, sad — perhaps even happy?

You mean there’s hope for me?

“No worries: Neuroticism may have a healthy upside” – says this article.

But this seems to be the case only if you’re both neurotic and conscientious. Because maybe by being conscientious you’re giving yourself a sense of control and security as you confront life’s many uncertainties?

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

(Image credit: Psychology today – and if you click on the image you’ll find an article with a look at neuroticism and conscientiousness in another context. Funnily, this article introduces us to “neurotic people” and “conscientious folks” – what about people who are both?)

Synaptic Sunday #12 – Developing resilience in the face of stressful circumstances

Before getting to these three good posts/articles on resilience, stress, and the human brain, please take some time to find a reputable charity to donate to in support of the recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Here are tips for finding a reputable charity and avoiding scams (the site, Charity Navigator, rates charities on a number of factors) – and here’s a recommended list of Hurricane Sandy charities from another site, Charity Watch, which also rates charities.

1) Summaries of talks on stress and resilience given during Day 2 of the Culture, Mind, and Brain Conference
I love how these talks highlight the interplay of genes and the biology of the human body with social and cultural factors. Some surprising findings (for instance read about the first talk on rat pups separated from their mothers for an 18 hour stretch, and how a simple change in the environment helped mother-pup relations proceed on normal terms afterwards, leading to no long-term negative consequences for the pup).

2) Can people learn to adapt better to highly stressful circumstances?
Some of the factors common to people who adjust better to life after a traumatic event include:
a) realistic optimism (knowing and accepting what you can change and what you can’t, and focusing all your efforts on what you can change)
b) social support
c) good regular health habits (e.g. eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking up meditation).

While there is a genetic component to resilience, Southwick said its influence is less important than one might expect.

“The biggest insight that we have realized is that many people are far more resilient that they think and have a far greater capacity to rise to the occasion,” he added.

3) 10 Tips for Developing Resilience
These suggestions have some overlap with what’s been discussed so far, and it’s a good list to start with if you’d like to change the way you react to adverse circumstances. Keep in mind that these tips refer to mental habits – they can be cultivated, but don’t produce instantaneous or 100% consistent results. They take time and patience to work on.

Fearing the mind – some thoughts on “The Politics of Experience”

My background in psychology hasn’t included readings on psychotherapy so I’ve started checking out books on the topic and just finished R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.

A few points that jumped out at me from Laing’s book:

1) We (by which he mostly means European/North American people) live in a society that doesn’t truly admit to the existence of a complex “inner world” of dreams/imagination/fantasies/etc. that have any meaning (he wrote this book in the 1960s but there’s relevance to that position today).

(I put “inner world” in quotations, because the boundaries between what goes on in our heads and what’s out in the world is blurry – even our basic perceptions of the external world are filtered through our brains, and our thoughts and mental processes alter the way we perceive the world, what we attend to, what we remember, etc. Laing makes a similar point about there not being a sharp divide between internal and external.)

2) We view people who have been diagnosed with mental illness as lesser and as Others; mental health professionals do their best to subdue and drug them instead of explore and understand their perspective.

3) We can’t help people thrive if we don’t see them as human individuals enmeshed in relationships with others and interacting with society, its institutions and culture.

The terrifying mind

Our mental landscape can be a scary place. Beautiful too, sublime, but also unpredictable, intense, and terrifying.

Laing quotes people who went through – and ultimately emerged from – psychotic episodes where they felt they were traveling back in time, touching other dimensions and planes of existence, encountering core truths about life that were transcendent and overwhelming. Along with confronting visions and wonders, people can easily lose themselves in this mental realm, which seems limitless and is shot through with darkness and terrors as well.

Even mental activity that’s more mundane is awe-inspiring – for instance, everyday acts of creativity: filling a blank page with words or images. From where did they come? What’s inspiration and creativity really? Furthermore (and this is something Laing doesn’t really go into) so many of our basic mental processes occur beneath our awareness, guiding our decisions and actions. Laing speaks in general about people in modern society being alienated from who they are, but how do we come to know who we are and why we choose to act as we do when so much of our brain’s activity is by necessity unfolding beneath our notice? (I say “by necessity” because there’s only a little we can attend to and notice at any given time – meanwhile our brains are gathering, sorting, processing tons of information about the world and matching up current happenings with memories of prior events.) I’m not advocating for a position where we dismiss ourselves as unknowable and leave it at that; but what does it mean to “know yourself”?

Somehow, our brain’s activities give rise to “the mind” – consciousness, imagination, intuition, reveries, rationality, rationalizations, recollections, etc. It’s wondrous and mysterious, and mysteries can be terrifying.

Stamping out the mind

Laing rejected explanations of mental activity and ‘mental illness’ (a term he doesn’t want to use) that are concerned only with external behaviors or that see people as isolated units. These days individuals get reduced to products of cell activity or to animals in the thrall of evolutionary drives. Everything else is treated as so much noise or explained away glibly. I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View now and there’s a passage that reminds me of this tendency to iron out the complexities of the mind and pretend its chaos is meaningless (a jangle of nerves):

Lucy faced the situation bravely, though, like most of us, she only faced the situation that encompassed her. She never gazed inwards. If at times strange images rose from the depths, she put them down to nerves… Once she had suffered from ‘things that came out of nothing and meant she didn’t know what’. Now Cecil had explained psychology to her one wet afternoon, and all the troubles of youth in an unknown world could be dismissed.

Psychology (and psychiatry) can be used, and have often been used, as a way to obscure self-knowledge and diminish people. Those classified as mentally ill are especially vulnerable to being treated in inhuman ways: drugged to the gills, incarcerated, subjected to abuse in the guise of treatment, and told they’re incapable of any valid perceptions of reality and meaningful experience. This approach to mental health is yet another way of dismissing the frightening complexity of the mind, rather than trying to understand and work with each individual as a person, which would take effort and a willingness to confront our vulnerability and our painful, puzzling, and beautiful experiences of life – or at the very least accept that they exist and aren’t meaningless.

If Laing sometimes writes as if he’s romanticizing psychotic episodes and their potential for exploring the mind, he’s balancing out other approaches that wipe away the mind’s messiness entirely, kill self-awareness, and diminish intimacy between people. One point he returns to over and again – and it’s worth making – is that when people do experience the world in ways classified as “mentally ill” (depending on the individual, he/she may not be actually ill, just labeled that way), they aren’t experiencing their mental illness in a vacuum. Their interpersonal relationships and the society they live in have an impact on the course of their illness, its manifestation, the potential for recovery and adapting to daily life, and whether or not they’re accepted as a person instead of an embarrassment and an upsetting reminder of how the mind dances beyond the reach of neat little labels and human control.

Social impact

An article I came across recently by Tanya Marie Luhrmann – Beyond the Brain – is well-worth reading and centers on the effects of social environment on people with schizophrenia, including the influence of other people’s attitudes and behavior. The bottom line is that the brain doesn’t operate in isolation; the same goes for the body as a whole, down to the activity in the most remote cells. We’re constantly responding to and interacting with our environments. While drugs can play a role in treatment of psychiatric illness, particularly of severe cases, drugs aren’t everything and don’t solve all problems. Same goes for looking at brain scans and pointing to patterns of brain activation. What do they tell me about what it’s like to be you? To think and dream and experience the world the way you do?

Luhrmann writes:

We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are.

We can’t fully know each other, but why pretend there’s nothing to know at all aside from relatively superficial qualities? What Laing seems to put forward in his book is a vision of psychotherapy where you aren’t trying to aggressively make people “normal” (whatever normal happens to be in a given society) but to be a guide to them, and to actually hear what they say about their experience of the world instead of dismissing it all as a mass of symptoms.

More unanswered questions

Laing’s book doesn’t really go into how these changes in treatment will be achieved practically (but he does suggest at one point that people who have gone through similar psychotic breaks or psychological experiences can help serve as guides and counselors).

As for his general view of a society in which people are alienated from themselves and from each other, it wasn’t clear what alternative he proposes: what’s an example of a society, in his view, that would promote better mental health and acceptance of different individual experiences? All societies are founded on compromises between individuals and agreements to abide by certain principles. What about personal relationships – what’s an example of a healthy parent-child relationship, for example? He doesn’t get into that; he says only that parents ‘murder’ various potentialities in their children and mold them to societal specifications. If he’s right, what’s to be done?

He points to instances in the past or in other cultures where individuals could explore alternate mental states (through drugs, fasting, etc.), but weren’t these people few in number? Sometimes their activities were sanctioned, sometimes they were revered, but many times they were considered dangerous or aberrant as well.

One person Laing writes about in this book who went through a psychotic episode and emerged from it intact said that the world became illuminated in new ways, even as he continued his day-to-day life with its dissembling and false faces. To what extent can a more transcendent experience of the world co-exist with the smaller, pettier interactions of daily life?

Laing asks at one point: If our society is so dysfunctional, why would we want to adapt to its ideas of normal mental functioning?