On Mental Health

Social Media and Trauma Exposure

The average human brain is designed to handle the rare incident of mild trauma. This is why there is a diagnosable disorder when we exceed that: PTSD. Too much trauma, or too severe trauma, and the average brain sustains actual damage that results in physiological and behavioral changes. This is something I understand academically and medically, but recently I saw someone discussing this as it relates to our exposure to trauma on the internet and I can’t stop thinking about the implications of that practically and how it relates to my own life.

I also recently heard a long-form interview with Robert Sapolsky who is an expert on stress and brains and he got me thinking about the long-term effects of ANY stress on my brain and my health and I am now constantly relating that to terrible things I encounter on social media.

Just sitting here I can think of two traumatic headlines I saw in the last 24 hours that lingered with me after they scrolled across my social media feeds. One about a missing child found dead and another about a traumatic mistake at a hospital that resulted in death. I didn’t even take the time to read the stories, it was just the quick headlines from random local news outlets that broke my heart.

Two in 24 hours. Two headlines that snuck into my brain and carved out some sort of feelings of sadness and pain and stress. IN ONE DAY.

So there’s something happening that is more than what my brain is designed for: The rare incident of mild trauma. But less than something severe like PTSD. I don’t know what it is, but now that I’ve been made aware of it, I can’t stop thinking about it. I mean, practically speaking I understand that social media often damages my mental health, but that doesn’t keep me from justifying it by saying it does more good than harm.

“I get to learn about cool events in town like beer and yoga!”
“I get to keep up with my friends and family!”
“I get to stay apprised of important current events in my filtered news feed!”

But the truth of the matter is, I can’t curate out the things that trigger a “RESPONSE TO TRAUMA” in my brain. Especially since I have curated Twitter to be my news source. News sources make money of clicks so even though I follow more writers than publications, and writers normally only link out their work and not the general clickbait work from their publication, I still follow local news sources (for obvious reasons) and they share out the clickbaity stuff that triggers the traumatic response in my brain.

I’ve been trying to regulate my usage on social media lately but it’s still my go-to when I’m frazzled and just want to zone out on something. And I still feel compelled to check the news feeds quite often because so much happens so quickly and I’m afraid I’ll miss something important. And I also have this twisted compulsive need to COMMENT ON WHATEVER EVERYONE ELSE IS COMMENTING ON and I understand that is a HUGE part of my problem. So no matter how much I say to myself, “this is bad for you,” I keep going back to the same destructive habits.

But thinking about it in terms of my brain’s response to trauma has me a little concerned. This makes sense, why should my brain be equipped to read traumatic headlines – like the suicide of 10-year olds – on a daily basis? What would be the evolutionary benefit to that? THERE HOPEFULLY WOULD NOT BE ANY. My brain needs time to recoup and heal when it encounters painful stories, and that makes sense to the part of my brain that is not overly preoccupied with stories about shootings in banks and assaulted celebrities.

For the record – there are two more traumatic stories I just referenced in that last paragraph – both of those were ALSO in the last 24 hours so that brings the grand total to traumatic stories my brain ingested in one day to FOUR.

Now that I’ve started thinking about it like this – I can’t stop. GoFundMe’s for people with cancer…fundraiser events for victims of housefires…trials for teenagers arrested for murder…these are all the kind of things that cross my feed casually every day. And then, when I try to think about my real world friends and family and whether or not I’ve been attentive to them I think, “No – because their stories did not cross my feed.”

So, not only am I damaging my brain with constant exposure to stranger’s trauma and sadness in clickbait-driven links, I’m missing out on real connection with real people who may need me to use those emotional resources I’ve given to strangers – to help them instead.

I keep trying to motivate myself for radical changes in my social media use and I think this is the perspective I really needed, to start to think of the neurological damages to my brain with constant exposure to stress and trauma in social media. The problem is, how do I get the GOOD while limiting the BAD. How do I see the publications from my favorite writers without seeing the headlines from the same publications that are there just to get me to click? How do I keep up with the pain and suffering of the people I love without also exposing myself to that of complete strangers? How do I still find constant sources of giggle-inducing puppy videos without also seeing the rescue videos of abused animals?

I don’t know, honestly. But I think I need a drastic change without trying to simultaneously keep the good stuff. I think I start by clearing my brain of it ALL and then figuring out what I’m missing and plan out how to add just the good stuff back in.

I don’t know if I’ve ever gone 24 hours without Facebook and Twitter, but I’m going to try today. I still get news alerts sent to my phone so if something terrible happens I’ll know, and I still get my podcast exposure to the daily news, but I’m going to challenge myself to 24 hours away from the traumatic headlines and stress-inducing stories that cross my feed peppered in between the good stuff I’m trying to ingest. We’ll see how I feel after that, if I can even do it. I’ve learned turning on my social media blocker on my computer that I click the bookmarks for Facebook and Twitter constantly without meaning to, so let’s see how long I last.

1 thought on “Social Media and Trauma Exposure”

  1. I too have struggled with the desire to stay informed and connected, and to stay sane, and I only wish I had an answer to share. These days it seems like an impossible balancing act. I joined Instagram two years ago, after discussing with a friend how using Facebook was so painful after the election, and what I wanted was Happy Facebook. Instagram is much less likely to stress me out, but even there, the Real World intrudes at times. It’s a puzzle.

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