First, let’s address the big elephant in the room. I’m aware that you’re probably reading this article because you saw it on social media. It’s how I reach the vast majority of you.
Self-interests aside, however, we need to talk about what social media is doing to us generally. Then, more specifically, the impact it can have on your sobriety.
The Negative Impact Of Social Media
There was a time in the not-so-distant past where I swear I lost four hours of my life every day to Twitter. It was a train wreck. I knew this. But I could not look away.
Something about rage reading tweets from terrible people was irresistible. I began to develop Twitter FOMO and caught myself mindlessly checking it any time there was a lull in my day.
And I was absolutely miserable.
Why is my zombie thumb constantly refreshing the screen on my phone? Am I going to develop those weird bone spurs in my neck from looking down so much?
And it’s not just me. It’s most of us.
What the research says about our social media use.
Approximately three billion human beings are on social media platforms. The average time we spend there is about two hours per day. It was SUPPOSED to be a way for us to connect and keep friends and family updated on all the big life stuff.
But it’s devolved into a social cesspool that is making us angrier, depressed, lonely, and extremely polarized.
Stress & Social Media
What a tangled web we weave.
You ever just catch yourself reaching for your phone to check Facebook (or something else) and think to yourself, “Why am I doing this?”
As it turns out, social media platforms are designed to hook you into staying, scrolling, and coming back, often mindlessly.
And that stresses us out.
According to a study out of Lancaster University, using platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been shown to cause stress for users. But here’s the kicker: people aren’t switching them off. Oh no.
They merely move onto a different feature of the site to cope with the fact that the site is causing them stress. Makes no sense, and yet we do it!
Newsfeed stressing you out? No worries. Just switch on over to my crush’s profile to see what s/he’s up to. Oh, and message my cousin.
Those of us who can’t get enough, begin to develop addictive, compulsive behaviors towards social media.
Think that sounds absurd?
If you’re out in public right now, look around you.
How many people have their noses buried in their phones? When you’re at dinner, are the people talking to one another or on their phones?
When you sit down for an appointment, do you wait patiently or do you whip out your phone the minute there’s downtime in your life?
We’re an army of distracted little fiends.
It’s HARD to break out of this habit. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we’ve been hardwired to respond to the dings and pings of our smartphones. They’ve become an extension of ourselves and thaaaaaaaat’s not great.
All that stress? It really adds up.
Smartphone Separation Anxiety
Yup. You read that right. And it’s a thing. You may even experience it.
Studies have shown that when we sit within reaching distance of our smartphones, turned off, and face down, we cannot think clearly. It taunts us.
Pick me up. Use me!
“Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told The New York Times. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”
The constant cortisol spikes brought on by our phones may have long-term effects on our overall health, something those of us in sobriety are particularly focused on getting back.
From the New York Times:
“…the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as Google has noted in a report, is that “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”
The Stress-Inducing Monster That Is Our Phones
“Elevated cortisol levels impair the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain critical for decision-making and rational thought. “The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s Jiminy Cricket,” says Dr. Lustig. “It keeps us from doing stupid things.”
Impairment of the prefrontal cortex decreases self-control. When coupled with a powerful desire to allay our anxiety, this can lead us to do things that may be stress-relieving in the moment but are potentially fatal, such as texting while driving.
The effects of stress can be amplified even further if we are constantly worrying that something bad is about to happen, whether it’s a physical attack or an infuriating comment on social media. (In the case of phones, this state of hypervigilance sometimes manifests as “phantom vibrations,” in which people feel their phone vibrating in their pocket when their phone isn’t even there.)”
Does any of this sound familiar?
I felt seen when I read this.
Although I don’t do it anymore, as recently as a year ago, I was ALWAYS online checking who said what and planning what I was going to say back. Basically picking fights with people I went to high school with and the usual trolling strangers of the internet.
These days, the daily news cycle in the United States is a real choose your adventure in terms of bat shit crazy things you never thought you’d see. And that, too, adds stress.
This compulsion to check, or be right in an argument that doesn’t really matter, to watch the drama unfold in real-time – it’s not healthy. And if you let it, you can find yourself spiraling back down into an anxiety-fueled funk wishing you could drink to shut it all down.
Sobriety & Stress: Let’s not pile on, shall we?
Sobriety is stressful enough without adding to it.
Right now your primary focus needs to be on your emotional and physical needs.
Constantly checking FB, Twitter, or Instagram is trapping yourself in another unhealthy cycle (or perhaps you’re already there). It’s also an avoidance strategy.
Why deal with the raging shit storm in your brain when you can watch cat videos or get worked up by trolls in the comment thread of your favorite news publication?
You do not possess the time nor the emotional bandwidth to be doing all of that right now!
Besides, sobriety requires us to be kind to ourselves.
Purposefully engaging in activities that spike our cortisol levels and make us feel more out of control is unhelpful, to say the least. Treat yourself to some much-needed, emotional relief! You deserve it.
The Emotional Stress Of Social Media
Beyond the fact that our phones and social media are sucking precious time away from our lives, there is an added emotional cost to spending too much time online.
By now I think we’re all aware that, for the most part, our social media avatars are highly curated and filtered versions of ourselves. They’re not real.
But that still doesn’t protect us from falling victim to the whole comparison thing, wondering why our lives aren’t perfect like everyone else’s. That is ESPECIALLY dangerous in early sobriety.
Facebook is going to show you the heavily filtered selfies of your friends drinking beer at the bar.
It’s not going to show you the same friends stumbling out the door at 3 AM, looking like they’ve been in a fight. Nor will it show you the embarrassing aftermath of vomiting in the kitchen sink or waking up next to a total stranger, wondering if they used protection.
So we see the pretty pictures in bars and think, “God, I want that! Why can’t I have it?”
Even though we know it’s bullshit. It still triggers the parts of our brains that crave. You begin to get that itch to drink, party, “have fun.”
Why torment yourself like that if you don’t have to?
The Comparison Trap
A 2016 study from Penn State University found that “viewing other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem because users compare themselves to photos of people looking their happiest.”
And then there’s the whole look who’s living their perfect life while I suffer with a tub of ice cream and on my couch things that we do online.
From the BBC:
“A study of 1,000 Swedish Facebook users found that women who spent more time on Facebook reported feeling less happy and confident. The researchers concluded: “When Facebook users compare their own lives with others’ seemingly more successful careers and happy relationships, they may feel that their own lives are less successful in comparison.”
I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another.
Oh, look! Maria’s son made the honor roll. Again…
Instead of enjoying quality time with our loved ones, we chase behind them with our cellphone to snap photos we can later post to show everyone how super awesome our lives really are!
It’s making us all a bit wacky. (I’m guilty of it, too!)
When you’re dealing with a lot of baggage, negative emotions, and poor self-image, it’s a great idea to tap out of the social media world for a bit.
Not forever (unless you want to).
But just enough to focus on yourself for a while. Try your hand at reality for a change.
Because our tendency is to go online and see what we perceive to be happy friends and family, living normal lives, not dealing with alcohol cravings or a lifetime of regrets, and feel worse about ourselves.
Of course, we can’t know for sure what any of those people are REALLY going through, but it doesn’t matter to our brain.
The emotional response is the same.
We may even see people on Instagram posting about #soberissexy looking radiant and most certainly NOT struggling to avoid alcohol today. And it pisses us off!
Why can’t I have what she’s got? Why am I such a loser? I can’t get six sober months together like that dude.
Social media isn’t intended to show you the ugly parts. Even when people do, it’s usually a filtered, attention-seeking, and not-the-whole-story version. I’m looking at you sexy crying selfie pose with emotional unloading in the comments!
Stop and take a moment to observe your emotions when you’re online. Are you mindlessly scrolling to avoid something? How do you feel? Jealous, happy, supported, angry?
Maybe a little bit of everything?
Your emotional health is your responsibility and if that means stepping away from social media (as much as we might hate it) to get a better handle on things, then do it!
What about online sobriety and support groups?
See, this is where it gets tricky.
In full transparency, this is my current struggle because I use Facebook and Twitter for Soberish and to connect with my sober community.
BUT, I’d be lying if I didn’t also catch myself falling victim to mindless scrolling and losing a much-needed 30 or 40 minutes of my day.
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, has a suggestion for this. If you need a break from your Facebook newsfeed, but still want the benefit of your online support system, there are things you can do.
Access should not be a barrier to help.
Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist who has the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.
1. Hide Your News Feed
There are internet browser extensions that will eliminate your Facebook Newsfeed and replace it with inspiring quotes and reminders to not get distracted.
Here’s one called Kill News Feed. You can still check your notifications and post to groups, but it kills your newsfeed so you don’t get caught up in the time suck of mindless scrolling. There are a few other options.
Do a Google search and pick one that suits you.
2. Purge your friends list and followed pages.
If you just want to use Facebook to follow your immediate family members and stay active in a few Facebook groups, then do that!
And then get rid of everything else. Unfriend. Unlike. Unfollow. Buh-bye.
This one is pretty drastic, but if you feel like you need that in your life, then go for it. Another option is to temporarily unfollow everyone until you’re ready to engage again.
It’s tedious because you have to manually go in and do this, but it’s probably a more productive use of your time than checking out what your favorite frenemy was up to in 2014.
3. Delete social media apps from your phone
This will actually cut back on a lot of brainless online time. I’d take it one step further and delete ANY apps that are nonessential. Do you REALLY need to play solitaire or check the news from your phone?
Is Twitter your poison?
Last year, I deleted my personal Twitter account because I was tired of fighting myself overusing it. I did the whole “delete social media apps from my phone” thing but still managed to spend way too much time online from my computer.
I do have my Soberish account still active but it is carefully curated. I follow my sobriety peeps and that’s about it.
Anyone who posts things that threaten to hurl me down a rage-reading rabbit hole gets blocked. It’s not because I can’t handle ideas or opinions that differ from mine. I can.
It’s just that I’m not on Twitter for that. I’m there to connect and get support for sobriety. If you’re trying to bring something else to my feed, then adios!
You can also filter out words and phrases as a way of curating your feed to avoid dealing with topics that set you off or hijack your attention.
What about Instagram?
A good rule is that if it inspires or motivates you, keep it. If there’s an account that has the opposite effect, unfollow it.
I am 38 years old. What is a Snap Chat? (Actually, I do have an account, but it’s just to play with the filters with my daughter.) You’re on your own there.
Is Snap Chat still a thing?
Your wellbeing is a priority. Treat it that way!
We are way more powerful and in control of our lives than we give ourselves credit for. I forget this CONSTANTLY.
Honestly, If I could just get Gary Vee to follow me around and shout some sense into my ear, I’d be unstoppable. (Reminder to download the latest Gary Vee podcast.)
So there’s nothing wrong with you if you tend to forget this too. We all get stuck in our feelings, unable to move.
Part of sobriety is about proactively seeking out easy wins. What can you do to move the proverbial ball forward today, even if it’s just an inch?
If you feel overly stressed, checked out, or forever on your phone even when you don’t mean to be, this is probably a good move for you.
I’d argue we ALL need to do it, but that’s a personal choice and entirely yours to make.
The more we eliminate the things that cause us pain and stress, the stronger our sobriety becomes. The foundation gets a little firmer. That way when the really big stuff comes along, we are able to manage it better.
And isn’t that the goal?
Interested in hearing more from Cal Newsport on digital minimalism and escaping the trappings of social media? Here’s an extended interview from the Breakfast Club. It’s about thirty minutes, but I HIGHLY recommend having a listen.