Social Anxiety, Social Media and your Mental Health

19 January 2022

How to handle social pressures post Covid-19

From depression to cognitive decline, the stresses and strains of the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the prevalence of mental health issues of all kinds, and across all age groups, with incidence levels for many conditions hitting record highs.

Know your numbers

One in six UK adults experienced some form of depression in summer 2021, up from just one in 10 pre pandemici.

But while research suggests that overall wellbeing bounces back fairly quickly when restrictions and case numbers ease, social anxiety looks set to be a longer lasting problem - especially among younger people.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics indicate that anxiety levels among 20 to 24-year-olds remained high long after general personal wellbeing recovered following the first and second waves of the pandemici.

We are therefore focusing on the social pressures we face both on and offline, and how to deal with them.

Common social pressures

Types of social pressure that can have a detrimental impact on your mental health include:

  • Familial expectations - when you feel pressured into acting differently or taking certain decisions to please members of your family;
  • Peer pressure - when friends or acquaintances push you to behave a certain way (even if it makes you feel uncomfortable);
  • Socioeconomic goals - when we put pressure on ourselves to meet social 'norms' or reach specific objectives, such as losing weight, having lots of friends or earning a high salary.

Did you know?

Peer pressure affects adults - not just teenagers.

A 2018 study from Stirling University found that 85% of UK adults had been encouraged to drink alcohol by their friends, families or colleaguesii.

The mental health problems most commonly associated with these pressures include social anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

What is social anxiety?

According to the NHS, social anxiety is "a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations". Sometimes confused with extreme shyness, it often starts during the teenage years and can have a negative effect on everyday activities, self-confidence levels, and relationships.

Signs you suffer from social anxiety include:

  • Worrying about activities such as meeting strangers or talking on the phone;
  • Feeling agitated or "on edge" around others;
  • Experiencing symptoms such as nausea, sweating or trembling.

Ways to tackle social anxiety include:

  • Discussing your symptoms with your GP;
  • Trying relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises;
  • Keeping a diary to better understand the causes of your anxiety.

What are panic attacks?

According to mental health charity Mind, panic attacks are "an exaggeration of your body's normal response to danger, stress or excitement". They are often - but not always - brought on by stressful situations and usually last between five and 20 minutes, although some go on for an hour or more.

Signs you are having a panic attack include:

  • A racing or pounding heartbeat;
  • Dizziness or light-headedness;
  • Chest pains or trouble breathing.

Ways to cope with a panic attack include:

  • Focusing on your breathing and trying to slow it down;
  • Touching or cuddling something soft;
  • Listening to your body - you may need to rest somewhere quiet or have something to eat.

What is depression?

Depression is a wide-ranging mental health condition that affects millions of people and can mean anything from simply being in low spirits for an extended period of time to feeling desperate and suicidal.

Signs you have depression include:

  • Feeling upset or tired for no reason;
  • Avoiding activities that you usually enjoy;
  • Feeling isolated and unable to relate to others.

Ways to combat depression include:

  • Asking your GP for advice about the various treatments available;
  • Using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT);
  • Doing physical exercise.

The role of social media

The pandemic is not the only external factor to affect how social pressures affect our mental health in recent years.

The phenomenal popularity of social media sites that offer a window into the lives of everyone from celebrities to ex-partners - and allow users to compare their performance based on numbers of "likes" and "followers" - has also had a profound impact, especially as they rarely portray an accurate idea of users' actual lives.

Know your numbers

Nine in 10 Britons use social media.

The UK is home to millions of Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok users, with around nine in 10 Britons aged between 16 and 54 signed up to at least one site, according to the latest Ofcom figuresiii.

Filtered and photoshopped to perfection, many social media profiles paint a totally unrealistic picture of a charmed existence in which the sun always shines.

So not only does excessive social media usage inspire a potentially harmful level of self-comparison, it also encourages people to compare their lives, bodies, and experiences with ones that don't even exist.

"Spending time on online communities and social media sites can mean that you end up comparing yourself to others," Mind says. "This can negatively impact your self-esteem and how you view your life."

Did you know?

FOMO stands for "Fear Of Missing Out"

Identified by charities including the UK Centre for Mental Health as a huge driver of both social anxiety and social media usage, FOMO can mean both feeling out of the loop regarding events and information and believing that others are having more fun or living better lives than youiv.

For those who find it hard to "fit in", social media sites are also a hotbed of harassment and cyberbullying, which research indicates more than half of 12 to 15-year-olds have faced in the last 12 monthsv.

Other related pressures reported by social media users include feeling the need to constantly check their accounts, with some users becoming unable to sleep due to spending too much time scrolling.

Little wonder then, that multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media usage and an increased risk of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and lonelinessvi.

Fact or fiction?

Social media is more addictive than tobacco or alcohol.

A 2012 study by researchers from Chicago University found that the urge to check social networking sites was harder to ignore than the urge to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, making them "more addictive" than more costly and potentially more time-consuming ways to get a hit of instant gratificationvii.

Today, social media addiction is a recognised problem with serious ramifications for both mental and physical health. If you think you - or a loved one - is overusing social media, sensible steps include:

  • Limiting the amount of time you spend on social media per day;
  • Turning your phone or device off at 10pm;
  • Blocking online trolls and those sharing negative content.

After all, using social media should be fun - if it's not, it's time to stop!

About the author

Jessica Bown is a freelance writer and journalist.