A lot of readers with bipolar disorder and autoimmune diseases have told me how depressed they feel seeing Facebook pictures—it seems like everyone else has it together and we’re just treading water. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bashing social media. Through it, I’ve met so many fantastic people who live with a variety of illnesses. Fashionably ill is on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But there is a social media pitfall we have to avoid: Comparing ourselves on our worst days to other people on their best days. Too much time spent on social media can be detrimental to our mental health.
Facebook Isn’t Always Real
I liken Facebook to “The Greatest Hits” of a person’s life. Even the best artist has recorded duds. But you don’t see them on greatest hits albums. Similarly, people usually post pictures of their engagement rings, baby sonograms, and weddings. While people post status updates that say, “Hey, I got the promotion,” they typically don’t post things like, “I lost my job today. Lying in bed eating potato chips.” Sometimes people tell me they’re depressed because they feel like “everyone has someone” except for them. I tell them that their friends have also had breakups—they just don’t post pictures of themselves drowning in Ben & Jerry’s post-breakups. It’s important to keep perspective and regulate our use of social media when we’re not feeling well—whether pain is caused by stress, mental illness, or flare ups of fatigue and physical pain (or all of the above).
“FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out
Yes, FOMO, is real. It’s even in the Oxford Dictionary. It’s the uneasy feeling a lot of social media users have that someone else is doing something more exciting or interesting than they are. FOMO can be a source of stress and anxiety. FOMO can contribute to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression. If you take Instagram at face value, it appears that everyone is living their best life ever! Or more like #bestlifeever! But boredom is a part of life; not every day or every experience can be exciting. And plans do get cancelled or postponed. But you wouldn’t know it scrolling through people’s Instagram stories.
When Social Media Amplifies Pain
A few days ago I was really depressed. I spent 80% of the day in bed. It happened to be Valentine’s Day although that wasn’t the cause of my depression. I had been struggling with tremendous stress for a few days. Of course having a mental illness does not help. I realized how harmful it was for me to be on Facebook while I was not doing well. It’s like, “Yay! Another wedding ring. Is everyone getting engaged? WTH? Who else landed their ‘dream job’ this week?”
I applied a lot of the tools I’ve blogged about to manage my depression like praying, music, laughter, exercise, talking to my therapist, and adhering to my prescribed medication (SSRI). For weeks I’d been looking forward to this Valentine’s Day Masquerade Ball. I was determined to go despite my depression. As I was getting dressed, I decided to take before and after pictures so I could demonstrate how primer and setting spray make my makeup last 16 hours. (I hate retouching my makeup.) While taking my pictures, I noticed two things: 1) Whoa! My “depressed face” is identical to my “endometriosis face.” That’s the face I get when endo has left me screaming in pain until 3 am. My picture is further proof that mental illnesses are “real illnesses”—as real as physical pain! 2) The second picture is my “best face.” It’s the kind of picture people post on Facebook. People don’t usually share pictures like my depressed face. However, at some point, everyone feels lonely, endures a breakup, gets laid off, or bombs the interview. We may not see pictures of those moments but they do exist!
Going to the dance made me feel better—not “fine and dandy”—but better. I liked spending time with friends. And dancing releases endorphins—those “feel good hormones” that help us fight depression.
4 Tips for Avoiding Social Media Depression
1. Keep a healthy perspective: Be kind. Don’t compare yourself on your worst day to someone else on their best day.
2. Build and maintain healthy relationships and support network: Who can you trust? Building support networks is so important for surviving life’s stressors and adversity; people with positive social support are better able to manage mental health problems. Are you making connections? Can you catch up with a friend on Zoom? Are you being intentional about maintaining relationships? Where can you find community? Is it a volunteer organization, a club, or a house of worship? Are you making friends at school and work? Could seeing a therapist help? Healthcare professionals can also be part of your support network. (Related: this database of therapists from Psychology Today , 6 Cheap Ways to Get Mental Healthcare, and my article, Top 29 Mental Health Apps: Recommended by Users With Lived Experience.)
3. Moderate your time on social media: Sometimes you just need to log off, especially if you are feeling down. When you’re going though a rough time, it’s better to vent to a friend than spend hours scrolling through Instagram. Also, are you living in the moment? Are you spending more time curating your account than living life? Are you spending more time sharing experiences than actually living through those experiences? When you go out to eat, are you spending more time taking pictures of the food than enjoying the delicious food and conversation with a friend?
4. Find a creative outlet: The creative outlet is for you. It can be learning to play the guitar, drawing, or gardening. For me, experimenting with makeup and painting landscapes are escapist art forms that allow me to express myself in color. The past couple years, I have grown to love painting the Northern Lights and The Milky Way. When I interviewed patients who have undergone outpatient therapy for depression, a few male interviewees told me they were shocked at how much the macaroni necklace helped them. That’s the necklace made out of strings and pasta shells.
5. Find an activity that releases endorphins: In our online society, we’re not as physically active as we should be. But endorphins, whether they come from exercise or laughter, help us fight depression. I have written about the mental health benefits of exercise as well as how to exercise when you are depressed. I also did filmed a video on the latter. If you hate the word “exercise,” think about something else you can do that you enjoy such as dancing, jogging, or even going for a walk.