How I Totally Overhauled My Relationship With Instagram for Better Mental Health

Photo: Getty Images/Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury
We've all read the headlines about how social media and mental health typically don't go hand in hand. So many people swear by just cutting it out of their lives altogether for better peace of mind. And that's valid. But as someone who has always prided herself on being an over-sharer (case in point: I used to post photos from middle school to a website called Web Shots a decade before Instagram was a thing), I always assumed I was immune to it all. Then last year, I had an Instagram-induced mental health crisis.

At the time, I felt like I was leading a double life. There was the smiley, happy version of myself who dominated my Instagram feed with vacation photos and cool beauty products. Then there was IRL me, who was having daily panic attacks and wasn’t sleeping or eating or taking care of herself.

The pressure to live up to the persona I had created for myself online became crippling, but I felt like if I put out an image of myself that was anything other than what my followers expected, I would be failing them. Even worse: I felt like I would be failing myself. I secretly liked the Internet version of me a whole lot more than the real life one. So privately, I would lie awake all night, sobbing, and then hours later I would post photos of myself smiling on a beach in a bikini. It was all bullsh*t, and I hated myself for it.

Slowly—not unlike the world’s most popular egg—I began to crack, until it got to the point where I just couldn’t handle the lie I was living anymore. The way I was using social media needed to change, because I was genuinely afraid of what was going to happen with my mental health if it didn't.

Privately, I would lie awake all night, sobbing, and then hours later I would post photos of myself smiling on a beach in a bikini. It was all bullsh*t, and I hated myself for it.

The first thing I did was write out a full-blown confessional letting the Internet in on the whole truth of what was going on behind the scenes, and basically admitting that I was a complete fraud. Then, I made a promise to myself and to my social network that moving forward, I was going to be real with them. I didn’t care if it was going to lose me the likes or followers that I had become so addicted to.

I know, I know: It probably would have been easier for me to just delete Instagram entirely. But the truth is that I love sharing my life and connecting with people on the app. Plus, I have to use it every day for the sake of my media job. So instead, I’ve spent the last nine months learning to live up to the promise I made, and figuring out a way to use Instagram that isn’t terrible for my mental health. Here’s what has worked for me:

1. Un. Freakin. Follow.

As influencer Iskra Lawrence told me in a recent interview, “Comparison is the death of joy.” Yes, this may sound like one of those phrases that would look right at home on one of grandma’s throw pillows, it really is true. “That’s actually a big point we’re finding with the research—that when individuals are on social media platforms they engage in social comparison, and that social comparison is generally very bad for the psyche,” says psychologist Azadeh Aalai, Ph.D. “For women in particular, we’re going to make these comparisons in terms of physical attractiveness, in terms of body size, and those types of things, [and] those generally have been found to be associated with negative outcomes.”

During my quest toward Insta-health, I unfollowed every single person on my feed that made me feel bad about myself. Within two hours, every Instagram model and travel blogger whose life I’d ever compared my own to (and every asshole ex-boyfriend I used to cyber stalk on a regular basis) was gone.

Obviously, you can’t just delete everyone who you perceive to be hotter or better or more successful than you from real life. But if seeing certain people on your feed is regularly making you feel like garbage, just unfollow. I can promise from my own experience that you’re not gonna miss them—or the way their posts made you feel.

2. Scroll in moderation

As someone who used to spend minimum hours a day minimum on the 'gram, I know it's a lot easier said than done to put. the. phone. down. at regular intervals. It's legitimately hard: There is some evidence that social media activates the pleasure centers in your brain, giving you a dose of dopamine that makes you want to keep going.

“It’s kind of like you’re working against your own biology in terms of that moderation, because again, it’s not really built for that,” says Dr. Aalai. "The platforms aren’t really built for moderation. They’re built in a very psychologically provocative way, in that the developers are tapping into certain kinds of psychological needs that are being met, and so we become very immersed and we lose sight of time, we become distracted.”

In order to make putting the phone down slightly easier on your brain, it's important to set usage guidelines. Personally, I (try to) stay off of Instagram between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. so that it's not the last thing I look at when I fall asleep at night or the first thing I see when I wake up. But, Dr. Alai says, it's ultimately about setting boundaries that work in your own life for when to put your phone away and be present.

3. Practice "social media mindfulness"

Raise your hand if you have ever mindlessly tapped through Insta while riding the subway...or waiting in line...or sitting on the toilet. Yeah, same. "We’re not very mindful when we’re engaging with the platforms a lot of the times," says Dr. Alai. "A really important thing is to infuse your use with intentionality and ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this right now? What’s the point, or the meaning behind this? What do I want to get out of this?' If you try to impose that intentionality, then maybe you will be more moderate in how you use it."

For me, "mindfulness" comes by way of teeny, tiny tweaks: Moving my Instagram icon to a not-so-easily accessible place on my phone screen, turning off my notifications, counting to three every time I pickup my phone before I log in, and trying to be in touch with how I feel while I'm scrolling. If at any moment I start to feel sad or annoyed or angry when using, I log out.

4. Be real

The most important thing I learned last year: Though it may make for a pretty picture, perfection is… boring. Instead of sharing my life in the way that I think it should look, I share it as it is: I post about bad dates and food triggers and panic attacks and therapy appointments and sexual assault and breakups and crappy days. There are far fewer beach-front bikini pictures, and a whole lot more crying selfies with long captions about my struggles with anxiety.

"I think more and more people are sharing more vulnerability on social media, I think that's a newer thing," says Alison Stone, LCSW. But she says it's also important to balance out that vulnerability with looking at why you are compelled to be vulnerable. Is it because you want to present yourself as you are, or is it because it will get you a lot of likes?

To that end, Dr. Alai cautions that there are certain limitations to be aware of, even if you are sharing your life with #nofilter. "It’s hard to constantly be yourself, or authentic, when you’re also engaging in a performative act." She says that even something with the best of intentions, like a selfie of you mid-panic attack, can lead to a problematic place. "These platforms are not really built upon moderation and so a lot of times they trigger more and more extreme reactions, especially if you get a lot of ‘likes’ or comments for that vulnerable post," she says—which could push you to go further in your "vulnerability" to increase the attention you get.

For me, being "real" on Instagram has sparked a lot of really, really important conversations—particularly about mental health—and helped me develop a supportive digital community that I've come to appreciate so, so much. But I'm always checking in with myself about what I want to share and why I am compelled to share it to make sure I'm doing it in a way that feels right for me.

Ultimately, engaging with social media is a choice everyone has to make for themselves. As with any other kind of habit, staying on Instagram has been about balancing my desire to stay engaged with the people I care about and wanting to protect my mental health. In my opinion, there absolutely is a way to you have both if you want—as long as you set boundaries and prioritize your own health above all else.

Ultimately, when it comes to taking care of your mental health you've gotta do what works for you. Here are the best mental health tips our editors picked up in 2018, and how one editor's lunch breaks mean so much for her mental health.

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