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What to Do When Social Media Is Stressing You Out

What to Do When Social Media Is Stressing You Out

As we head deeper into the 2020 United States presidential election cycle, many of us are struggling between wanting to stay informed and wanting to stay sane. It doesn't help that in addition to attack ads and other negative coverage of candidates and causes we care about, this year's news has been full of alarming, even apocalyptic stories about everything from the devastating Australia bush fires to the current Coronavirus epidemic.


Sometimes, you can get away from it for a little while. You have such a fun night with friends you don't even check your phone, and the world seems okay again. You take a weekend vacation in a cabin without wi-fi, reconnect with nature, and come home feeling balanced and at peace. But whenever you return to the "real world," it starts all over again, whether you're getting the news from your phone or directly from a friend. Avoidance is only ever a short-term strategy, at best.


The good news is that there are other ways to stay calm, grounded, and even optimistic when the world is full of bad news.


Limit Your Social Media Use


Even as we're learning how to maintain better boundaries in our personal relationships, very few of us have healthy relationships or good boundaries with our phones. We take them everywhere with us, including to bed. We pull them out of our pockets and purses at social gatherings, concerts, national parks, and nice restaurants. We live tweet our reactions to new episodes of our favorite shows and turn shopping trips into the search for the perfect Insta post.


Using smartphones and social media to capture and share special moments isn't always bad, but our lack of boundaries with our phones means we're as likely to use them in ways that take away from the moment or make us feel worse as we are to use them in ways that make us feel better. And every time we unlock our phones to take a picture or make a post, we risk being pulled into a negative news story that no amount of angry thumb typing will change for the better.


It's easy to say, "Don't pick up your phone," but it's not as easy to do. Research shows that getting likes and comments gives us hits of dopamine that lead us to associate social media use with pleasure even if the negative feelings it gives us last longer than the positive ones. We're also naturally motivated to keep in touch, and our phones are our hubs of connection. Many of us have no choice but to check them regularly to keep up with our kids and our jobs.


But even if you can't close your phone away in a drawer all day, there are ways to trick yourself into using it a little less. One is putting your phone just far enough away from the bed when you go to sleep that you have to get up and go across the room to get to it when you wake up in the morning. It's a lot easier to keep on going until you get to the shower if you're already up and walking before you touch your phone. If you successfully avoid your feed for that first hour or two after waking, you're much more likely to start your day with a head of steam.


You can also use apps that restrict the amount of time you can spend on social media. For a more lo-fi approach, try saying to yourself, "I am unlocking my phone and opening Facebook" every time you do it. The effect might surprise you. Social media overuse thrives on how much we hide what we're doing from ourselves.


Seek Inspiration First


Research shows that we pay more attention to negative information than positive information, and that we have better memory for the bad things that happen to us than the good things. Researchers call this the "negativity bias." We naturally follow this bias through the social media maze, spending more time reacting and responding to upsetting posts than to encouraging ones.


Fortunately, as ingrained as it is, this habit is a little easier to change that stopping social media use altogether. If you can't put down or lock away your phone, try following a path to positive information instead of taking the express train to negative news.


Every social media platform has its own culture and set of codes, as do specific groups or filters within each platform. Pay attention and choose accordingly to reduce your negative online interactions. For example, if the people you follow on Instagram fill your feed with positive messages, while you always end up flame wars when you use Facebook, try to spend the ten minutes you've allotted for your morning scroll on Instagram instead of Facebook.


You can also outsmart your negativity bias by using your social media time to check in with groups and people who inspire you instead of scrolling through your general news feed. Try these tactics:


  • Find Facebook groups that cover favorite hobbies or even the causes you care about in a way that inspires instead of discourages you. Click on them first.


  • When you find yourself drawn to a partisan news page designed to stir your anger and anxiety, go to a favorite friend or family member's page instead. In internet rage emergencies, immediately navigate to your nearest source of cute animal pics.


  • Find a page that encourages you to start and end your day with beautiful pictures of nature and inspiring quotes, prayers, or affirmations, and direct yourself to that page or group when you find yourself being sucked into a flame war or a black hole of social despair.


The idea isn't to think "positive thoughts only"—repressing negative thoughts or information doesn't work in the long-term for personal happiness or the general good. But by balancing the negative with the positive every day, you're more likely to feel balanced inside yourself and to be more buoyant in the face of bad news.


Challenge Your Thoughts with Cognitive Reframing Techniques


As bad as the stories in the news have been lately, those stories aren't what cause most of our bad feelings. The real perpetrators are the stories we tell ourselves about what we think those news stories mean.


The further our interpretations extend from the basic facts, the more speculative they become. "My candidate might not win the election" all too easily morphs into "Our country is going to plummet into economic and social disaster if my candidate loses." Even if we've got good reason (or think we have good reason) to fear disaster, the disaster we foretell isn't fact. At best, it's an educated guess.


Taking steps to challenge our negative thoughts is not the same as ignoring negative information or becoming apathetic. When we feel numb and don't react to actual events or facts, it isn't good for our emotional health or the world. But if we take what actions we can in the moment while deciding to wait and see about things that haven't even happened yet, we are simply being wise.


One of the simplest ways to challenge your thoughts is to ask yourself, "Is that true?" Try putting "I don't know" in front of your scariest interpretations of news events. For example, try saying, "I don't know that it will be a disaster if my candidate loses the election." Because this goes against the grain of your normal thinking, you'll get some internal pushback, but try to stay with it. Take the exercise a step further by imagining yourself and others overcoming collective difficulties.


One of the best times to reframe your negative thoughts is when you're directing them toward yourself. For example, if you catch yourself thinking, "I can't get through this," try replacing that thought with, "I don't know what's going to happen, but I can get through this. I've gotten through scary things and difficult times before." Try expanding that thought by considering all the difficult moments in history that humanity has collectively survived. Think about all the times people said it was the end, but then things got better.


Don't Just Sit There—Do Something


A common battle people have over negative news is whether consuming it is good for us. Some say it's a bitter medicine that helps us stay well and that it's socially irresponsible not to take it. The problem with this line of thinking is that most of us don't do anything about the bitter news we consume other than getting in an argument with Uncle Larry about it or worrying until we're too exhausted to vote or go to the meeting or do the other good things we meant to do.


The most insidious effect of bad news is that it erodes our hope and will to act. And one of the most effective ways to restore hope is to do good in the world. Think of something that you have the time and energy to do and make a commitment to do it. You can make a difference by volunteering, advocating, or even taking the time to share a kind word. By "being the change," you show yourself that change is possible. This can lead to an upward spiral of engagement.


We have to face the consequences of our personal and collective choices and the potential consequences of continuing to make the same choices. Thinking good thoughts isn't enough to save species from extinction or endangered ecosystems from collapse. It isn't enough to get homeless people off the streets or food and medicine (and mental health care) to the people who need it but can't afford it. But thinking bad thoughts isn't enough, either. We need to work together to come up with solutions.


No one can solve all these problems as a single individual. They take steady, collective effort. Becoming part of the solution instead of the problem changes you and the world bit by bit. Acts of kindness, charity, and compassion are radical acts in times of apathy and selfishness. And they're good for your mental health, too. Seek progress, not perfection, and see what happens.


Don't Just Do Something—Sit There


While apathy and inaction are traps for some of us, doing too much can be a trap, too. Sometimes we over-commit in an obsessive attempt to control the world around us. This never works.


Overextending yourself leads to burnout. It also causes loss of clarity. You can start to feel guilty about things that aren't yours to feel guilty about or start to feel as hopeless as you would if you were doing nothing. This can happen even when you've had to reduce your commitments to the bare minimum. What causes burnout is when you don't refill internal well at the rate you draw from it. If you're starting with a dry well, you can get burned out just from keeping up with the basics.


Taking care of yourself isn't selfish. It's the essential first step in being able to take care of anyone and anything else. The key to recovery is being wise about how we spend our time. So many of the things we justify as "self-care," including spending too much time on social media, are actually toxic. They keep us tired and sick instead of refilling our internal well.


What fills your well? One of the best ways to restore yourself in difficult times is to meditate. There are meditative practices in most world religions, including various forms of contemplative prayer, and there are secular meditation practices and teachers, too. Meditation helps you find the still point where you can impartially witness your thoughts instead of identifying with them, refining your ability to see when the stories you're telling yourself aren't true.


But meditation isn't for everyone or good for all occasions. It can be hard to do when your anxiety is high or when you're dealing with other medical or mental health conditions that sap your energy and your ability to concentrate. Experiment to find out what fills your well and leads you back to an internal balance point. It might be going for a walk, snuggling with your dog or cat, or reading a book. Whatever it is, the important thing is to commit to something that helps you maintain hope and inner peace when things get tough.




When bad news fills the airwaves, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Social media has become our main way of connecting with one another, so trying to avoid it only works so well and for so long. Even if you're one of the brave few who's downgraded to a "dumb phone" and donated your television to charity, you still probably hear about the latest updates everyone else is getting when you're at work or hanging out with your friends. When living in a cave isn't an option, there are other ways to cope. Strategies for staying calm in the face of bad news include:


  • Seek inspiration first. When you're picking up your phone or tuning in to a conversation, direct your clicks and attention to topics, groups, and people that inspire you. By balancing negative information with positive, you can bolster yourself against overwhelm.


  • Use cognitive reframing techniques. Pay attention to how you react to negative news stories. When you find yourself envisioning catastrophe, slow down and question your thoughts. Distinguish interpretations from facts. Ask yourself, "Do I really know that's true?" Consider scenarios where you or others overcome difficulties and challenges.


  • Get involved and do some good in your community. Combat feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness by taking action. Don't believe that only the grandest gestures can make a difference. As you commit to sharing kind words and helping people in need, you start to change yourself from the inside out and start an upward spiral.


  • Fill your well with self-care activities that genuinely restore you. Take a break from toxic pastimes. It's easier to add good habits than subtract bad ones. Experiment to find out what genuinely fills your well, whether it's meditation, reading, or spending time in nature. Over time, good habits can erode your interest in the bad ones.


The solution to living in difficult times isn't apathy or social withdrawal. It's wise engagement. You can combat hopelessness by taking action to make a difference, such as donating time or money to causes you care about. But there are times you have to accept that there is nothing you can do but wait and see.


Taking preventive action is an important part of mental and physical health, but overestimating the extent to which we can control the future is part of what leads to obsession, anxiety, panic, and rage. When it's hard to find that balance, don't be hard on yourself. Reach out for support. Therapy is a great resource when self-help techniques aren't quite enough. Consider using OpenCounseling to find a local therapist to add to your support team and you'll be even better equipped to deal with the difficult times we're living in.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 03/11/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.