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Managing Social Media Before it Manages You: Digital Wellness for Chronic Illness in the Time of Covid-19

Last updated: 08-01-2020

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Managing Social Media Before it Manages You: Digital Wellness for Chronic Illness in the Time of Covid-19

When I woke up this morning and signed into my social media feed, the first pose I saw said “‘The attitude of gratitude always creates an abundant reality’ ~ Roxana Jones” with the hashtags #gratitude #motivation #positivity #blessed. Somehow, all it made me feel was #unmotivated #negative and #irritated.

The next social media post I read this morning was the polar opposite of the first. It was about the untold cost of the lack of medical care for non-covid illnesses during the lockdown. Brutally accurate, but also triggering. In April, I was supposed to  have a pain relieving nerve ablation surgery, which I’d been waiting almost a year for, but it got cancelled, like so many other surgeries and procedures. Now, it’s up in the air, and my pain is getting worse.Needless to say, after that, I felt #drained #exhausted and #depressed.

Social media is an important lifeline for people with chronic illness, and science says it’s actually good for us to use. Since few of us know other people living with illness in real life, social media offers a way to connect with other people who can actually understand what you’re going through. Being able to interact with other people when you’re stuck at home is a blessing, rather than a curse, most of the time. So it’s especially problematic if social media is managing you, rather than the other way around, during the covid19 pandemic.

I do believe that gratitude is a potent antidote to the negative self-comparisons that we all make, especially when illness takes away careers, mobility, friends and life roles.

Re-focusing instead on moments of connection, natural beauty around us, or having the basics of life, which we take for granted and are absent in so many parts of the world, does make life better.  Research shows that cultivating thankfulness improves sleep patterns, benefits the immune system, deepens relationships, increases compassion, and generally improves quality of life.

But gratitude shouldn’t become another standard by which you judge yourself for succeeding or failing, or whether you have cultivated “enough” thankfulness yet. Especially right now, when our lives have been uprooted by a global pandemic.

Social media already makes us more prone to negative self-comparisons. In the era of coronavirus, images of other people’s joyful family activities, freshly baked bread, fitness achievements or motivational quotes, which are intended to be inspiring, can have the opposite effect. I feel guilty for feeling negative about positivity posts. You wonder “why aren’t I living my best pandemic life right now?” But social media can create emotional pressure that backfires, and #Motivational Monday becomes #UnmotivatedAllDay.

Remember that we can have two feelings at the same time. We can feel grateful for the sacrifices made by front-line workers, for having a roof over our heads and food on the table, and for not getting covid-19, but at the same time, also feel overwhelmed, isolated or frustrated.

I think a helpful rule of thumb, when you’re posting on social media, is to pause and reflect for a moment about whether a post could seem judgemental or preachy, or ask yourself if it portrays an idealized “perfect pandemic life.” For example, I’ve seen celebrities who say that while quarantining together they are grateful because “my husband and I haven’t even had one fight yet” or “we’re creating our favourite memories yet!” Instead, I think it’s better to balance the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic – like reconnecting with family members – with emotional honesty about the difficulties you’re facing too. One therapist writes:

Unfortunately, 2020  seem to be victim to the Chinese proverbial curse: “May you live in interesting times.” And, limiting screen time isn’t always enough to overcome the stress of negative news. Eventually, you have to check the news feed, even just to stay informed about public health updates, coronavirus lockdown restrictions, and reopening policies. This is especially important for those of us with chronic illness, who could be severely affected by coronavirus, triggering pain and exhaustion. Not only that, but knowing how and when you can get the medical care you need for your usual illnesses is vital for managing your health.

Have you heard of “Headline Stress Disorder”? Me neither, until I did some research into stress caused by reading news about social suffering. You don’t need to personally have been infected with coronavirus, or know someone who has, to feel anxious, worried or sad about how it is affecting people all over the world. It’s an unhealthy form of individualism that says “but you don’t even know those people, so why should you care?”

Headline stress occurs when “repeated media exposure to community crises [leads] to increased anxiety and heightened stress responses that can cause harmful downstream health effects, including symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder” (Everyday Health). The constant stream of alarming news repeatedly triggers your fight-or-flight response, and the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

I found that a ‘media diet’ has helped to prevent information overload. Social media tends to be a more overwhelming place to get your news from (never mind a source of misinformation), compared to tuning in once a day to a morning news update or nightly news breakdown from a trustworthy news site. A longer format like in-depth podcast or investigative article can be less triggering than scrolling through multiple headlines and the resulting (often justifiable) outrage. Looking for good news, and stories of communities coming together, can also act as a counterweight to the negative stories.

We can be more intentional about how we use social media during this time. For example, you can join in Twitter chats or search by hashtag, such as #fibromyalgia or #spoonie, and scroll through posts on that specific topic – thereby avoiding news or pandemic-based posts. This can be a good way to maintain contact with online friends, which is often an important source of connection for people with isolating illnesses, while also preventing headline stress.

Ultimately, being self-aware while using social media is the best way to know when it’s time to sign out. It’s okay to give yourself some extra self-care after reading or hearing something upsetting in the news. We aren’t meant to be robots, and there is no right way to handle a pandemic. Sometimes just acknowledging your anxiety or stress and getting some fresh air or having a cup of tea can help you to process headline stress. There’s no stigma about talking to a therapist if you need additional support during this time.

Colino, Stacey, (April 23 2020). Everyday Health. The News Dilemma: How to Avoid TMI During a Global Pandemic


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