It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. That’s usually how it starts.
It may happen while I’m sitting in my office and see a post pop up in my Facebook feed of, for example, a young child who's missing. Or as I become inundated with coronavirus content everywhere I turn and begin picturing the movie “Contagion” becoming a reality. Will I have to fend for my family like Matt Damon did? It may be a post from a friend's friend's cousin that the original friend liked and voila, now it's in my feed with the heartbreaking news that she lost her newborn. Or I'll be sitting on my sofa after work, checking out the Instagram discover tab when I see a photo of a young parent with cancer — and that's when the elephant starts crushing me. It gets hard to breathe, my mind starts to race, tears come to my eyes and I suddenly find myself in the stages of a panic attack.
As social media continues to take over both our personal and professional lives, FOMO (fear of missing out) has closely followed. But I experience a different kind of anxiety entirely. Not fear of missing out — just straight-up fear. Fear of my children dying, fear of myself dying, fear of a debilitating accident for any of us. I see stories every day of people like me facing my worst nightmares — and it makes me feel like my number will be up any moment.
Feeling the fear
Wondering if this was a common feeling or if it was just a byproduct of working in news and seeing triggering content more regularly, I mentioned to my friend, Julie, that social media makes me feel like something terrible could happen to me or my family any second — and asked if she ever felt the same way.
Julie’s response was a resounding yes.
“As a parent especially, social media puts me face-to-face with the terrible things that happen to families — kids, mothers — on a daily basis,” she said, adding that her cousin’s wife lost a friend with young children to breast cancer. Because they have mutual friends, the incident was all over her Facebook feed.
“Had I heard this story just through my cousin, I would have felt grief and anger on her behalf, but I really doubt I would have internalized it the way I have," she said, adding she still imagines daily what it would be like for her kids to watch her slowly die of cancer and then have to live their lives without her.
“There's no perspective on social media. The odds of it happening to me are low — but the odds of me seeing it on Facebook are so high that I forget that Facebook is telling me about that one-in-a-million case.”
Managing the emotional weight
I reached out to Tiffany Roe, a therapist, psychology teacher and the owner of Mindful Counseling in Orem, Utah. Ironically social media, which seemed to be causing my anxiety, was also what brought me to her. Roe's Instagram page is filled with ways to practice self-love, from what you say to yourself to what you eat. And I was hoping she could help with how I scroll.
“You are not alone,” she assured me. “This oversaturation, overexposure, constant information stimulation — a natural outcome of that is anxiety.”
I explained to her that, like so many people, I can’t just quit social media. It’s ingrained in my job and having accounts on these platforms is essential to my role. So how could I still use it without feeling panic every time I come across heartbreaking content? She encouraged me to try the following process any time I felt the anxiety creeping up:
- Acknowledge what you are feeling. “Stop scrolling and say I am feeling [blank],” Roe said. “Acknowledging that is going to be an important step instead of suppressing."
- Validate the feelings. Remind yourself it's safe and healthy to have feelings. Roe suggested using affirmative language such as “it’s OK to feel this” or “my emotions are valid” or “of course I feel this.”
- Dig deeper. Roe encouraged me to ask myself: What is my deeper fear here? “Is the fear that this could happen to you? What thought are you having about yourself because of this content? What feelings or beliefs are triggered because of this content?”
- Support yourself. Roe asked that I consider what would be soothing, nurturing and supportive to myself at this point. Whether it’s journaling, spending a minute practicing gratitude, reaching out to someone for support — take a moment to practice self-care before returning to work.
At first glance, this process seemed like a lot to do when facing down anxiety. The panic felt like an onslaught of racing thoughts and fear, so I was hoping for a one-step process to shut it down instead of four thoughtful stages — but trusting Roe’s expertise, I set out to put her process to the test.
Coming out of the spiral
It didn’t take long for my fears to kick back up.
A few nights later, I had put my daughters to bed and was scrolling through Instagram stories when I saw one that a friend had posted about someone she knew who had just died from cancer. There was a hashtag. I tapped it.
I was immediately seeing hundreds of posts about this young mom who had been fighting cancer for six years. I saw photos of her vibrancy when she was feeling well, I saw photos of her hugging her daughter, just a few years older than my own, during a hospital stay. And I saw a photo of her on her deathbed. My eyes filled with tears thinking about what this poor family was going through, and then my mind began to swirl around the idea that this could have been me.
What would it have been like for my daughters to see me dying? What would it be like to hold them for the last time? How would they feel hearing I was gone? These weren’t just questions that would flee from my mind. They’d stay, I’d quickly imagine the answers play out, and it was heart-wrenching.
I talked myself through Roe’s process.
I acknowledged what I was feeling. And what I was feeling was anguish.
I validated the feeling. Anyone hearing about this woman’s death and the family left behind would feel grief for the family and fear of it happening to them. I wasn’t being overly sensitive — my reaction was normal.
Now, I dug. And this part is still revealing itself. I asked myself why I was feeling this way? There were elementary answers: because this is a terribly sad story, because this woman and her family seem like me and mine and it makes it seem more possible. But I kept digging, and I think at the root of all of my fear is a very real fear of death and not really knowing what, if anything, comes next.
So how do I support myself out of this? In this instance, I put my phone away and talked myself through it. I reminded myself that I am healthy and that my children are healthy. I told myself that my family was safe at home. And I reminded myself of the implausibility that this could happen to us. The fears began to quiet and the entire process took only minutes.
It’s now been about three weeks since I started practicing this exercise. I’m not healed of social media anxiety, nor do I think that was Roe’s intent. But I have a toolkit to use when those fears start to rise — and they do (daily). And for the first time in a long time, I've remembered how to take care of myself instead of letting the anxiety take hold of me.
I’ve remembered that I’m in charge here.
Amy Eley is the lifestyle managing editor for TODAY.com.