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Are you suffering from social media anxiety without realising?

You may have been a moderate user of social media before the lockdown, but ever since the COVID-19 crisis took over our lives, do you find yourself glued to your phone, scrolling Instagram and Facebook for updates, and reaching out on Whatsapp for information or a connection? Unbeknownst to you, you may be suffering from social media anxiety. Here’s what you need to know about this dependence that’s a curious mix of boredom and fear.

What are we doing?

First, know that this is an unusual response to an unusual situation. A majority of us have never been exposed to a pandemic, especially one that requires us to be so restricted. Our brains want to make sense of the chaos — because that’s just human tendency — and we do that by trying to collect more and more information; hence, the perpetual scouring for information on social media.

It’s a strategy to relieve tension. People use social media to reduce the tension that builds up psychologically. In a research study, I conducted and published in the Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing in 2014, I found that there was a clear relationship between how many hours people spent on the Internet (social media) and the use of Tension Reduction coping style, an avoidance style that relies upon external aids to relieve psychological tension.

Since the future seems indefinite right now, we feel restless. This is not goal-directed anxiety. It is a diffused anxiety born out of uncertainty. This kind of anxiety demands a constant distraction to stay under control. Therefore we turn to social media because of its ‘hooking’ properties of offering something that grabs attention for every few seconds, every time we scroll. But here’s the clincher – a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2017 found that the more time spent using social media was associated with greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety, and linked to greater odds of having a ‘social media’ anxiety disorder.

So what does this do to us?

What starts out as a distraction technique, becomes a vicious mood cycle — all news, fact and fiction, serve to make us more anxious, leading to mood swings and irritability. This has been systematically studied in research that found that “compulsive media use significantly triggered social media anxiety and fatigue, which later results in elevated depression.” It was also found that ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO) indirectly led to social media fatigue — it made people stay on social media more.

What can we do to not feel social media-induced anxiety?

Behavioural experimentation

To counter FOMO, try this experiment — put your phone away for two hours. Yes, you will feel the itch to check it every few minutes but hold on. When you go back to it at the end of two hours, try and jot down what was the important stuff you missed out on and whether it had any impact on your current situation. Most likely you will find that the list will be slim.

We don’t actually miss out on anything by staying away from social media for a couple of hours, but it feels like we do because we are bombarded by incoming news every moment. Our brains are designed by default to filter information so that we can pay selective attention; but we are now destroying that filter, which could have a long-term impact on intellectual efficiency.

Recognise the addiction

Yes, this is an addiction. Are you aware that it has found a place in psychiatric diagnostic manuals, and has its own clinical terms like ‘Textiety’, ‘Textaphrenia’ and ‘Nomophobia’? You might argue that this isn’t causing ‘tangible’ damage, like substance abuse, but it is destroying your focus, attention span, psychological coping abilities, and self-esteem.

There’s no shame in admitting that you might be addicted because that’s how social media is designed. And you’re not alone. However, acceptance is the first step toward regaining control. Every time you reach for the phone, remind yourself that this is a ‘fix’. If you must do it, then open an app that serves to enhance your growth or skill. Install a usage tracking app like Rescue Time to get weekly reports on how time you spend on every platform. Seeing the numbers in black and white is a real eye-opener

Urge surfing

Seen a surfer ride waves? Our urges, including the ones that make us pick up our phones, also come in waves, every wave lasting between 20-30 minutes, whether you indulge in it or not. When you feel an urge to engage in such behaviour, you may feel helplessness if you don’t engage, but know that the urge will pass. So instead of drowning, ride the wave like a surfer. Breathe through it. Observe the sensations in your body – the little twitch in your hand to reach for your phone, the eye that wanders to the screen in the hope to see a flashing notification – and just watch these reactions without acting upon them.

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At a time when we are devoid of external distractions like meeting friends, going to work, and travelling, it is natural to turn to social media for entertainment. Just keep a close watch on whether you are using it or if it is controlling you.

All images: Courtesy Getty

Prachi S Vaish

Prachi S Vaish is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist who specialises in working with couples on relationships, intimacy, and unconventional sexual lifestyles.