Join the conversation: The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma, a new documentary on NetFlix, is an invitation to a conversation about the impact of social media on us as individuals and as a society.

The documentary interviews several high-profile members of Silicon Valley tech companies including Facebook, Google and YouTube. Whilst acknowledging the very real benefits of social media, especially amongst the coronavirus pandemic, these professionals sound a warning about social media. They describe how it has been monetised and the impact of that monetisation on the people who use it. The documentary and its supporting website www.thesocialdelimma.com highlight three concerns about social media:

  1. Its impact on the mental health of users,
  2. The consequences for our political system, and
  3. Its role in propagating extremist views.

The piece of this I see most often is the impact of social media on mental health. There are two conversations I often have with people about social media and mental health.

The first revolves around our tendency to compare ourselves to others and seek the approval of others. This tendency has been “hard wired” into us over millennia. As humans, we evolved in relatively small social groups and were inter-dependent on others for our survival. In this context, whether others approve of us or not was a matter of survival. If others didn’t like us, we risked being alienated from the group. In the current context, social media opens us up for comparisons and approval (or not) from potentially thousands of people, all at once and in a very “all or nothing” kind of way: Just how many “likes” did my last post get? This can lead to an overload of feedback and overwhelming emotions.

The second conversation centres on the amount of time people spend on social media and its role in procrastination. The documentary makes it very clear that the aim of social media companies is to keep you engaged on their site. These companies use psychological concepts and tools such as intermittent positive reinforcement. One of the most poignant moments in the documentary for me came when one of the interviewees described being “hooked into” his company’s site. Even while knowing all the techniques being used to keep him there. Even while his kids were present, wanting to spend time with their Dad.

In my clinical practice, these conversations usually lead to using mindfulness techniques to “unhook” from social media sites. You can do this by bringing a mindful awareness to where your attention is, connecting with what is important to you in that moment, and stepping back from the social media site and / or the thoughts that are triggered as necessary. We can also practice a compassionate response to the very understandable difficulties we have when using these sites.

The documentary is a call to begin talking about these issues and searching for solutions. The producers call for more regulation of these social media companies. The Social Dilemma website includes of “Code of Ethics” which they promise to follow. For my part, I believe we need to become much more “savvy” about how we interact with these sites. Yes, the tech companies have a responsibility to look at their decisions and the consequences thereof. There is also responsibility on behalf of the user to do likewise. The documentary ends with a series of tips on how to reduce or cease your use of these sites. We can also do this by bringing mindful awareness to our use of them.

Please watch the documentary, visit the website and join the conversation.

Psychology Tools: Living with Worry and Anxiety Amidst Global Uncertainty.

There is lots we can do help ourselves and those around us manage the big emotions that may be triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychology Tools is an excellent website which provides information and worksheets about a range of mental health issues. They have released a free guide for managing anxiety in the current situation. It provide a full explanation about the sort of worry which may be triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and then several useful strategies for managing that worry.

FACE COVID

Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, has released a useful brief e-book called FACE COVID. It outlines some skills from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which we can use to manage our distress in this uncertain time. You can download FACE COVID here.

Keep Calm: Headspace

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, it is utterly expected that we will feel a wide range of big emotions: anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, boredom, the full range. This is a challenge unlike any we’ve faced for several generations.

There is lots we can do help ourselves and those around us “Keep Calm”. Here’s one:

Headspace provides guided mindfulness meditations. It offers a free beginnings course and then a massive range of other courses (e.g. for depression, anxiety, insomnia) to subscribers. I’ve been using this app personally and with clients for a couple of years. Headspace have announced additional free resources in the wake of COVID-19 designed to help you “Weather the storm”. Make some time each day for mindfulness meditation, it does not need to be long. This is one thing you can do help manage whatever big emotions you are experiencing at this time.

Supporting friends with depression and anxiety

Both depression and anxiety affect people’s relationships with friends. In addition to a deep and prolonged sadness, depression includes a loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person usually enjoys, as well as feelings of fatigue and a loss of motivation. This cluster of symptoms can mean that a person experiencing depression withdraws from their usual activities and friendships which usually bring them joy.

People experiencing anxiety can find being in public or around groups of people triggers anxious thinking and the physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. heart racing, shaking, difficulty breathing). This is a frightening experience which, understandably, the person wants to avoid.

In both cases, depression and anxiety causes people to withdraw from relationships with family and friends. Unfortunately, these symptoms can set up a cycle for people. Friends may initially try to stay in contact with the person, but will understandably stop contacting them, particularly if they are not aware the person is experiencing mental health difficulties.  It then becomes harder for the person to re-establish the friendships and activities which would be so beneficial.

Here are some ideas for helping friends who are struggling with mental health.

What you would do if your friend had some sort of physical illness or injury?

As a starting point, think about what you would do if your friend had a broken leg. Would you send a card to tell them you were thinking about them? Offer to help walk the dog? Or pick the kids up from school? Show up at their place with a home-cooked meal? In many ways mental illness is similar to other health conditions and people benefit and appreciate the same sorts of support.

Encourage your friend to remain connected to activities and relationships.

Encouraging your friend to remain connected to activities and relationships can be key, although it will feel really, really, hard for them. Think about the things you usually do with your friend, things that the two of you typically enjoy. Get in touch and suggest you do those things together. Your friend may not be able to do all the things they are usually able to do and so you may need to adjust everyone’s expectations. So, for example, if together you have loved tramping through a spectacular bit of the country, suggest a short walk somewhere close by. If you usually go to a gig or some other performance together, dial it back by suggesting listening or watching something at home.

Try to avoid alcohol and other substance use.

If what you do together usually involves the consumption of alcohol and other substances, try a suggestion which doesn’t encourage this. Alcohol and drugs can play a significant role in maintaining depression, anxiety and other mental health problems and so is best avoided when people are unwell.

Exercise and having contact with the outdoors has a range of benefits for both mental and physical health.

The benefits of exercise for both mental and physical health are well known. So, if you can incorporate some gentle exercise with your friend, you’ll be helping in a couple of different ways. Likewise, we are beginning to understand the benefits of being outdoors and having contact with nature for mood and anxiety. This offers another option for spending time with your friend.

Not all conversations need to be “deep and meaningfuls”.

Not all conversations with your friend need to be “deep and meaningfuls”. Some people with depression and anxiety can experience massive amounts of over-thinking, worry and rumination, where painful thoughts turn over and over in the person’s mind, leaving them feeling stuck, overwhelmed and out of control. Sometimes people with depression and anxiety will start voicing these painful thoughts aloud and it possible that friends and family get drawn into “co-ruminating” with them. You will know when this happens because you will begin to feel hopeless, sad or fearful as well. As much as possible, try not to get drawn into these cyclical conversations. Instead, try to focus your friend on some shared interest or activity. Sometimes, an analysis of last weekend’s Super Rugby game or your latest Netflix obsession is just the ticket to interrupt the painful thoughts in your friend’s head and get them focused on something else.

Show that you are listening to your friend by paraphrasing or summarising what you friend is saying. Demonstrate empathy and try to validate your friend’s difficulties and emotions.

There are some key communication skills you can use when talking to friends about mental health difficulties. Make sure you are really listening to what your friend has to say, as well as saying your piece. Show that you are listening by paraphrasing or summarising what they have said back to them. Paraphrasing also leads you naturally into demonstrating empathy for your friend and validating their feelings and difficulties. It could look something like this:

It sounds like you are having rough time at work, the project is not going well, and you don’t think your manager is listening to you. I can see how that would be very frustrating.

Or

It sounds like you are spending lots of time in your head worrying about what’s going to happen next. It makes sense that you feel overwhelmed and out of control. 

Showing empathy and validating your friends situation and feelings are powerful tools in helping them to open-up about what is happening for them. Your friend will feel that they have been listened to, perhaps the first time, and may be encouraged to say more. Empathy and validation are also necessary steps before you can begin a conversation about seeking help and beginning to make changes.  

Good self-care is very important when supporting others.

If you are supporting someone with mental illness, your self-care becomes very important. It is very difficult to be empathic, patient and persistent if you yourself are stressed. Take care of yourself by eating well, getting sufficient sleep and exercise and having time for fun and relaxing activities. Make sure that you share the load of supporting someone with mental illness. See if you can recruit other friends or family members to help.

A family doctor of GP is a good place to start in accessing professional help.  

Remember that there are professionals available to assist. A family doctor or GP is always a good place to start when seeking professional help.

I originally wrote this piece in response to a request from Stuff. If you’d like to read the resulting article here is the link.

Book Review of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives by Rachel Simmons (2018)

Enough as She Is shines a spotlight on the pressures facing adolescent girls and young women today and encourages those young women, their families, friends and communities, to see them as “enough as she is”. Author Rachel Simmons has spent two decades researching and working with young women. In this book she details the stressors placed on them by our society and how these stressors lead to anxiety, depression and feelings of being overwhelmed. As such, this book is part Feminist literature and part self-help. There are particularly interesting and relevant chapters on the role of social media and body image in young women’s lives. These are two issues, one new and the other which has been around for several generations, for which the author offers a unique perspective and challenge. The book is very solidly set in American society (and predominantly upper-middle-class society at that). There are, therefore, several aspects of the book which may not translate to the New Zealand situation. For example, the author talks a lot about the “College Application Industrial Complex” – the name she has given to the process American high school students go through in order to be accepted into an American University. From what I have seen, applying for Universities in New Zealand has not (yet) become this competitive, although there are aspects which young women and their families may recognise.  The book is primarily aimed at parents of young women and the author provides plenty of useful strategies and conversation starters, most of which are grounded in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Mindfulness, for parents wanting to assist their daughters. I suspect, however, that anyone struggling with perfectionistic standards and role overload would benefit from reading this book, considering the questions it poses and completing some of the exercises.

Just a thought

Just a thought is a new e-therapy website recently launched in Aotearoa / New Zealand. It provides two six-session cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) online courses, one for people suffering from depression and another for people experiencing generalised anxiety disorder – that is worry and lots of it. The courses provide lots of information, questions to get you thinking about your specific situation and exercises and skills to use outside of the course. All good standard CBT stuff. And it’s free!! You can self-refer to the website or you could be referred by your GP or mental health practitioner. You set the pace at which you work through the course and have up to three months to complete it, although you can extend this if needed. If you think that you are experiencing either depression or generalised anxiety, Just a thought recommends you visit your GP to check out possible physical causes for these problems. The symptoms of an iron deficiency, for example, can look like a depressive episode and the two can be mistaken for each other. It is always a good idea to check these things out.

The website says that 80% people who complete the course show some improvements. As always, the trick with self-driven exercises is to maintain the motivation to work your way through the whole course. My posts on motivation may provide some tips for this. If you think you could benefit from these courses please check it out.

Top Tips for Saying No

As we head into the busiest part of the year, I thought some tips on how to say no might be useful, helping you to avoid feeling overwhelmed and instead able to enjoy precious time with family and friends.

Postpone giving an answer

At the very least, you can postpone giving an answer. Don’t say yes immediately. Instead, say you are going to take some time to think about it. You could say:

Let me check my calendar / diary / to-do list and get back you.

I will need some time to think about that.

Then look at what you’ve got on and make a reasonable decision about whether you can do the requested thing or not. If not, use one of the strategies below.

Postpone the task

If it is something you want to do, but you are not able to now, you can give the person a timeframe which will be realistic for you. You could say:

“That sounds great! But I won’t be able to do that now. I could next week / month / after the holidays.”

Validate

If it is something you definitely don’t want to do, you can soften the no a couple of ways. You can validate and be empathetic for the other person’s situation. You could say:

“I can see why this is very important to you but I’m not able to help out, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m not able to do that.”

Be Gracious

Being gracious and polite is another way to soften a no. You could say:

“Thank-you so much for thinking of me, but I’m not able to do that”

“I really appreciate you asking me, it’s a great opportunity, but I’m not able to help you out.

Be a Broken Record

Sometimes people are particularly persistent and will just keep asking. At these times, don’t be afraid to be a broken record. Simply repeat your no – whichever from above works for you – as many times as you need.

My personal record for this was during a telephone conversation with another psychologist who wanted me to do a piece of work. My line was “Thank-you so much, I really appreciate the offer, but I’m not able to do that”. I said this 7 times during an 8 minute phone call. There we were, two highly trained professional psychologists, trying to out-psychologise each other. It was hilarious. Sort of.

Please do leave a comment and let me know if you break this record of mine!