Is Social Media Damaging our Relationships?

The excitement you feel when your social media post is “liked,” or otherwise validated, is due to the release of dopamine in your brain, which is also released during sex or a delicious meal. Increasingly, our brains are becoming conditioned and rewired to associate this boost of happiness with our online behaviors like social media, online games, email or aimless surfing.

Unsurprisingly, this leads to a host of emotional and social problems. But how serious is our dependency on mobile internet and social media, and what can we do to live with it in peace?

How Pervasive is Internet Addiction?

Internet addiction affects nearly 6 percent of the global population. Symptoms of online addiction include anxiety, depression, euphoric feelings around devices, lost sense of time, weight gain and the avoidance of work. It also has serious ramifications for those in romantic relationships. Excessive usage of Twitter and Facebook has been linked to cheating, breakups and divorce, often rooted in conflicts over time spent on these platforms.

How Do We Get Hooked?

Healthy self-soothing behaviors such as  exercising, reading, or meditating help us build effective coping strategies in the long run . Avoidance behaviors are automatic behaviors that  we do in order to try to get rid of distressing emotions such as boredom, insecurity, loneliness, shame, hurt, or uncertainty. internet addiction and social media - Oakland therapistThese behaviors usually make us feel better in the moment, but lead to more pain in the long run. Avoidance behaviors are short term solutions to long term problems and end up exacerbating our pain in the long run. These behaviors may include include drinking,  drug use, isolating, internet addiction, yelling, overeating, gossiping, and many others. Since similar chemicals are released when you get a “like” on Facebook and when you take drugs, many are turning to using the internet and social media as a way to escape negative feelings, like boredom or loneliness.

However, when we don’t cope with those feelings, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to better our lives. People who are able to tolerate uncomfortable emotions have more behavioral flexibility, they are better creative problem solvers, and are more likely to engage in adaptive coping responses such as reaching out to friends or make new acquaintances.

Online Identity Confusion

Beyond this addictive chemical reaction, another key issue with heavy internet use is in users identifying more with online identities than real life. Online, you my find it easy to frame your life as one of total fulfillment, and it’s likely many in your network are doing the same. Because of this, it’s often easier to interact online, as it is simple to avoid awkward or vulnerable moments that reveal our insecurities and problems.

And there’s evidence that this is leading to an increasing preference to online interactions over those in real life. According to one study, one in four spend more time on social media than in real-life social situations, and as many as 11 percent of adults prefer to spend a weekend communicating online than socializing.

When Social Media Makes us Feel Bad About Ourselves

Beyond their addictive properties, there are many occasions where social media, in particular makes us feel bad. My clients frequently tell me that Facebook makes them sad, and research bares this out. According to a sturdy from the University of Michigan, the more participants used Facebook, the worse they felt. This, researchers said, is likely due to social comparisons. You most likely have experienced social comparisons when looking your social network’s glamorous photos, happy messages and feel your own life pales in comparison. Repeated exposure to these comparisons can lead to unhealthy beliefs about our self worth.

 How to Use the Internet Mindfully

  • Though there are serious concerns, there’s no need to cancel your social media accounts or throw your cell phone in a lake. There are ways to live mindfully with the internet. We can enjoy its benefits without it draining us of our self-esteem and free time. Try these tips today to live with the internet in peace:
  • Track the amount of time you spend on social media and in real-life interactions.
  • Call a friend. Even if you haven’t spoken to this person in months, ask to spend some time together.
  • Make a point of silencing your mobile device when around your friends.
  • Pay attention to how often you pull out your mobile device out of necessity, and how often out of impulse, or urge. Note the emotions you experience.
  • Note the overall purpose of your social/mobile usage. What are you trying to accomplish with each post, text or interaction? Ask yourself if the message feels genuine.
  • What do you value in your relationships?
  • Are you behaving authentically—like you would in-person—or are you trying to put on a good face?
  • Limit how frequently you check your email and phone.

 

After you recognize which parts of your connected life make you feel good, and which make you feel bad, you’ll feel more confident in cutting out the latter. You’ll begin to feel more power over your device, rather than the other way around.

Adults Need Time-Outs Too

take a time-out - It's OK. Bay Area CBTI’m frequently asked whether it’s ever OK to walk away from a fight.

The short answer is yes. You should take a break from a heated argument because the type of creative and objective problem solving that makes you a whiz at work shuts down when you feel the strong negative emotions associated with fights.

However, you can’t leave the conflict unresolved. Instead, have a time out, allowing you both the space and perspective to calmly assess the conflict.

 When is a Time Out Necessary

A time out is necessary when one or both partners are so triggered that they are no longer able to have a productive conversation. When we are triggered at 90% or 95% our skills go downhill and we are incapable of exploring a conflict with the same level of openness. If feelings of jealousy, insecurity, anger or hopelessness are at high intensity, then our capacity for effective problem solving is diminished. Learning to use time outs to calm ourselves down and clarify our feelings and needs can help us return to the conversation at a later time, when we are less triggered, and resolve the conflict effectively.

How to Make Time Outs Clear and Fair

To make a time out fair, you need clear-cut rules that give the both parties assurances that their space is respected and the conflict will be addressed. It is better to identify and agree on the rules of a time out in a moment when neither partner is in a triggered state. Try these tips:

      • Agree on a word or phrase that signals a time out is necessary.
      • Convey to your partner that resolving the issue is important to you.
      • Don’t use accusatory language. Say, “I feel triggered,” not, “you made me angry.”
      • Agree on a time to talk again, soon. It generally takes around 30 minutes to calm down.

 

How to Have an Effective Time Out

A time out is not merely a break, but an opportunity to feel our negative emotions and gain perspective. To do so, perform an inventory of the emotions and thoughts you’re experiencing. Write down your thoughts and feelings to the following questions:

        • What sensations am I experiencing in my body right now?
        • Where in my body does this experience feel most intense?
        • On a scale of 0-10, how intense is this physical experience?

 

Next. imagine your feelings have a physical form and describe their attributes:

    • Color
    • Shape
    • Size
    • Level of intensity
    • Movement

 

After, turn your attention to your immediate concerns about the time out:

      • What are my fears about this time out?
      • What are my thoughts or beliefs about this?
      • What do I predict will happen?

 

Make note of your prediction. Notice what you predicted, and the future story your brain imagined. Finally, identify what triggered you. Now, check in on your values and the kind of partner that you want to be and use the following steps from Nonviolent Communication to identify and express your needs effectively:

      • When x happened, I felt _____
      • I need _____
      • Would you be willing to _____

 

After a brief period of calm introspection, you should feel closer to the heart of the problem and further away from its intensity. Use this as a tool as often as you and your partner feel triggered in arguments, and you’ll find you’re both better able to listen and be aware of differing needs. If you’re concerned about how to handle yourself when discussing the issue again, consult the University of Texas at Austin’s comprehensive post on building healthy relationships.

Ride the Waves with Urge Surfing

How do you tend to respond to a powerful urge? Are there certain experiences that show up more frequently for you? Are there particular experiences that you attempt to avoid? Let’s be proactive by getting curious and mindful of these urges and learn how urge surfing and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help.

 What urges come up for you when you:

      • get home from work?
      • wake up in the morning?
      • get rejected?
      • when a relationship ends?
      • are faced with a challenge?
      • feel bored?
      • feel lonely?
      • have a need you want to express?
      • feel criticized?

What exactly is an urge?

Urges are very interesting to think about. An urge is a strong desire or craving to act impulsively and out of habit. An urge occurs right before a behavior and is experienced as an intense physical and emotional experience. Urges get triggered by an event, a thought, feeling, memory, or image and pull us towards automatic ways of responding. Urges can feel like waves, they rise in intensity and tug and pull us towards using old behaviors that may provide us a temporary relief, but often lead to negative consequences in the long run. Rather than struggling and fighting an urge we can ride it by staying present and mindful, noticing the moment it peaks and the moment it crashes. acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT and Alan Marlatt For example an individual may have developed the urge to log on to Facebook or reach out to someone as soon as he/she experiences any sign of loneliness or boredom. Others may have gotten conditioned to have a drink right after work or in social situations, creating a link between a common uncomfortable experience and a behavior that has temporarily relieved the discomfort. Now they continue to use the same old behavior to avoid feelings of anxiety, loneliness, boredom, or distress. They continued to reinforce a bad habit as a coping response to challenging situations and experiences.

Using a short-term solution to resolve long-term struggles will only increase the distress in the long run. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) refers to this outcome as “secondary pain”. The more that we use old response styles, the more that our pain grows. Rather than fighting our experiences lets practice staying with our experiences, befriending them, and getting curious about them by using urge surfing.

What is Urge Surfing?

Urge surfing is coined by Alan Marlatt in preventing relapses among patients recovering from drug addiction. Urge surfing is not only used with addictions, but with any coping behavior that results in a short-term decrease in suffering, but exacerbates our pain in the long run. The principle advocates that fighting the craving is futile. The urge is seen as a water force such as a wave or a waterfall that we can’t control. In fact, fighting them could only feed them. Instead, we can observe the waterfall or surf the wave and watch it go right past. Urge surfing is an empowering tool because it trains us to stay mindful of our urges and impulses so that we have more control over the behaviors we choose.

5 Simple Urge Surfing Steps:

1.    Identify the Physical Sensation in the Body

Stop for a few minutes and be mindful of your physical responses to your urge. You can close your eyes or simply sit in a comfortable position. Pinpoint which specific body part is being affected. Where in your body does this sensation feel most intense? Is it your stomach? Your gut? In your chest? Your jaw?

2.    Focus on the Sensations

Now, having that specific body part in mind explore the sensations related to it. For instance, if it is the head, do you feel a bit dizzy? Is there pain? Does it feel warm? Is it more on the right side? If you feel the need to focus on other body parts, you may do so following the same process.

3.    Notice Breathing

For 1-2 minutes, be mindful of your breathing pattern. It may be a good idea to think of a body part specifically related to breathing such as your diaphragm, lungs, or nose. It is better to inhale through the nose and slowly exhale through the mouth.

4.    Refocus on Your Body

After noticing your breathing, gradually refocus on the body part that has been affected by the urge. Visualize how each breath lessens the weight, pain, or distinctive sensations. It may be helpful to imagine each cleansing inhalation as white light rejuvenating your body and each exhalation a dark smoke that you are happy to get rid of. Pay attention to how these processes change how you feel.

5.    Stay Curious and Present

Think of your physical and psychological sensations as a wave that you can successfully ride out with your breathing. See if you can gently make space for the experience. Send loving kindness and compassion to the deep longing and yearning that is showing up for you, if you’re your mind starts selling you stories or distracting you, just simply notice the mind and the thoughts that it pops up and return to your breath and the physical sensations. Anticipate it’s coming and breathe it in as it peaks and exhale as you think of the urge crashing down. Then after 2 minutes or longer, congratulate yourself for a surf well done!

By recognizing how urges pull us towards old avoidant coping strategies, we can have the effective tools to choose behaviors that benefit us in the long run and bring us closer towards our values. By focusing on who we truly want to be in our life and what we want to stand for, we can learn how to successfully surf our urges.

PRACTICE MINDFULNESS:

Training our minds to stay curious and open with our urges will make us stronger not only for specific addictions, but in our overall existence as well. Practicing mindfulness can help us train our brain to stay more present and observe our internal experiences and discomfort without having to act on it. The more we can sit and tolerate our uncomfortable experiences and urges the less influence they have over our behaviors. When we practice breathing and staying present with our discomfort, we can become more able to ride out the cravings that lead to damaging consequences and engage in more effective and consistent behaviors.

LET IT PASS:

Urges are temporary. Therefore, you don’t have to act in them for them to change and morph. Whenever you feel the impulse or have the nagging thought, bring your attention to your breathing and bodily sensations and stay curious and present with your present moment experiences. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that you should suppress your urges, but that staying mindful of your urges increases your behavioral choices. It is understandably challenging specially in the beginning. However, after practicing this skill your urges will no longer act as barriers or be your enemies, instead your urges will inform you about what matters to you and what kind of person you want to be. If we learn to get very curious about our urges and extend the moment when these impulses arise, we can start creating behavioral flexibility. By being aware of our reactions, we can better manage our actions and decisions.

Podcast Interview with Dr. Lev

Dr. Lev interview with Marilu Henner

Dr. Lev discusses relationships, schemas, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and her books on The Marilu Henner show.

Dr. Avigail Lev is a licensed clinical psychologist in California  and a certified mediator. She utilizes evidence-based practices, including cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance-based treatments, to treat both couples and individuals struggling with relationship problems, anxiety, trauma, depression, emotional dysregulation, trichotillomania, OCD, and mood disorders.

She specializes in integrating Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Schema Therapy to address interpersonal problems and unhelpful patterns in relationships.  She has coauthored two books integrating these treatments to help improve relationships. The first, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Interpersonal Problems: Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Schema Awareness to Change Interpersonal Behaviors, presents a complete treatment protocol for therapists working with clients who fall into unhealthy relationship patterns and helps them overcome maladaptive interpersonal behavior. The second book, The Interpersonal Problems Workbook: ACT to End Painful Relationship Patterns, combines research and evidence-based techniques for strengthening relationships.

1

2