Social media has exploded in recent years. It’s become a space where opinions are shared, trends are born, and relationships are developed. We’re connected in ways that we never thought possible, talking to far-away friends and family with just a tap, and staying updated on what’s happening around the world in real-time. Social media has even become an indispensable part of life for many people. Just look around anywhere you go—whether you’re at a restaurant, a work meeting, or a parent-teacher conference, everywhere, it seems everyone is scrolling and checking for updates.
But like most things, social media has a nuanced side. Seemingly endless scrolling can sometimes dip into the realm of information overload, and the many directions our attention can be pulled in aren’t always the best for us. As social media has evolved, many people have begun to call our collective use of it into question—especially in regard to how it may affect those who suffer from mental health conditions.
Why social media may trigger intrusive thoughts in OCD
One such mental health condition is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by recurrent unwanted or intrusive thoughts, images, or urges (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that an individual feels they must perform to alleviate their severe distress. In its purest form, OCD is about intense anxiety, an aversion to uncertainty, and chronic doubt.
Because this disorder can latch onto anything, it makes sense that OCD symptoms could be exacerbated by social media use. In other words, social media’s constant stream of information—news, videos, images, anything and everything—could potentially fuel obsessions, or become an obsession itself.
Misrepresentation can fuel perfectionism and self-criticism:
You probably know that what you see on social media platforms isn’t always reality. It’s common for people to share the “highlight reel” of their lives online: their most exciting updates, most flattering photos, and biggest accomplishments. The problem with this is that it only captures a sliver of what life looks like. The rest of their reality—the messy, imperfect side—often stays offline. Unfortunately, if you’re bombarded with seemingly perfect photos and videos day in and day out, this can be easy to forget.
If you’re someone who struggles with OCD and self-image or perfectionism, this aspect of social media may trigger thoughts that you need to be a certain way because everyone else appears to. The key word there is “appears.” Even though you may know that you’re not seeing the full picture of people’s lives, what you do see online may still activate self-critical thoughts. While people who don’t have OCD can also struggle with this, those with the condition may feel a greater sense of inadequacy and increased self-doubt, or spend a greater amount of time comparing their lives to what others post online.
Attention-grabbing content and false information are more likely to stick in our brains:
I like to compare social media to watching the news. For example, when was the last time you saw a report of a good deed on the news? It might take a while to think of an answer. Now if I asked you to think of the last time you saw something shocking on the news, something might come to mind more quickly. There’s a reason for that.
News is about generating interest and getting more views. The more something grabs your attention, the better it is for ratings. Social media can work in a similar way. People might post attention-grabbing, shocking, or even completely untrue content to get more followers, or generate more engagement. The problem this content presents for people with OCD is that it may capture their attention in a way that leads to thoughts that feel “sticky,” or difficult to stop thinking about.
How social media can perpetuate OCD compulsions
In addition to potentially triggering intrusive thoughts, social media may also influence certain compulsive behaviors. These can be mental or physical, and while your own experience will be unique, these examples may help you evaluate your social media habits.
- Reassurance-seeking: Comments, likes, and messages can be great ways to connect with others, but when they’re used to seek validation or reassurance, they can be a vehicle for compulsive behavior. Frustratingly, turning to reassurance when you feel anxious only ends up making you less assured.
- Research: OCD can make it seem like any doubts need to be answered with 100% certainty, sending you down an internet rabbit hole that only brings more questions. Misconceptions about uncertainty can make it feel difficult or scary to accept, but allowing uncertainty to exist helps you break free from trying to appease OCD.
- Rumination: If you feel caught in a loop of overthinking, analyzing, and scrutinizing social media content, thinking that you have to solve something immediately or know something with certainty, that might be rumination in action. Some amount of rumination can be natural, but if you notice that repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings is causing you a lot of distress, it could be a sign that it’s compulsive.
- Avoidance: You get to control what you engage with on social media. Like many things, that comes with pros and cons. When you have OCD, avoiding specific triggers or anxiety-inducing posts can reinforce the belief that anxiety is too overwhelming for you to face. Allowing yourself to feel anxiety and let it pass helps you fight back against OCD.
- Distraction: It might feel tempting to turn to constant scrolling when faced with intrusive thoughts or anxiety. And sure, it may provide a small sense of relief, but distracting yourself from uncomfortable emotions is only a temporary escape. It won’t address the root of the issue: the distress intolerance of OCD.
Like any compulsion, these behaviors only serve to increase anxiety and stress—and ultimately continue obsessions. To avoid reinforcing the OCD cycle, it can be helpful to monitor your relationship with social media.
How to monitor your relationship with social media
Because your experiences are unique, it’s important to approach your relationship with social media in a way that works for you. What helps someone else may not make sense for you, and that’s okay. You know yourself better than anyone. You can identify your triggers, intrusive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors—an important part of addressing the role that social media may play in your OCD symptoms.
To help yourself monitor your social media habits and recognize if they need to be adjusted, I’ve found it helpful to ask the following questions, both of myself and the people I’ve worked with in therapy:
1. Is this bringing me closer to my values? In other words, do you value what you’re taking in on social media? Is that video you’re watching, article you’re reading, or feed you’re scrolling important enough to you that it deserves your attention? If it’s not, you can replace it with something more important to you.
2. Is this making me feel joy or stress? If you notice you’re feeling stressed or dealing with more obsessive thought patterns when using a particular app, site, or platform, it likely isn’t benefiting you.
3. What am I looking to achieve from this? The answer to this question shouldn’t be reassurance, certainty, or any compulsive behavior—or at least not on a consistent basis. It may be okay from time to time to look at something that helps you feel hopeful or reminds you that you’re alone. If you notice you’re depending on specific behaviors to reduce anxiety, however, that may need to be addressed.
I want to note that sometimes, in exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold-standard treatment for OCD, your individualized treatment plan may involve looking at certain stress-inducing things online as exposures. This is a different situation than the day-to-day, general use of social media covered by the tips listed above. Your treatment provider will know if this could be beneficial to your recovery, and if it is, that will be a different conversation. The primary distinction between your regular social media use and this example of how social media may play a role in ERP is that ERP typically involves planned exposures and responses.
ERP can help you improve your relationship with social media
At NOCD, we’re dedicated to helping people regain their lives from OCD. We know that social media can have a far-reaching impact on OCD and if this is something you’ve struggled with, we want to help. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive specific training in ERP, an evidence-based, highly effective treatment for OCD that can help you manage distress in every area of life.
Many of our therapists have dealt with OCD themselves, so they understand both what it’s like and how crucial ERP therapy is. To make this life-changing treatment accessible, we offer live face-to-face video ERP therapy sessions, provide affordable options, and accept many insurance plans. We also ensure you’re supported at every step of your journey, including between sessions, when you need it most.
If you have any questions about starting NOCD Therapy or need more information, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our team. On the call, we’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.