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Out of the Clouds: Managing Anxiety-Induced Dissociation in the Age of Social Media Overload

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Every time we open our laptops or phones, we are bombarded with information: the latest crises at home and overseas, falling financial trends, eco-disasters, and the personal lives of hundreds of online friends and strangers. A study done in 2020 found that more than half of U.S. adults get their news through social media. What’s more, researchers have found a correlation between social media exposure and higher levels of emotional distress, depression, and PTSD symptoms. 

Social media is no longer a place to escape reality. Instead, it has become a place full of real-world crises demanding our attention and emotional reactions. Researchers have called this and the resulting mental health issues “media saturation overload,” “headline anxiety,” and, at its most extreme, “headline stress disorder.” The world is changing quickly, and with constant access to social media, we are all whisked along at break-neck speeds. 

While some people have decided to step away from social media altogether for their mental health, others stress the importance of staying connected and informed in the global community. If you choose to remain plugged in, the question becomes: How will you cope with the anxiety of knowing everything going on everywhere? 

Without effective coping mechanisms, the brain will implement its own defenses, many of which are pathological or unhealthy. For many people, especially younger people, the constant stream of catastrophic news coming through social media has led to a defense mechanism known as dissociation. 

What Is Dissociation? 

Even without the weight of punchy news articles and short, thirty-second overviews of humanitarian crises, social media can trigger a dissociative state. Dissociation is a state of disconnect from ourselves and the world around us. 75% of people will experience a dissociative episode at least once in their lifetime, but for many people who experience headline anxiety, dissociation occurs much more frequently. 

Symptoms of dissociation are: 

  • Disruption in consciousness and identity (feeling out-of-body or like you’re floating)
  • Physical world slipping (not being able to pay attention to the physical world or feeling like you’re not really there)
  • Difficulty remembering events, conversations, or ideas during a dissociative episode
  • Feeling numb or detached from your feelings
  • Time slipping (spending hours doing something you never had the intention of doing)

Dissociation is a defense mechanism against deeply uncomfortable emotions. For example, if you’re scrolling Instagram and are hit by post after post about homelessness in your city, dissociation is a way for you to interact with the distressing information without overwhelming yourself with anxious thoughts. 

Dissociation is not a choice. Similar to many other mental health issues, it is your brain trying to protect itself despite what you consciously want to do. 

Logging Out or Staying On

If the rise of distressing news on social media is causing anxiety and triggering dissociation, you might be tempted to ditch your apps altogether. Everybody’s mental health is different, and you need to consider your individual circumstances. Quitting social media might be the right step for you, but not for others. 

Social media has helped create a connected and informed global community that fosters identity, purpose, and empathy. We must find ways to stay educated, connected, and informed about world events while protecting our mental health. 

Coping Mechanisms for Headline Anxiety and Dissociation 

Here are a few action steps researchers have found that can help manage headline anxiety and keep you grounded when you’re feeling dissociated. 

  1. Take Action: The anxiety and corresponding dissociation from social media can create a sense of learned helplessness or a state of perceived powerlessness. It can feel like everything is out of control, and nothing you do will make a difference. But your voice and your actions matter. Researchers recommend being intentional about stating your values and acting in accordance with them. Find something you’re passionate about—whether it’s the protection of local forests, feeding the homeless, passing a bill, or events happening across the globe—then volunteer, donate, or sign petitions toward the achievement of that goal. Take what you’re learning and do something proactive.  
  1. Try a Social Media Diet: Limit social media checks to 15 minutes at a time. Dissociation can cause time slippage, where you look up and a five-minute work break turns into two hours. Prevent this by setting a timer on your phone to stop social media usage after 15 minutes. If you decide to log back on and scroll—that’s totally fine! The important thing is your agency. You are actively choosing to keep scrolling; your choice wasn’t made in a disconnected state. 
  1. Schedule Media-Free Time: The more frequently you scroll, the more convinced you become that the horrors you’re reading are the only thing happening in the world. This can trigger dissociation and learned helplessness. By stepping off the internet into real life for a while, you remind yourself of your agency. You have power, and it’s up to you to use it. For a bit of time every day, make sure your phone is out of reach in another room.
  1. Create Barriers to Scrolling: When we hear a notification, many of us unconsciously reach for our phones. By turning off notifications, we remove that automatic response. Picking up our phone becomes a conscious thought. As an additional challenge, try logging off your accounts when you’re done scrolling. Now, every time you pick up your phone to scroll, you have an added barrier that will force you to consider: Do I really want to be scrolling right now?  
  1. Search for Broader Context: Turn fast information into long-term knowledge by researching what you see on the news. We exist in a space of micro-news where everything is crammed into as short of time as possible for the views and the clicks. You can prevent anxiety from triggering a dissociative episode by reading more deeply about the issues you feel passionate about. Go to the source, find organizations that are fighting back, and learn all you can. 
  1. Ground Yourself After Scrolling: Even with all the precautions, sometimes the world just gets to you. If you find that your head is scrambled and your heart is racing after scrolling, take some time to ground yourself by engaging your senses. Go for a walk outside, try some breathing exercises, or eat some sour candy (which is known to help anxiety and break dissociation). 
  1. Seek Professional Help: Headline anxiety and dissociation are real. If you feel like you’ve been floating through life and not really in control of anything or that your thoughts are slipping through the cracks, mental health treatment can help. 

Conclusion 

With the constant flow of information online, we need to take precautions to protect our mental health. There are ways to turn scrolling into action without triggering a dissociative episode. One step at a time, we can reclaim our agency and get our head out of the clouds of dissociation. 

 

About the Author: Alli Mann is a mental health content writer at Lifebulb Counseling. She is interested in bridging the gap between current mental health research and the people who need it through easy-to-understand, succinct, and applicable articles. You can find more of her articles at https://www.lifebulb.com/blogs

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-woman-in-yellow-jacket-enjoying-the-snow-covered-mountain-peak-7165182/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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