Social Media "Burn out" vs Self Care: Walking the Middle Path (Online)

Sometimes you have to check your temperature and take a quick breath before diving deeper. And sometimes you have to take a step back, only to come back stronger.

Since November I keep hearing a very similar story from friends, colleagues, clients, and followers on social media:

"This person on my mentions tweeted some really problematic stuff. I went through five drafts of what I wanted to say before I just lost it. It wasn't pretty."

"I kept staring at my screen trying to figure out what to say. Then I realized I wasn't breathing."

"I've lost a lot of friends on social media after the election. I'm getting burned out of having to fight people all the time."

None of this is new mind you. People, especially from communities of color, have gotten burned out from all the horrible news we are exposed to through social media. Not only the news themselves, but the visual nature in which it is available. Videos and graphic images have proliferated, revealing the almost everyday violence vulnerable and marginalized communities are subjected to.

Thanks  Al Gore. Also,  no thanks.

Thanks Al Gore. Also, no thanks.

This also isn't the first time people have talked about losing friends and relationships on social media due to fights on Twitter or public disagreements on Facebook. People have battled online over beliefs and ideology as long as we've had the internet. 

The answer people give on either sides of a particular issue is simple and, at face value, seemingly effective:

"Don't click the link, just don't watch the video."

"If you don't like it, just get off Twitter/Facebook/Instagram!"

"Don't respond, it'll just make things worse."

"Turn off social media."

Easier said than done. Social media is widely regarded as a shared, public "space." We congregate on social media to share moments, experiences, and yes, cat memes and videos. But we also connect on social media, often over shared identities, faith, beliefs, and political inclinations. We find community. And for many people of marginalized backgrounds, social media is the bridge to building and finding community. But further still, it is where these same communities mobilize resources and organize movements for change. Some activists who engage much of their work on social media would further argue they CANNOT turn off, as these issues are intricately woven with their communities, and their own lives. So no, for some of us we can't just "turn off."


AT THE SAME TIME, a problem persists. Battles on social media over space, voice, and ideology leave their scars. We become overwhelmed with anxiety, more likely to feel angry and on edge, or feel further besieged and under attack. In rushing to battle--and this is probably the symptom that stands out the most--we even forget to breathe.

Let me say that again--we get so mired, flooded in social media we actually forget to breathe. We need a new perspective, as these symptoms don't just stay online either. They can affect our relationships at work, school, or home in very real ways.

Let me give you a metaphor:

Diving into social media to fight these battles is very much like diving headfirst into the ocean. We can hold our breathe underwater for extended periods of time or not very long, depending on our endurance and constitution. But if we forget that we need to breathe, if we don't come up in time for air, we'll drown. We need to notice when we are getting in way too deep. We have to come up for air. We need to breathe. And then, with fresh air filling our lungs, dive back into the fray.

"Easier said than done!" comes the other side of the coin, right on cue.

"We CAN'T just turn off, not even for a little bit! We have to keep fighting."

And if you keep fighting, you won't just burn out. You'll drown. And then you can't fight anymore (or at least you'll have a really long cool down period before you feel ready to re-engage). 

Being able to shift back and forth between both "sides of the coin" is essentially an exercise in dialectics, the kind practiced in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). In balancing both sides of a dilemma, we can start to carve out a middle path between the two. Psychodynamic theory similarly talks about holding on to the "tension of opposites," allowing oneself to reflect on different sides of an issue, without reacting, in order to arrive at a third position, a creative way out of the impasse between the two.

We use different skills and techniques in psychotherapy to help people work their way through these impasses and conflicts in life. To put it simply, I'm not here to tell you to "turn off" or "switch off social media." I'm here to walk you through some tools you can use to practice self-care as needed and bind your wounds, so that if you choose to, you can get back in there.

1. Take your emotional temperature

I am a big fan of rating one's Subjective Units of Distress (SUDs). They provide a clear metric of HOW angry, overwhelmed, upset, or anxious we are feeling at any one time. Just the act of stopping dead in your tracks and asking yourself, "How upset am I right now, from 0 to 10?" already starts to put on the breaks by getting you to think about, as opposed to only feel, the intensity of the situation. Really noticing not just that you are upset, but how intensely you are upset puts you in a better position to act wisely and effectively.

Taking your emotional temperature is also useful in figuring out what your limits are. Some of us are able to perform well at a task even if our stress level rises to a 6 or a 7. Beyond that point we start to feel the deleterious effects of prolonged stress, such as irritability, difficulty concentrating, or fatigue. That "limit point" may be different for each person. For some it may be a 5 on one end or an 8 on the other. It is important to be aware of how much we can tolerate before we need to tag out, so you can heal up, and then tag back in.

If you notice your blood's starting to boil when you read or are thinking about responding to that tweet/post, put on the breaks by stopping before you respond and take your emotional temperature.


This one's really important. When we're activated by something that makes us feel angry or upset, our body goes into fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode, also known as the Stress Response. We get angry and more likely to be reactive instead of reflective. We get overwhelmed and withdraw, instead of engaging. Sometimes we get so overwhelmed our whole system shuts down, leading us to feel unsafe, and unable to re-establish our immediate safety. 

Once we notice our level of distress is rising beyond levels we can manage, we can quickly spot the somatic correlates of stress. One clear physiological sign of the stress response is that we either engage in shallow breathing, usually from the chest, or worse, we stop breathing altogether. Noticing our breathing, and allowing ourselves to slow down our breathe, take in air through the nose, and out our mouth, we can begin to put on the breaks and slow down the stress response. Diaphragmatic or "belly" breathing is also important in this regard, as it is a more effective form of breathing than chest breathing. It helps slow down the heart rate and more efficiently distribute oxygen throughout the body. 

Taking a moment to breathe also gives you space to step back and think about how you best want to engage or respond to a situation on social media (or, you know, "real" life).

We need to notice when we are getting in way too deep. We have to come up for air and breathe. And then, with fresh air filling our lungs, dive back into the fray.

 3. Find the balance to do what is called for in the moment

Noticing you are beginning to feel overwhelmed and putting on the brakes is just the beginning. Now you have to find the balance--is it WORTH IT to reply to that tweet/post?

We don't have to choose between self care and engaging social media. What we have to do is find the balance between the impulse to push through on the one hand, and pull back on the other, what is referred to as decisional balancing. Start by imaging a 2x2 grid in your mind. Writing them down helps, here's a custom handout if you would like to practice (be sure to click on "Enable Editing" so you can type in the fields).

Ask yourself, "What are the benefits of engaging in this debate right now?" followed by "What are the benefits of pulling back and practicing self-care right now?" Then ask yourself "What are the costs of engaging in this debate right now?" followed by "What are the costs of pulling back and practicing self-care right now?" Listing each pro and con one by one further slows you down and allows you to think and decide with clarity what this present moment calls for.

Lastly, rate how intensely you desire to engage at this moment, as well as how strongly you feel you need to pull back. Ask yourself, "Can I pull back now and engage later?" 

4. BREATHE SOME MORE! Then decide.

Having gained some awareness of how intensely you feel in this moment, slowed down your emotions by breathing, and thought through your options (and reasons for them), it's time to take another deep breath, and decide what this moment calls on you to do.

You may find in doing this exercise that if you decide to reply to that tweet or post, you have greater clarity in what you want to say, and can do so more succinctly. You may also find, if you decide to take a step back, that you can do so more freely. And at the same time, discover that you can bounce back and re-engage more quickly, and in a more mindful and meaningful way. Sometimes you have to check your temperature and take a quick breath before going deeper. And sometimes you have to take a step back, only to come back stronger.

Speaking of coming back, I've been coming back to one idea over and over again. And that is that no matter what happens in society today (let alone social media), how much chaos and craziness erupts all around us, that we can--and have to--create a sanctuary in our minds. Keeping ourselves sane in an insane world is an act of resistance, when so many things try to steal our peace and our very minds. We are the caretakers of our own mind. Nurture it. Nourish it.

Breathe it.