Social anxiety on social media

Lately I have been reading anxiety books. There are loads of them in my local library. So, it seems I am not alone in my anxious state. However, most of them have a chapter on social media which contains the advice: If you suffer from anxiety, do not use social media.

This makes me anxious as I like social media and as a super diligent woman (more about that later), given that there are many types of anxiety and many types of social media, I find this advice incredibly lazy.

I have heard the arguments about how social media can leave us feeling inadequate and depressed and I don’t doubt it, but I believe we get whatever we are looking for online, intentionally or otherwise.

I also believe that technology is an extension and/or reflection of us so if we feel like we are missing out when we look online at people having a better time than us (FOMO), then we should YOLO, which means go and do something which brings us fulfilment. Social media is not a thing outside of us, it doesn’t do anything to us, it reflects us. So whether we do or don’t do social media we will still feel anxious.

I have always been an anxious person. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel anxious and I have been online for years. And, yet when I was thinking about writing this blog, I got quite anxious about it: What if someone feels I haven’t defined anxiety sufficiently well? What if I reveal too much of myself? What if? What if? What if?

In an interview over on SoundsTrue, marketing man Seth Godin says that Anxiety is failure in advance, like a stubbed toe. It might hurt, but he ignores it. Online, he has over one million followers who hang on his every word and buy his stuff, and he sold a company worth quite a few bob, so he is in an unusual position to enjoy a stubbed toe. Not many of us feel supported by one million people and worth a few bob socially and fiscally online and it might just really hurt.

The odd times here, when people have said awful things about me personally, like the time I wrote a review blog about a foodpump, I deleted their comments. Now older and wiser I wish I had kept them, as even though the comments were spiteful, they were obviously just about the people who wrote them and their pain around foodpumps. But, it really hurt.

I hate rows, I hate conflict, I hate any sort of confrontation, just the thought makes me teary, which will surprise people, because I seem fearless. And, I am. And, I can be when the occasion demands it of me. But it costs me a lot and, sometimes I wish I cared less about everything and didn’t feel as much. I feel raw a lot of the time.

And, I don’t remember ever not feeling anxious, often for no reason. Sometimes it can be debilitating, and I have to adjust my behaviour. For example, when I am too stressed I will take the stairs rather than a lift, because a closed space that day may freak me out.

The last time I got stuck in a lift it was with another guy who freaked out more than me. We were so sweaty and held onto each other for the longest time and laughed hysterically with relief when we got out of there. Having learnt that it is not just me, I will turn and explain to people: Sorry, I’m having a bad day, can we take the stairs? And they will tell me a story in return about someone they know who doesn’t do the tube, or lifts, or escalators, or aeroplanes. Connection is where the magic happens, and often vulnerability is the most authentic way to connect.

But I don’t do this often online because social media is a different model of communication – it is a broadcasting to anyone and no one in particular model. The WWW compresses time and space so I am not having the same shared experience and it can feel all a bit asynchronous, hanging vulnerably in a void.

Many people feel obliged to do social media because it is part of their jobs, or they have to promote themselves as independents, and unlike Seth Godin, they don’t have one million followers and are not making a few bob, so they do it everyday even if they hate it, and then since we are all making it up as we go along (no one knows how social media works) certain types of behaviour get normalised online often for the worse.

Last week, I watched a Twitter thread from an author-to-be who wants to get more followers (apparently 1k is the magic number). Lots of people replied and one said: Writers are not readers here on Twitter. Did the author-to-be reply to everyone who offered advice? Nope. Or, thank new followers or retweeters? Nope. The author-to-be instead tweeted people who are well known, because that is what we have always done, we quote and talk about people who are famous and in a position to be heard. Online they are influencers, even though we don’t really know if what they say is great or not, they are the ones who define what is great, regardless of who says it or not, and we agree. There was nothing social about that Twitter thread, it was a number’s game.

Ignoring people is just rude, and now it seems to be the done thing on Twitter. Ignoring people used to make me feel anxious and I needed to explain myself. But, then just the other day someone asked me to do a share a pic thing and nominate someone else to do the same, everyday, for seven days. For the first time in my life, I ignored the request and felt a bit anxious, but then I justified it to myself (like we do online): I hate sharey things which the person would know if they knew me. But they don’t – I am just filler – so I feel less bad about it.

A lot of the time, unless you know the people well, we are all just random people online, like at a bus stop, except at a bus stop people wouldn’t ask me to do something like that and I would never ignore them, unless we were regulars and we got to know each other better, and then we would be more than sociable strangers.

Recently in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman said that society rewards us for our anxiety, we have to wait and worry and work hard and be busy to get our recognition. Social media reflects that too with all those ridiculous social media rules about creating ten pieces of content daily to drive website traffic, or increase SEO by code to text ratio, readability factor, keyword density and relevancy. And, the re-emergence of buying links on other people’s websites to point to their websites. I used to get a lot of offers from companies wanting to buy my links and just recently, it’s started again so inasmuch as I ignore the rules, I must be doing something right. Oh great joy, I am worth a bob or two online. But I am still anxious and it hurts more than a stubbed toe.

In Yoga Journal, meditation guru Sally Kempton says we think we are being diligent when really we are being anxious. This was such a truth to me that I have reread the article a zillion times. Go read it. It is amazing.

For many reasons – like I had a PhD supervisor who used to burst through the door every week and shout You are going to fail, or the time I spotted a bubble in my daughter’s dialysis catheter which allowed us to take action to save her from developing peritonitis – I am a super diligent anxious woman, who has only gotten more diligent as life goes on with more things to monitor and the risk/reward balance seemingly getting bigger and bigger. But, now those pathways are in my brain and it is getting harder to rewire them.

So, I have taken a lot of advice from the library books to try and stop my anxiety. I took myself off to a therapist (well I did that before the books), and I got to talk a lot of my patterns that I hadn’t consciously recognised before which is surprising since I wrote ages ago that we are embodied, and our minds makes us see events according to old memories and fears, prejudices and early conditioning. But, theory and practice are two different things.

I also do a shedload of hot sweaty bikram yoga per week as I truly believe that we carry our issues in our tissues and that all of our energies, even anxiety has the powerful energy of our life force behind it, and we can release that energy if we learn to tap into it in the right way through movement, through meditation, through a letting go.

The rest of the advice says things like talk to friends but when we are time squeezed with responsibilities like jobs, kids, cats, it can be hard to carve out time, and even then we may not want to go out.

Last year after my mum died, I was crushed by grief and going out was the last thing I wanted to do, which is where social media came in. It helped me feel better to distract myself, to let go in small amounts of time. I use social media to be social, to take me out of myself, and to lift me up as I have blogged about many times.

Sometimes, I get anxious about what people say and do via social media, but more and more I see this is the people triggering the anxiety I already have and it is not social media as a thing I have to brave like a lift or a hospital check-up. It is my social anxiety of me dealing with people and vice-versa. Whatever I do in response to that, well it is an inside job, I can hold on or let go.

We can choose where to put our attention and how to use the tools we have at our disposal. I choose to use Twitter to have a giggle with people make me laugh. I use Facebook to keep in touch with people who’ve known me all, or most of, my life, I lock it down so I share more personal things there. Instagram, is an online photo album to remind me of things personal to me and no I don’t want to worry about privacy so the pics are not really private. And, here, on this blog, I write long, long blogs about technology and sometimes my feelings, but not in a way in which I feel exposed.

I deleted LinkedIn after too many ridiculous incidents like the electrician who let me down and then endorsed my work as a HCI lecturer, he never attended my lectures, unlike the student I threw out for being disruptive but then I wasn’t teaching him HCI, either!

Towards the end of last year I stopped seeing the therapist as I got tired of talking about how sad and upset I was. The therapist was convinced that it was my tragic backstory which was making me anxious (though the therapist never said that and told me off when I did #ffs) but it wasn’t and it isn’t. I mean it did and it does a bit, all those pathways in my brain, but that’s not the full story.

The therapist also told me that I would always be anxious hence my research down the library. But, I don’t believe it even though I was and I am. That’s not the full story, either.

Instead, I believe everything the yogis tell me, that we are more powerful than we know, that being anxious is just a feeling and I believe that technology is magic and like any technology tool, social media could be anything we want it to be. Technology even one day may help me retrain my neurons – it can help phobias already – so that I can choose other feelings instead.

Until then, I will keep on keeping on with yoga and meditation, anxious giggling and being sociably sweaty with strangers so that I YOLO instead of FOMO and my feelings feel better, I let go and to be the change I want to see. It may not always work but the day I find something which does then of course I will share it here. Just you wait and see.