Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Reality of Virtual Stress

Life is getting as fast pace as our cars.  We are expected to maintain a juggling act and keep all the balls in the air to work hard, play hard and still have time to see our friends and family. Also don’t forget keeping up with our virtual ‘friends’, one in ten admit to feeling anxious about maintaining Facebook relationships, and those with more than 117 online friends are more likely to suffer from a phobia about keeping up with their group*. Keeping up with the Joneses has never been so pertinent.

Although Social Media can be fun, it does beg the question whether staying connected to our virtual lives makes everyday life easier or more stressful, and if so, are we paying the price with the cost to our mental and emotional wellbeing?

With the ever growing presence of Social Media networks in our lives, we feel obliged to keep connected with everyone, for the fear of missing out.   As users, we begin developing a habit of checking and posting status updates; the routine of which can become an obligation.  We should tweet everyday, upload the latest photos or the profile itself will be outdated; we should at least “like” a friend’s status update or comment to a post to let them know we pay attention and we exist. There is a fear of being made obsolete if we don’t keep up with our virtual peers.

A recent survey conducted by Galaxy research reported that over 63% of the respondents felt that social media was a big contributor to their stress levels. The survey also indicated that social networking caused people to become anxious and pressured as they felt the need to constantly connect; checking their Facebook friends statuses, commenting on those statuses, Tweeting or reading Tweets, viewing new photo uploads, etc. Of those same respondents in the survey, 35% say they felt an “expectation” to respond to messages and status updates right away.

Feeling the pressure of doing these things often equates to having to prepare for a deadline at work or a meeting. We go into a state of hyper arousal, and with the surge of adrenalin, we begin to feel physically and mentally anxious and stressed.   Even though Social Media something that we choose to engage with, or not, we find ourselves unable to switch off from it 24/7 and our brains become conditioned to use it.  The habitual nature of Social Media can turn any of us into a frozen, screen staring zombie if we aren’t careful.  Is it really Social Media networks themselves that are the problem then, or the expectation we have of using them?

Social media is now so accessible through your Smartphones, we don’t even need to wait to get home to our computer to ‘check in’.   Many of the social outlets in the online world are much larger than those in the offline world. The online social scene enables you to keep in touch from friends all over the world, as well as locally and the opportunities for being invited to parties and social events can be extensive. Young people especially feel that they have to stay connected with those social circles to keep up with the latest gossip and social life.  As we said earlier, the fear of not keeping up with our online friends can be more anxiety arousing than trying to keep up with them!

Trawling Facebook looking at pictures of your virtual ‘friends’ latest Caribbean sun drenched holiday or reading about their amazing work promotion can also leave you feeling envious and insecure as your life doesn’t seem nearly as fun, successful or glamorous. Fear not as Facebook can paint a very different picture to the reality.  With our virtual lives we can distort the truth if we like, and only highlight those parts of our lives we wish to display in public.  The temptation to compare our lives to others, even virtually, can lead to feelings of anxiety, inferiority, jealousy and even depression.  It only reinforces our negative beliefs about ourselves and our lives, if we allow it to.   

The key is creating a balance in how we use Social Media and how much we allow it to influence our way of life.  We could choose to switch off from it altogether, though it does allow us access to a rich and interesting online world of friends and information that we wouldn’t have otherwise.  It can also enable us to stay connected more easily to our offline friends and family when our lives are very busy. Being aware of how much of a distraction sites like Facebook can be from dealing with the reality of everyday life helps ensure it is more of a pleasure than an avoidance tactic. Making time to disconnect from the internet and reconnect with our real lives and our feelings is essential, otherwise Social Media only becomes another way of anaesthetizing our emotions. We are human beings afterall. 

It does make you wonder how we managed it before we had the internet and  Smartphones.  Snail mail, anyone?