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  • Writer's pictureNicole Salter

C-PTSD and Social Media: Should We Switch Off?

Social media seems to have gotten spicier than ever. Celebrity scandals are nothing new, but what's in the air now is a bit different: you don't have to be having a high-profile affair or exploiting child labour to be controversial, you can get canceled just for tweeting an opinion that runs counter to the mainstream ideology. When everyone from elected officials to soccer moms to recovering drug addicts is baying for blood over hot-button issues like medical misinformation, racism and free speech, social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube can become a bit of a minefield. But if you have a mental health issue or a post-traumatic condition, are you especially at risk from social media usage?

I lean Libertarian on the political spectrum, so my risk tolerance is pretty high - for some things. Apparently, being dogpiled on social media isn't one of them; I tend to focus on the negative comments, not the supportive ones. Fortunately, I'm not alone.

Evangeline Lilly from Lost
Canadian actress Evangeline Lilly may kick ass as an elf, but being stranded on an island surrounded by treacherous freedom haters isn't nearly as much fun

When aged musicians pit themselves against popular celebrity broadcasters, young actors try to cancel their wizardly characters' creator for wrongthink, and government hires who've admitted to lying to entire countries routinely discredit medical experts with opposing views, anyone can be a target. So please explain to me why I weighed in on an online discussion about the Canadian truckers' convoy, splashing my very unpopular two cents in a thread full of people I disagree with, and still expected anything but a horrible feeling to be the result?

PTSD traits are not conducive to online battles

While Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has some variations, we can look to the original diagnosis, PTSD (the post traumatic stress condition that can result from a single trauma, such as surviving a car accident or a sexual assault) for clues as to whether people who have endured ongoing trauma are more vulnerable to the effects of social media. Just to recap, people with PTSD or complex trauma share certain traits...

  • Being easily startled or frightened.

  • Always being on guard for danger.

  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast.

  • Trouble sleeping.

  • Trouble concentrating.

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior.

  • Overwhelming guilt or shame.

Let's look at that in context of a typical social media feed...

  • Being easily startled or frightened (by confrontational posts the algorithm purposely displays to spark fear and anger, powerful emotions that keep you on the platform longer than, say, cat videos)

  • Always being on guard for danger (from a constant stream of bad news and the attitudes of the people promoting it, plus your own risk of being dogpiled or canceled)

  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast (you may need something to take the edge off after a few minutes of arguing online)

  • Trouble sleeping (replaying conversations over and over in your head all night, wondering how people have lost their minds to this extent)

  • Trouble concentrating (who can get work done when thinking about the latest controversy?)

  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior (the relative anonymity of the internet allows for a shocking lack of kindness and civility)

  • Overwhelming guilt or shame (for attacking others online, which always feels like defense even when it isn't)

You may be asking why being able to feel all the feels isn't good for someone with complex trauma. After all, we've shut down our own emotions in order to cope with traumatic events, so isn't it healthy to stay informed about what's going on in the world so we can respond empathetically? That seems logical. But a recent Huffington Post article quotes communications expert Katie Day Good as saying,

“Social media can desensitize us to tragedies by presenting us with too much information, information taken out of context, misinformation or disinformation (information designed to deceive).” That means less empathy, not more. In fact, the words used were 'helpless', 'immobile' and 'emotionally numb'.

But don't take an expert's word for it - how do you feel after getting into debates on Twitter or other platforms that somehow degenerate into a vicious race to the bottom wherein no one is convinced and everyone is divided? Emotionally numb is not a word I'd use, but the vastness of the internet and its breaking waves of questionable news can seem overwhelming. The article, which has helpful tips for breaking the doom-news cycle, goes on to talk about the possibility of experiencing vicarious trauma from scrolling an endless feed of bad news. All the negativity also rewires the nervous system, so we're constantly adrenalized - which can exacerbate serious conditions such as hypertension, my own personal nemesis.

Prison yard at Wentworth Correctional
The social media landscape can seem freeing, but for trauma survivors it can feel more dangerous than the yard at Wentworth

Good social media for trauma survivors

Research is out that social media can be helpful for trauma survivors in certain circumstances, so you don't have to pitch your phone over the balcony just yet. Joining online support groups that address issues like complex trauma, childhood trauma, narcissistic abuse recovery and other mental health issues can be a saving grace for people who feel isolated and alone. I have personally found such groups to be really helpful in sharing stories with and offering encouragement to people who are going through, and healing from, similar situations. In turn, it feels validating to know other people have had the same experiences and are moving past them.

One caveat: It's good to go into online groups with no expectations. While you're unlikely to see much argument between group members, expecting to get a lot of Likes and comments on a post can lead to disappointment when few people interact with it. If you overshare or divulge very personal details, even in a safe group, you may feel silly or regret it later. And, reading the stories of people who've been severely victimized may trigger you, so take it in small doses.

As my psychology hero Richard Grannon always says, be very careful what you give your time and your attention to. The adrenaline rush that social media provides can feel gratifying, but so does smoking crack - for a minute, anyway, followed by the inevitable crash.

What kinds of social media feeds and usage do you find helpful - and what disciplines do you use to keep you out of online dogfights? Stay curious!

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