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How the social media comparison trap wreaks havoc on our well-being

Man pulling back social media curtain

This article was written by James Petrossi. More about James can be found below the article.

Sometimes it is hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, social media was primarily non-existent in our lives, and now many of us are in denial of our addiction to it and the negative impact the feed has on our mental health. The Pew Research Center began tracking social media adoption in 2005 when just 5% of American adults used at least one of the platforms. By 2011 that share rose to half of all Americans, and today 72% of the public uses social media.

While social media is undoubtedly a remarkable innovation to connect humanity, it also presents us with new challenges to contend with that wreak havoc on our minds through unfavorable comparisons. However, by understanding the nature of your thoughts, potential triggers, and how to overcome comparisons, we can find more peace while navigating our feeds.

Mind your thoughts

Research indicates that about 95 percent of human behaviors are unconscious; this encompasses the unconscious bodily functions that run our internal systems and our behaviors and decisions. The unconscious mind forms its identity based on all the life experiences we’ve had and the tribal affiliations that have helped share our attitudes, values, and belief systems. Although we may not be able to recall all the experiences we’ve had in life, they’ve been stored, creating the content of our unconscious mind. As a result, we all see the world through uniquely filtered lenses.

It’s essential to remember that you are not your thoughts but the one that observes your thoughts.

Then there is the gift of choice, a product of the conscious mind, the 5 percent that must be cherished because, with it, we can observe the thoughts, fears, and desires that surface from our unconscious mind to identify truths over falsehoods. Observation of thought is essential to finding peace because, according to the National Science Foundation, an average person has up to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative, and 95% are repetitive thoughts.

It’s essential to remember that you are not your thoughts but the one that observes your thoughts—the thought impulses or inner monologue that surfaces from your unconscious mind are designed to protect you. As a result, it’s in a constant state of comparing, complaining, liking, and disliking based on what it knows to be true. Unfortunately, when we become addicted to social media, our unconscious mind becomes overactive with an endless stream of comparisons that compromise our well-being.

Truths and falsehoods

So, do you ever compare your life to the lives of others on social media? How does it make you feel? Good, bad, or just plain miserable? When we view posts with people living what looks like picture-perfect lives with flawless bodies, going on fabulous vacations, an unconscious narrative begins to surface that our lives are in some way inadequate. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri found that the envy created from social media is a root cause of anxiety and depression.

Let’s say, for example, that while scrolling through one of your feeds, you come across a friend standing in front of a new Bentley Continental GT Speed. Your unconscious mind immediately compares this high-performance luxury car with the daily diver parked in your driveway, and negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions begin to surface.

As a result, your body and mind go through biological and emotional distress. Thoughts of jealousy trigger the human stress response, which increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and you get a headache, among many other systems. As this happens, negative thoughts continue to surface from the mind, creating an onslaught of life comparisons, leading to a domino effect of false beliefs that collectively leads you to realize that your life sucks.

The antidote to this experience comes with practicing the power of thought observation through our conscious mind to seek the truth and identify falsehoods. The person pictured with the Bentley may not be a close friend, but rather someone you follow or a loosely connected acquaintance. In reality, he might not even own the car. He may be at a car show or rented it and posted the picture to generate likes. And even if it is a close friend rather than think or type in the word jealous in the comments sections, raise your level of consciousness by being genuinely happy for the successes and achievements of your inner circle.

Beyond material just material possessions, our unconscious mind becomes triggered by many other social comparisons. These include vacation photos people share, pictures of fit bodies, the restaurants they eat at, the festivals they attend, and many times above all, the number of followers and likes that they have.

Followers and likes 

Ever wonder why you feel the urge to check how many people like your post throughout the day? That’s because social media is abundant with dopamine triggers. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center of the brain and rewards. 

The challenge with dopamine is that when the brain’s reward center becomes overstimulated, it reduces the number of active dopamine receptors. So now, to get increased pleasure from a reward requires higher levels of stimulation, as seen in drugs, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. The more they use, the more they need.

Dopamine is not always related to vices. The brain releases it naturally when we fill our bellies with tasty food, exercise, engage in sex, and have successful social interactions, which is a driving force behind social media addiction. Yes, humans are highly social, but we have limits to the number of relationships we can manage. In a 1993 study, Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, theorized that humans could have no more than about 150 meaningful relationships, a measure that became known as Dunbar’s number. What is most eye-opening about Dunbar’s number is that just 20 people make up our most emotionally supportive relationships.

While we often obsess over comparing our social status with others and the number of followers we have, it’s crucial to remember our inner circle of family and close friends will be there for us when we need advice, love, and support. When we become addicted to social media, we often lose sight of our most meaningful connections in life, those who have been loyal and compassionate to us along with life’s journey. So, are you nurturing relationships within your inner circle?

Rather than becoming envious of influencers with large followings, have empathy for them because the addiction is for more than most humans can handle. A recent study found that influencers with 50K+ followers are tethered to their mobile devices for up to nine hours a day, spending most of their waking hours chasing the social media dopamine rush.

The past and future

Worry, fear and uncertainty. The unconscious mind generates these thoughts and emotions when comparing life’s current circumstances with a past that no longer exists or an unwritten future. A study by the National Library of Medicine found what the constant consumption of negative news increases stress, anxiety, and sadness.

According to Jacqueline Bullis, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital’s Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders, “Constantly refreshing our social media feeds may help us feel slightly less anxious in the short term, but these behaviors ultimately have the opposite effect. In the long term, these behaviors are increasing our anxiety by feeding into this belief that if we have enough information, we can control what happens.”

For example, media narratives around COVID focus on the return to normal or what the new normal will look like in the future. In reality, normal is an illusion of the unconscious mind, and the only true meaning of normal lies in the current moment we are in, how we choose to accept it and make the most of the situation. No one knows what the future holds with COVID, and if we held on to the past, we would never evolve as a species. The hard truth is that even beyond the pandemic coverage, the vast majority of mainstream and independent news sources rely on fear-based, comparative headlines to reel us in and keep us coming back for more.

To minimize comparisons generated by the news, focus your attention on sources of information that provide the essential facts to help you stay in the know in the now. For instance, if you’re looking for COVID-related news, check the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or World Health Organization for updates. Also, consider taking an inventory of the news sources you visit and identify if their narratives are helping or hurting you.

Creating inner peace

So how can you compare less and appreciate more? Begin by self-regulating your cell phone use by setting realistic weekly goals to reduce your screen time. Going to extremes like locking your phone in a box, as portrayed in the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” won’t work. One practical solution is to remove non-essential social media apps from your phone. Most of our social media use is mobile, so eliminating the immediate trigger creates a delayed response. Checking the feed on a desktop computer will require extra effort and is not always accessible.

The key is creating moderation within your life and learning to use social media as a tool to foster meaningful connections, not as a reality. In a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, people who limited their social media use to 30 minutes a day reduced levels of depression in just three weeks.

Always remember that social media does not portray real-life situations. It is full of staged photos, airbrushed bodies, and moments that provide a narrow lens into the life of another. We never know what goes on behind the scenes, the real struggles they face, and the mental health challenges they are experiencing due to their social media addiction. 

If you do find yourself in a state of comparing, exit your app, pick up a pen, and jot down all of the things in life you are grateful for, the people that truly matter to you, and the experiences that have helped shape your life. Creating peace from within requires you to embrace the nature of your reality, not that portrayed by others. Observe your thoughts and navigate the feed, consciously aware of the comparison traps within it.



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