I have run almost three marathons.
It’s not that I didn’t want to finish one of those races – it’s that I couldn’t – because I ran the Boston Marathon the year there were bombs at the finish line. The course was closed off with ¾ of a mile to go and I spent hours in a panic, looking for the rest of my family. I’m the youngest of three girls and we all ran that day, as did my future brother-in-law. To support our endeavor, my parents opted to go to the finish line to cheer us on.
There are things that will forever be burned into my memory, as other trauma survivors can attest to, including how my family coped with the day. We all cope with trauma differently – there is no one-size-fits-all mechanism to dealing with these situations. It took a long time for me to realize something was wrong. I ignored the signs: months of recurring nightmares, weight loss, panic attacks, as symptoms of an underlying issue. It took months of sleepless nights where I tried to quell my panic by scrolling through social media to individual opinions, graphics and politics to say: I needed help.
I went through a mental health evaluation, with the help of a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and was subsequently diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Part of my evaluation included my therapist asking me about my relationship with social media and how I used it, both for work and for leisure. To this day, my therapist and I still talk about the effects of social media on how I manage my conditions – and how using social media can make it more challenging for me to manage my mental health.
I’m in a unique position as I work in communications, focusing on social engagement, so part of me recognizes it as a paycheck and part of my livelihood. The other part of me longs to break free from it after realizing what it did to my recovery and treatment processes. It turns out, I’m not alone.
Many individuals, whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, have experienced symptoms of PTSD after viewing violent or grotesque content on social media platforms - and what could be considered “violent” generally differs on a case-by-case basis. With a constant personalized stream of content, it can be a triggering nightmare for many. Because social media doesn’t have the warnings or filters that organizations, like news outlets, put on their content, social media use can contribute to stressors in an already difficult situation. For me, whether it was a new “breaking news” story that a connection shared to their news feed, or another “thoughts and prayers” image that showed bloodied aftermath – it took one thumb-scroll worth of time to instantly catapult me back to the day and its grotesque details.
In some ways, my anxiety worsened from being on Facebook. Because everyone heavily curates and filters their lives on the channel, including or excluding only whatever each user prefers to share (or not share), it looked like anyone else I knew who was affected had already moved on. Because of this, my self-esteem took a blow, which worsened my anxiety – and studies have shown that using social media as a comparison tool can increase the symptoms of anxiety and depression. With Facebook as a highlight reel, I felt as if I was the only one who wasn’t moving on with my life, and those sleepless nights I spent thumbing through social feeds only exacerbated how miserable I was already feeling. All that passive consumption was only making me feel worse, a side effect that Facebook itself recognizes as problematic.
However, many trauma survivors and individuals suffering from mental health illnesses recognize it as a way to connect with other survivors and to assist in helping others, including themselves, cope. Individuals living with mental health issues have reported using social media to verbalize their conditions and emotions, giving them the ability to put words to what was previously indescribable. When used as a platform for helping connect others with similar mental health conditions, it can help individuals feel less alone in their struggle, leading to greater connectedness across populations. The crux of the issue, when it comes to using social media as a coping mechanism, is that to feel better connected to others, users must engage in active communication – meaning that flicking through your newsfeed isn’t going to make you feel better. Reaching out and making that connection to others, on the other hand, can make you feel less alone.
Like treatment for mental health conditions, there isn’t a singular way to use Facebook. For me, it initially made my conditions worse. Once I started actively talking to my therapist about my constant comparison to others, we decided that if I was to continue using social media, I had to set ground rules, including recognizing what would be triggering, documenting how usage made me feel, and determining if it was good for my health to keep using the platform.
To this day, I would love to say that my use of Facebook is consistently healthy, but I sometimes have setbacks; I often find that I compare myself to others, which can make my anxiety worse. What is healthy, though, is that I can recognize what is beneficial – or detrimental – to my mental well-being, and I now know when it’s time to log off and take care of myself.