Social media is now a hugely popular and pervasive tool among all age groups. Facebook currently has over 1.3billion users worldwide, and instagram over 300 million. Of these users around half are female and under the age of 25. But what impact might this new obsession be having on its users? There has been a lot of talk about the impact of social media on mood, body satisfaction and life satisfaction, but now for the first time there is some evidence as to the potential detrimental effects of what has become a new norm.
A number of correlational studies have previously made links between increased social media use and body image dissatisfaction, low mood, and a number of other psychological conditions. These correlations have been found across various age groups from pre teenage to university age. (see. Fardouly et al., 2015 for a summary). What we dont know from correlational studies however is whether it is social media resulting in increased psychological distress, or whether increased psychological distress makes people turn more readily to social media.
For the first time researchers at The University of the West of England have shown that it is an individuals tendency to compare themselves to others that is likely to determine whether social media use has a positive or negative impact. The tendency to compare yourself to others is known as social comparison. Individuals can socially compare themselves to others on a number of dimensions including status, appearance, satisfaction and life experience. With 70 million photographs posted instagram every day, and over 10 million photographs added to Facebook per hour, there is a lot of material to which social media users can socially compare themselves.
Jasmine Fardouly and colleagues, in a paper published in Body Image, 2015, investigated the link between rates of social comparison, social media use and appearance related concerns. They found that the impact of social media is not universal amongst all users. Only those who have a tendency to compare themselves to others are likely to suffer from lower mood or poorer body image after viewing social media images. What this means is that, much as with magazine media images, social media cannot necessarily be tarnished with a universally negative brush. For some individuals though, the impact of constant social media viewing is likely to be contributing to, or at least maintaining, psychological distress or dissatisfaction.
Dr. Bryony Bamford, of The London Centre says “The problem with social media is that it presents a very skewed version of real life – photos can be added with filters, experiences can be embellished, and life can be presented through a rose tinted lens. What that means for individuals who have a tendency to compare themselves to others, is that they are likely to be comparing themselves to a skewed reality of real life’.
A panic attack involves a sudden rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms. The symptoms of panic can be frightening and can happen very suddenly, often for no clear reason. Panic attacks usually last between five and 20 minutes, and although it may feel as though you are in serious trouble, they aren’t dangerous and don’t cause any physical harm.
The psychological symptoms of a panic attack may include an overwhelming sense of fear or a sense of unreality, as if you’re detached from the world around you. The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath or difficulties breathing, dizziness and chest pain. The symptoms of a panic attack are often very unpleasant and distressing, and the anxiety caused by these sensation can often end up making the symptoms worse.
If you think you are experiencing panic attacks it is very important that you seek help from a professional who will be able to help you reduce and eventually stop these attacks. However below are a few helpful tips on how to gain more control over you panic.
1. Reassure yourself that you are not in danger and that what you are experiencing is not dangerous
A panic attack is your body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It is what happens to the body when adrenalin is released, which happens in response to a perceived threat. Often people aren’t aware of what the perceived threat is, meaning that the panic attack seems to occur for no reason at all.
Often when people experience a panic attack the perceived threat is external i.e.) a social situation, a meeting at work. It is also possible to bring on a panic attack by thinking about (being worried about) having a panic attack or thinking about (being worried about) what might happen during a panic attack. For example you may be worried about people noticing you having a panic attack, about fainting or being sick during a panic attack, or about the panic attack never ending an descending you mad.
It can be very helpful to reassure yourself that you are not in any danger and that the symptoms you are experiencing are not dangerous. Try reminding yourself of the following:
Fainting is a response to a drop in blood pressure. When you are experiencing a panic attack your blood pressure will be high (as the body is trying to get blood / oxygen to all of the muscles in your body). When you feel dizzy this is because there is extra adrenalin in your blood steam, not because you are experiencing low blood pressure. Therefore unless you are holding your breath during a panic attack it would be physically impossible for you to faint. Similarly, it is highly unlikely that you will be sick during a panic attack as the nausea you experience again is a result of the adrenalin in your system and not the result of an illness or sickness.
Remember that the symptoms you are experiencing will be much more obvious to you than they will be to anyone else. People are internally focused, meaning that they are far more concerned about themselves than other noticing other people. This means that you would need to do something quite dramatic for others to notice you. Whilst it might feel as thought your anxiety is obvious to everyone else, it probably isn’t even noticeable to others and if it were they are much more liley to feel concern and care than to judge you negatively or laugh at you.
When we experience a panic attack our sympathetic nervous system is activated and is operating. when we are relaxed our parasympathetic nervous system is active. It is only possible for one nervous system to be active at one time – we can’t be both relaxed and panicked at the same time. It is therefore possible to stop a panic attack from happening if we are able to activate our parasympathetic nervous system,. This can be done using simple breathing exercises.
The most effective breathing for this purpose is diaphragmatic breathing, a pattern of slow deep breathing that engages the diaphragm. When practiced regularly diaphragmatic breathing can bring a panic attack to a end in minutes. Essentially this breathing is the opposite of the breathing that happens during a panic attack which tends to be quick and very shallow. the more you practice diaphragmatic breathing the easier it becomes so it is important to practice it when you are not experiencing panic rather than only during a panic attack.
3. Remind yourself that the panic will end
Panic attacks tend to be very short lived – only a few minutes long. The body actually can’t stay in a heightened state of anxiety for very long. It can often feel as though the sensations will last forever getting worse and worse. This though can often make the panic worse and even elongate the panic attack. It can be useful therefore to remind yourself that the panic will subside and you just need to ride it out.
3. Behave as if you are fine
The mind and body are very closely linked meaning that what we do with our body affects how we think and how we feel and vice versa. Behaving ‘as if’ we are relaxed, calm and confident can have a surprisingly strong effect on anxiety levels. If effect we are able to ‘trick’ ourselves into thinking that everything is ok, which can have a dramatic effect on reducing anxiety.
Over time, using these approaches will help you to start feeling some control over your panic attacks. The more you feel able to cope with a panic attack if it were to occur, the less likely you are to actually have a panic attack.
Remember that these strategies, though they may sound simple, are actually quite difficult to implement, especially when you are panicking. It is always worth seeking professional help to guide you through these strategies.
Thinking traps may also be referred to as ‘thinking errors’ or ‘cognitive distortions’. Most people use thinking traps from time to time, however they tend to be more common in people who experience psychological distress such as anxiety or depression. They are also very common in people with disordered eating. Often people will use these thinking traps so often they they will not be aware that they are using them. However, awareness of these thinking styles can be an important stop in understanding and changing unwanted moods and behaviours.
Here are eleven of the most common thinking traps that you might have experienced:
1. Mental Filter
Mental filtering is when we focus exclusively on the most negative and upsetting features of a situation, filtering out all of the more positive aspects.
Example: You undertake a performance review at work which is ninety-five percent positive and complimentary – but you dwell and focus exclusively on the five percent of the review that mentioned ways in which you could have performed better. This leaves you feeling that you are a failure, that you haven’t done well enough and that your boss sees you in a negative way. The impact of this mental filter may be that you not only don’t recognise the praise that you were given but that you start to feel anxious or low when thinking about your job.
2. Disqualifying the Positive
Disqualifying the positive is when we continually discount and dismiss the positive experiences we encounter, by deciding they are unimportant or ‘don’t count’. Positive information or experiences may be seen as a fluke.
Example 1: A friend compliments you on a dinner you made, but you decide that “they are just saying that to be nice” or “they are trying to get something out of me”.
Example 2: “I know I wear a size 10-12, but my thighs are too big”, “He only asked me out because he was lonely or feels sorry for me, he doesn’t really like me”.
3. ‘Black and White’ or ‘All or Nothing’ Thinking
This involves thinking in extremes, with no middle ground. These types of thoughts are characterised by terms such as or ‘every’, ‘always’, or ‘never’ . Everything is seen as good or bad or a success or failure. It is generally the negative perspective that is endorsed, discounting all the shades of grey that lie in between the two focussed on choices.
Example 1: If you get eighty per cent on a test, you feel like a failure that you didn’t get a perfect score.
Example 2: People with eating disorders often believe that if they can’t be ultra-thin, they will be obese, and that they must be completely in control of their eating or there will be chaos. You may believe that if you begin eating normally you will lose all control and end up extremely overweight. When you think this way you are thinking in extremes; ultra thinness and obesity are not the only alternatives, in fact your body functions best within a natural weight range, which is somewhere between these two extremes.
To avoid black and white thinking it is often helpful to look for the grey area in between. Look for all the possible alternatives. For example “Getting a mix of As, Bs and Cs for my exams is fine and does not mean I am a failure” or “Obesity is not the only alternative to thinness, it is more likely that I will be in a healthy weight range”.
Thinking in an over-generalising way means we will often see a single unpleasant incident or event as evidence of everything being awful and negative, and a sign that now everything will go wrong.
Example 1: If you fail to get a job you interview for, you decide you are never going to get a job.
Example 2: If you go on one unsuccessful date, you decide you are never going to find a partner.
Example 3: Believing that if something turns out badly once, then it will always happen that way. For example, failing your driving test and believing you are totally inadequate in all areas of your life.
For people with eating disorders a common generalisation is thinking that because I have put on some weight, I am just going to continue to put on weight forever. However, the facts show us that initial weight gain following re-introduction of regular eating is your body counteracting effects of past deprivation or starvation.
5. Jumping to Conclusions
This thinking trap involves making a negative interpretation or prediction even though there is no evidence to support this conclusion. This type of thinking is often made when thinking about how others feel towards us. It can show up as either ‘mind reading’ (assuming the thoughts and intentions of others) or ‘fortune-telling’ (anticipating the worse ad taking it as fact).assuming the worst even when there is no reason to.
Example 1: “People are staring at me because I am so fat” (mind reading).
Example 2: “My boss wants to speak to me – I must have made a massive mistake and I’ll get the sack” (fortune telling).
Example 3: “Sarah didn’t call – I must have done something to upset her” (mind reading).
Example 4: You are at a party and you don’t like what you are wearing and you decide ‘everyone is laughing at me’ (mind reading).
Example 5: You are going to take your drivers test and ‘know’ that you are going to fail (fortune-telling).
6. Magnifying or Minimising (Also referred to as “Catastrophisation”)
Thinking in a magnifying or minimising manner is when we exaggerate the importance of negative events and minimize or downplay the importance of positive events. In depressed individuals, it is often the positive characteristics of other people that are exaggerated and the negatives that are understated (and then when thinking of oneself, this is reversed).
Catastrophising is only paying attention to the negative side of things or overestimating the chances of disaster. When we think catastrophically we are unable to see any other outcome other than the worse one, however unlikely this result may turn out to be.
Example 1: “I had one binge – I am back to square 1 – I’m never going to get better”. “Nothing ever works for me – I may as well give up now”.
Example 2: You send out the wrong letter to a client at work, and this turns into “I will now lose my job, and then I won’t be able to pay my bills, and then I will lose my house.”
A person engaging in personalisation will automatically assume responsibility and blame for negative events that are not under their control. This is also called ‘the mother of guilt’ because of the feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy it leads to.
Example: You feel it’s all your fault that your dog injured his foot even though you weren’t at home when it happened but were out shopping. Your thoughts might be ‘if only I didn’t go out’ or even ‘maybe when I came home I accidentally stepped on the dog and hurt him’ even though this is entirely unrealistic.
8. Shoulds and Oughts
Individuals thinking in ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts; or ‘musts’ have an ironclad view of how they and others ‘should’ and ‘ought’ to be. These rigid views or rules can generate feels of anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment and guilt if not followed.
Example: You don’t like playing tennis but take lessons as you feel you ‘should’, and that you ‘shouldn’t’ make so many mistakes on the court, and that your coach ‘ought to’ be stricter on you. You also feel that you ‘must’ please him by trying harder.
9. Emotional Reasoning
Emotional reasoning is when we assume feelings reflect fact, regardless of the evidence. The idea here is “I feel it, therefore it must be true”. Such thinking can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies whereby our thoughts can end up eliciting the very behaviour we predicted, just because we changed our behaviour in accordance with that thought.
Example 1: if you think “I feel ugly and stupid, so then I must actually be ugly and stupid” you might then stop buying yourself new clothes and start doing poorly at the course you are taking at university, even though you look fine and were doing very well at school.
Example 2: Taking your emotions as an accurate reflection of what is happening. For example, “I feel fat therefore I am fat”, even when you are actually underweight.
Labelling is an extreme form of ‘all or nothing’ thinking and overgeneralisation. Rather than describing a specific behaviour, an individual instead assigns a negative and highly emotive label to themselves or others that leaves no room for change.
Example: You make a mistake on a form you filled out and it’s sent back to you in the post. So you decide “I’m such a loser” or “I’m so stupid” rather than thinking “I made a mistake as I had a busy day when I was filling this out”.
11. Expecting perfectionism and having double standards
These two often go together. People with eating disorders often expect themselves to be perfect and anything less than excellence equals failure. They judge themselves by what they achieve and expect others to judge them in the same way.
Additionally, they may have double standards, for example, thinking it is OK for other women to be a normal weight, but that they will only look good at X weight. It may be OK for other people to make mistakes but unacceptable for them.
One of the most common contributors to low mood or mood shifts is negative thinking. The 10 questions below are designed to help you explore the thoughts you are having either about yourself or about a situation that you are in. In particular, they will help you to assess whether your thinking is overly negative or critical. One way to help people to improve their mood is to help them develop a compassionate voice. Start to think about the role that your thinking has in shaping your mood, and whether you are able to show any more kindness or compassion towards yourself.
1. Do I think like this ALL the time? If not why am I thinking like this now?
2. If my best friend / daughter thought like this what would I tell them?
3. If my best friend knew I was thinking like this what would they say to me?
4. If I told someone I was thinking like this would they say I was being fair or that I was being harsh on myself
5. Would I speak to someone else like I am speaking to myself? If not what would I say to them
6. If I was being kinder to myself what might I say?
7. Are there any positives that I am discounting? What positives about myself or my life can I remind myself of?
8. Is there any advantage to speaking to myself as I am? What other language could I use?
9. 5 years from now how will I look back on this situation, how important will it be to me then?
10. Am I blaming myself for something over which I have little control? Are there any other influences over this situation that I might be discounting?