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The Connection Between Social Media & Mental Health: Managing My Anxiety and Depression

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Disclaimer: The following article contains sensitive content and subject matter such as depression, anxiety, suicide, and other mental health topics.

In late 2022, my morning alarm would go off at 8 a.m. and I’d grab my phone off the nightstand and roll over to the other side of my bed to start scrolling on social media. When I’d finally turned my phone off to get up and use the bathroom, my clock read “11 AM” in a bold, red, block font that I always hated. Just
like that, my morning had been wasted, and I’d go through the rest of the day feeling, for lack of a better word, shitty.

This feeling went on for a while. It still occurs every now and again. The difference is that I’ve learned to live with it in a balanced, healthy way. Depression and anxiety are some of the most commonly discussed mental illnesses, and I think we need to normalize and deshame the culture around them — and of experiencing them — more.

Social media can be one of the most useful, amazing, and invigorating tools to cope with mental health, but it can also be deadly. Using apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and TikTok literally gives you a high. This rush of dopamine while on the apps is addictive and exciting, but it can also fuel anxiety and depression. These symptoms were happening to me. I just had to go on TikTok and Instagram; I had to see who liked my photos, who decided to unfollow me, and who was posting all the way from New York City. Frankly, I didn’t really care.

The problem with frequently checking on what other people are doing or saying is that it can become obsessive quickly. I started spending all my time on social media platforms, comparing myself to others that I’d see on the “For You” page. It was really unhealthy and hard to overcome, but the answer to a lot of my problems was just to delete the apps once and for all.

The first few weeks were strange, like detoxing from a drug or any other addiction, and I was so worried that I would relapse. My mental health suffered; I was barely getting any sleep, I felt lonelier than ever, and I didn’t know what to do with my spare time — time that I’d usually spend on my phone. Even now, I still fight the impulse to check social media fifty or more times a day, and I know that others do too.

I’ll add that I’m not a mental health professional or a psychologist. Some may say I’m not even a trustworthy source on this topic. I’m just an individual who has experienced the tensions between media and mental health, and I want to help as many people as I can.

I spoke with marketing and communications coordinator Catie Whyte and peer support facilitator Elyse Cathrea from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). The CMHA, founded over 100 years ago in 1918, is a mental health organization that advocates for individuals struggling with mental illnesses. It provides support and offers programs and services to help everyone.

Although the CMHA is a national organization, each province and territory within Canada has its own sector; both Whyte and Cathrea are specifically involved with the Edmonton region. This office differs from other resources around Canada, as every region may have different economic states, climates and transportation, demographics, and overall living standards — meaning they may also have different needs. Edmonton’s specific focus is to support the mental health of the people who live here through advocacy, grief support and crisis services, education, housing programs, and much more. Cathrea let me in on how social media and phone use can have a direct correlation with mental health.

Over the past three years, Cathrea admits that the global COVID pandemic has been one of the most extreme societal aggravators that we’ve seen on people’s mental health. It contributed to poor living situations, financial challenges, inaccessible resources, loss of coping mechanisms, and, in some cases, increased substance abuse. What did we have left to turn to? Social media. Because of these unprecedented changes and hardships, many people developed unhealthy behaviours or conditions. Between the confusion and general fears and anxieties of getting sick and being isolated, apps such as TikTok and Instagram really blew up. Social media platforms had billions of users relying on their services to keep them connected to the outside world, but also for a distraction from the chaos happening around them.

Some of the main things Cathrea suggests taking into consideration when dealing with mental health issues around social media are implementing forms of self-care to keep yourself grounded, maintaining a good sleep schedule, reaching out to resources, getting daily movement, and, if nothing else, saying goodbye to the media source (but don’t worry, it’s not forever).

Contact an online resource for help

If you have a bad day and want to talk to someone about it, many different online resources are there to help. With that being said, everybody’s level of struggle is different. If you’re feeling depressed, experiencing anxiety or stress, having thoughts of self-harm, or feeling lonely, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to reach out. Odds are, the person on the other end of the phone has experienced what you’re feeling once in their life as well.

Edmonton’s 811 number is a general health advice line where you’re able to speak with a registered Nurse. For more specific mental health issues, the 24-hour CMHA distress line (780-482-4357) or online CMHA Crisis Chat are also great options. If you’re feeling big emotions and you want to talk to someone, don’t hesitate to call the CMHA distress line. You don’t have to be in distress for them to listen.

Visiting therapists and counsellors can also help a lot and can be accessed anywhere in the city for a cost or at MacEwan University for students for free. If you’re not ready to talk to anyone face-to-face yet, online resources such as self-help articles and books can also make a big difference. The CHMA website offers helpful articles for stress management, feeling overwhelmed, dealing with grief, helping with addictions, and offering non-media options for coping.

Engage in self-care

We’ve all seen those “treat yourself” posts online that advocate for doing things for your own personal development, health, and mental well-being. This practice is an essential part of managing mental health. Meeting your own needs, and doing things that work for your mind, your body, and your own capabilities should always come first.

Using your phone responsibly and carefully as a part of your self-care routine can actually be extremely empowering; you could reach out to friends, listen to podcasts, watch calming videos, join a livestream workout class, or utilize any other option that works for you. Or maybe taking a “social media break” is your version of self-care; it looks different for everyone.

For Cathrea, some activities that she enjoys doing to help with her own mental health are exercising and doing small acts of self-care. Mental illnesses are still stigmatized, but educating one another can help to reduce this. She explains that the conversation has come a long way as we learn that mental health issues are more common, and we’re able to talk about these struggles more openly, with a broader understanding. “Whether COVID or not, mental health challenges are always there,” she says, “it’s something that we all have.” For many, getting rid of it forever is not always an option, but learning how to live with it is.

“One of the things that we hear a lot is, ‘self-care, self-care, self-care,’ and I think that word has been used so much that people tune it out,” Cathrea says. “Sometimes it’s a little misguided. I’m a big believer in sustainable self-care, and what that actually means.” Everyone’s ideas of dealing with mental health are different, but it’s important to meet your own needs and “find the things that work for you, work for your body, and work for your life and your experience,” she adds.

Take social media breaks

The double-edged sword that is social media can be helpful, engaging, and fun, but it can also have the complete opposite effect on people. Now, in the digital age, we’re inherently hardwired to rely on our devices to feel better and help us get through tough emotions. “Because everything we do is Zoom, Facetime, online portals and computers….It makes that path to picking up my phone to cope so much easier,” Cathrea admits.

Taking a short break from technology can be really beneficial for some people. It can create space and allow you to step back, reconnect with real life, and find healthier coping mechanisms.

“It all comes back to intentionality. I don’t think going on TikTok for stress management is inherently a bad thing,” Cathrea says. “If I’m consuming things that make me laugh, that make me feel good, (and) that bring me joy, (it’s) cool.” But the line between using social media for pleasure and depending on it to survive is very fine. “The next step of that is (asking) ‘Am I spending eight hours in the TikTok blackhole?’ and then (realizing) I have to go back to life in
the real, 3D world that we’re in.” The steps of taking a social media break give you the context of how it really makes you feel when there is a separation, and you don’t have free, unlimited access to it.

The shame and guilt that comes along with being online can be overpowering. “It’s about sustainably creating boundaries and edging backwards a little bit so that you’re not shocking yourself, and maybe replacing it with something that feels more in line with where you want to move towards.” So, is it possible to learn to live with social media in a happy and healthy way? Absolutely. Cathrea explains that scaling back slowly from social media and learning to focus on yourself and your personal needs is the way to start.

Move your Body

Lastly, moving your body can really make a difference. Cathrea explains how even the little things like yoga, stretching, going for a walk, or dancing around to your favourite song can all help to release emotions in small, but helpful ways. “We’re very, as a society, disconnected from our bodies, and our bodies hold our emotions,” she adds. “The more you can do that (move your body) in little ways is really beneficial.”

We can’t change the future of social media — unless you personally know Elon Musk, in which case, tell him I’d like a Tesla for my birthday. Yet, we can change the future of mental health. The CMHA hopes to be able to shift the stigma around emotional health and mental wellness, while opening up the conversation to anybody and everybody who is interested. We all face challenges with stress and social media, constantly comparing ourselves to those around us, having depressive thoughts or anxiety, and adapting to new changes. I’m not saying that we can cure these issues with the snap of a finger, but recognizing the role of mental health and destigmatizing it is a good place to start.

Every day people all around the world deal with grief, depression, anxiety, stress, self-confidence, harmful thoughts, and many, many more types and symptoms of mental illnesses. It doesn’t matter your race, age, gender, diet, beliefs, religion, or lifestyle. It’s universal. It’s one of the few things that everybody will deal with at some point, yet in the most mundane and miserable way possible, it brings us together. If you’re experiencing any of these issues, you’re not alone.

Most importantly, don’t forget to look after yourself, recognize if social media is an issue for you, and take action as soon as possible to stay healthy. To learn more about the CHMA and what they offer, visit their website (edmonton.cmha.ca/).

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