Don’t Tweet Through the Pain

Why you spiral on social media, and what to do instead

Photo by Tayler Smith. Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.

WWhen I first started social distancing, the amount of time I spent on social media was revolting. My phone’s battery struggled to keep up with the hours I spent refreshing Instagram, staring blankly at images of people’s new bread habits or pleas from restaurants for help. Twitter’s black hole superpowers became biblical in force as I reloaded and read, reloaded and read. I can’t believe I got any work done at all.

It seems like everyone else is experiencing the same thing. In countries affected by coronavirus, Facebook use is up 50%, while in Italy, it’s up 70%. Twitter, meanwhile, has seen a 23% increase in traffic. What else is there to do, while we’re stuck inside? We’re bored, stressed out, anxious — any amalgam of bad feelings you can think of, really.

But this relentless refreshing is not helping you. It’s not helping me. It’s a needless distraction that is making work days bleed into evenings, and it’s creating needless stress. There are things you can do, though, to temporarily shut out the constant clamor of online voices, headlines, and fears, to focus on your work so you can get it done and then, ideally, turn it off entirely. While these tips are immediately applicable to life during this pandemic, they should also serve you well in the future: They speak to the power our social networks have over our minds and may help you engage in a healthier way moving forward.

Some of them may seem easy, but if your social media habit is as deeply ingrained as mine, they’ll take some effort. But I can tell you this: I have implemented several of these tips myself and have genuinely seen success. I’m still scared — this is a scary situation. I’m still stressed out. But I feel genuinely less high-strung and panicked, and I can sleep. With a real resolve to limit your social media time and get through your work day, you can, too.

Social media is not a good friend during a crisis

While small, short-lived amounts of stress are good for your brain — imagine how you feel when you get a tough deadline for a work project — the chronic stress and anxiety we’re experiencing now, and probably will be feeling for the foreseeable future, is not. A 2010 study from researchers at the University of Granada and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that both trait anxiety (which could be roughly described as someone who is frequently anxious — hi!) and state anxiety (a feeling of anxiety in response to external stimuli) affected how well participants could focus on tasks. Another study, from 2018, found that people with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood had poorer working memories than those with lower levels of cortisol.

A 2019 study found that people often use social media when they’re stressed, and they use more social media in an attempt to alleviate that stress, thereby causing more stress.

And all that social media you’re consuming? It’s bad enough on a good day. According to the American Psychological Association, constant checkers — a total of 43% of those surveyed — report higher levels of stress than those who don’t (though it’s worth noting that the survey shows correlation, not causation). Research in 2015 from Sangji University and Korea University reported that social media-related stress made students emotionally exhausted. As I’ve previously reported, when much of your social media consumption is news based — in particular, bad news — suddenly you’re a little ball of anxiety and fear. That has a big impact on your ability to focus.

“Dealing with stressful situations continuously for a prolonged period of time depletes our mental energy, so there is less of it left when we need to concentrate on something,” says Jelena Kecmanovic, the founder and director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. In response, many of us open up our social media accounts because “it is hard to tolerate uncertainty and social media offer a promise of decreasing that uncertainty… Unfortunately, in a fundamentally uncertain and unpredictable situation, there are not many answers that can be found online, so people end up more uncertain and helpless after reading a lot of social media posts.”

A 2019 study in Informations System Journal found that people often use social media when they’re stressed, and they use more social media in an attempt to alleviate that stress, thereby causing more stress. This would help explain why I, and possibly you, bounce around from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, stopping for 10-minute breaks to actually get work done and fill in a spreadsheet or whatever. Here’s what you can do to stay off social media, alleviate some stress, and get things done.

Set limits and stick to them

Sven Laumer, one of the researchers who worked on the 2019 Informations System Journal study, says he personally uses what he calls the “50–10 rule.”

“If I’m working, I turn off my phone, I turn off my emails and say, this is now 50 minutes where I work on an article,” he tells OneZero. “After 50 minutes, I give myself 10 minutes as a break where I can have a look at social media, but after 10 minutes, I spend 50 minutes working again.”

I’ve implemented this rule this week myself, with a pretty high success rate, though I do sometimes go over the 10-minute limit. Because interruptions cause stress, putting limits on yourself about how often you’re allowed to check social media will decrease that stress and make it easier to focus. I’ve found that combining it with an end goal of finishing my work earlier than usual compels me to stick to the 50–10 rule too. If I typically get off at 5:30 but make a goal to finish my work at 4:00 instead. I’m that much more likely to concentrate on getting in that full 50 minutes of work rather than falling into a 45-minute rabbit hole of unhelpful Covid-19 news.

Ask yourself tough questions and answer them

“After you check the news, check in with your body and mind and ask, ‘What did I get from this?’ This helps you see if it was worth it,” says Jud Brewer, the director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. “My lab has studied how this simple question can help people stop overeating. You can use the same trick to help you stop over-consuming news. Basically, this helps you hack that reward center in your brain to help you see how unrewarding it is to constantly check the news.”

It helps to have a little journal beside your computer, where you can jot a quick note about how your 10-minute social media break made you feel. Like with a typical diary entry, write the date and time, then describe in a sentence or two the impact your time on Twitter or Instagram had on you. Don’t feel the need to be elaborate — you don’t want to make it so difficult that you’re not likely to follow through. I’ve started doing this myself, with a cute new notebook and pink pen I received as a birthday gift, when my therapist recommended it last week. Though I’ve only followed through sporadically, it quickly reinforced how most of the time I’ve spent on social media is totally useless. It’s honestly kind of incredible how much my desire to look at Twitter has decreased.

Do yoga. Yes, seriously.

Yoga and meditation are much-derided, cliche responses, but I’m sorry — they work. They really, really work.

In a fantastic piece for the science publication The Conversation, James Carmody, a professor of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, recommended turning your attention to your breath when you start feeling your anxiety creep up.

“When you notice yourself tense and preoccupied with anxious thoughts, try shifting your attention to the sensations of your breathing, wherever you notice it in your body,” he writes. “Bodily tension naturally dissipates with the shift in focus, and a feeling of greater calm follows. Don’t expect attention to stay there; it won’t. Just notice that attention goes back to worries, and gently return it to breathing.”

This is a lot harder to do if you’re in the midst of a full-on anxiety attack — I speak from years of experience on that front. But during a spike of anxiety after seeing another frightening news story, feeling my abdomen fill with air, then flatten and release with an exhale, helps keep those regular surges from developing into full-fledged panic.

If you don’t have kids, you might find that your lack of a commute gives you a little bit of time at the beginning and end of your workday to work out. If possible, do a mixture of different exercises, including slow, breath-focused yoga, which tons of research has shown can have a significant impact on your stress, anxiety, and self-esteem. I have, on and off, been doing yoga at home for years, but in the past few weeks, I’ve upped my determination to do it nearly every day, doing more strenuous, aerobic classes some days and gentler, restorative, breath-focused classes on others. This has a small, but important, effect on my daily anxiety, and if I’m less anxious, I have a much easier time focusing on my work.

Help yourself by helping someone else

One thing I’ve repeatedly told people over the past few days is that giving money to my friends in the food service industry, who have been hit harder than many people in the current crisis, has dampened my anxiety and sense of powerlessness about the pandemic. Though I can’t stop the crisis or its effects on restaurants, bars, farms, and the millions of workers that fuel them, I can do small things that might make it a little easier for a few out-of-work food service staff to pay the rent or buy groceries in the meantime.

Research backs up this personal experience: Giving money, time, and energy can have a positive impact on your stress and mental health. So next time you go online to look at Twitter and despair, if you can afford it, give some money to the Service Worker’s Coalition, or donate to your favorite restaurant’s GoFundMe (they probably have one, unfortunately).

If you’re handy with a needle and thread, you can sew much-needed masks for medical personnel. Or you can offer to grocery shop or make pharmacy trips for elderly or immunocompromised neighbors. All these efforts will help someone else — and decrease your stress and anxiety too.

Looking forward

In all likelihood, we’re in this for the long haul. Several weeks, if not several months, may pass before life goes back to normal. One of the hardest but most crucial things we can do is just… keep our heads above water. It will take effort that many people might not have had to expend before. But it’s also an opportunity to instill good habits that will make life better in the long term. If we’re going to experience this nightmare, we may as well come out of it stronger.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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