Psychology, Social Media

How To Wake Up Motivated, Even When You Feel You Can’t Get Out Of Bed

how to wake up motivated
How to wake up motivated.

Lying in bed, left cheek on pillow, I’m perfectly positioned to see the tree outside my window. Each morning I admire its leaves dancing in the wind, their varying colours indicative of changing seasons. It’s a pleasant start to my day, a moment of stillness and appreciation before I’m vertical.

Yet, sometimes, morning admiration dissolves into apathy. The tree’s leaves blur into a multicoloured canvas for my wandering mind. Attentiveness gives way to a distant gaze as I become occupied by the land of thoughts; I’m reliving social interactions, ordering mental to-do lists, fantasizing about perfect futures. I’m daydreaming before the day’s begun.

Before I know it, an hour’s passed and I’m still in bed. Then comes the guilt.

It’s possible to learn how to wake up motivated

At this stage of my life this happens rarely. Mostly I spring out of bed before my alarm, ready to brew coffee, eat my porridge and carpe diem the hell out of my day. But when this does happen, it’s a reminder of how difficult it was to get out of bed when in the midst of depression and anxiety.

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with loved ones who experience this frequently. It motivated me to write this article and explore reasons why. I’ve included a wealth of techniques anyone can apply to help learn how to wake up, and get up. This guide is written for loved ones. It’s written for you.

Note: If you regularly struggle to get out of bed when you have obligations, this could be a sign of clinical depression. Consider talking to a doctor if you’re missing work or regularly cancelling plans.

Bedroom rumination and the spiral of anxiety

“Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings,
Of the bluebird as she sings,
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring,
But six rings and I rise,
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes,
The shaving razor’s cold and it sting.” — The Monkees — Daydream Believer

Not all thoughts are equal. Our minds can be a source of wisdom. Our minds can also be a source of meaningless junk, in the form of intrusive, repetitive thoughts with no substance. Fears, inner-criticism, indulgence in past and future. Eastern spiritual traditions refer to our default thinking processes as the “monkey-mind” for good reason.

On the mornings when the leaves blur, I fall down the rabbit hole of thinking. Me and my thinking become one, but not in the bliss or creative insight or problem solving. Often, I’m visualising premonitions of the day’s events or facing an inner-battle; excuses to stay in bed — “just five more minutes…” — fight incessant inner-dialogue, where I chastise myself for laziness.

Ever lie in bed, paralysed by thoughts bemoaning how much time you’ve wasted… lying in bed? In psychological terms, this is rumination, “a negative, repetitive style of thinking about present and past symptoms, loss, and failure.” It’s heavily linked to an increased possibility of depression and anxiety.

Depressed people may sleep excessively to cope with rumination, when the only escape route seems to be the world of dreams.

I think because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I think

Rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming embroils you more actively in the drama or your life.” — Stephan Bodian — Meditation for Dummies

Rumination is also associated with avoidance. We fall into the trap of believing if only we think enough, all of our problems will go away! This is a poor coping mechanism. In fact, chronic rumination increases indecision and inactivity. A 2003 study found that, when faced with a task “fraught with uncertainty and performance pressure,” nonruminators delved into problem solving. However, ruminators focused on the distress, which “amplified it and enhanced its subsequent effects on their thinking.”

Applying this study to pillow procrastination (term trademarked), I speculate those prone to rumination are particularly triggered by the uncertainty of the blank slate of a full day ahead. The nature of an anxiety disorder is the notion of “I can’t cope.” I remember many mornings spent fearfully rehearsing every perceived threat the day would present — often accompanied by visualisations of a worst case scenario.

If you find yourself ruminating, remind yourself it’s a coping mechanism with little benefit. You won’t find the answers you’re looking for. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to become entangled in this cycle. Set the intention to break the cycle the night before. Write a post-it note as a reminder: “action is the answer” or “you can’t think your way out of a paper bag, so get up” are two options.

Could improved, realistic goals be a solution?

Jonathan Rottenberg, psychologist and author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, provides an interesting theory on why depressed people struggle to get out of bed. Rottenberg pays close attention to the functionality of mood, arguing low mood is the result of poor progress or the response to an important goal being threatened.

Low mood may be the result of poor progress towards goals.

“Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals,” he writes. “They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly.” The reason this is so debilitating is because humans override mood function to continue pursuing unattainable goals. Without this override, Sisyphus would’ve stopped pushing that bloody rock after it became obvious it wasn’t a good idea.

I’m on board with Rottenberg’s forward-thinking. I’ve experienced paralysis caused by unrealistically high expectations of what should be achievable in a day. And paralysis based on the fear of not living up to self-imposed expectations. Both of these are signs of perfectionism — in the context of goals and behaviour. We don’t stay in bed because we don’t care. Quite the opposite.

SMART goals and accountability

One way to explore if overcommitment is a problem is to assess your goal setting standards. Do you follow the SMART technique (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant)? Would your to-do list make Elon Musk tremble with performance anxiety? This applies to short and long term goals. To wake with purpose, try writing your daily goals the evening before. Check if they follow the SMART guideline.

If you’re struggling with goal setting, consider hiring a coach. A skilled coach can provide the skills, resources and guidance to uncover meaningful, attainable goals. Better still, outside support can have a galvanising effect — a study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) revealed accountability can increase goal success by 95 percent.

Find a higher purpose to get your head off the pillow

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Goal setting won’t see you leap out of bed each morning unless imbued with a deeper sense of purpose. Lacking direction or a connection to “something bigger,” is a key hindrance to having motivation to wake up and get up. Identifying a lack of purpose doesn’t have to be a lightning bolt of divine intervention — it may be as simple as accepting your employment or lifestyle isn’t fulfilling.

Find your North Star; find that thing, personal to you, that gives you meaning and purpose. This discovery is a process, but if you make the effort to reflect on your values, and times when you felt truly aligned, you will begin to understand what drives you. With clarity comes direction as you are pulled towards your guiding Star.

north star
Find your North Star.

As a personal example, my North Star is serving others to help improve their mental health and make sense of suffering. It’s a sensation unlike any other, as if driven by an energy outside of my control. Discovering this purpose has added deeper meaning to my life and made sense of years of my own suffering. In addition, spiritual practice has increased my connection with the world and with others, and cultivated the mental clarity to understand what I truly value.

Banish the smartphone — and social media — from the bedroom

Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show

If you can’t get out of bed and want to learn how to wake up with motivation, banishing your phone at bedtime needs to be a priority. A study by Reportlinker found 46 percent of Americans check their phones as soon as they wake up; rising to 66 percent in the millennial age bracket. The most common usage was to check emails or social media.

I’ve previously explored the addictive quality of smartphones, plus the negative impact social media has on mental health. It’s long been suggested social media can lead to depression and loneliness, without quantifiable evidence. Well, as of this month, a study from Penn State has linked Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to reduced wellbeing.

Furthermore, multiple studies have found a positive correlation between mobile phone use and procrastination. If not staring into the abyss and ruminating like a trooper, your day may be delayed by browsing Twitter, scrolling Instagram, reading news or playing candycrush.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Ditching the phone, writing to-do lists the night before, and other solution suggested have a similar aim — to simplify the decision making process. There’s a reason for this. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister discovered a correlation between decisions and decreased willpower and self-control. Constant decision making tires us out.

Morning decisions can be overwhelming. We decide what to wear, what to do on an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, what to eat for breakfast, whether to go to the gym. If our phones are at our bedside, we may tap in to another form of decisions: what time do I meet my friend? How should I respond to this WhatsApp message?

A consistent morning routine is a great way to reduce decisions. I go a step further and follow a morning ritual. What’s the difference? You could argue semantics, I’d argue devotion. Rather than a routine I blindly follow because I believe it’s good for me (boorrriiinnnggg) I devote myself to cultivating joy in the sacred moments after waking.

ritual stove press
Rituals can cultivate joy.

It begins with the dedication to be mindful and take time for myself. I stretch, move, focus on the breath, get blood and oxygen flowing. I meditate, sometimes. I assemble my morning oats, with the same ingredients, in the same order. I carefully set up my Italian Stovetop Espresso maker. I listen to the noise of boiling water, close my eyes and enjoy the scent. I wake up and smell the coffee… with a few added steps.

If tiredness is the culprit, assess your lifestyle

It’s unlikely the reason you can’t get up exists in a vacuum or is caused by one single factor. But if you feel physically drained, applying any of the above actions will be more difficult. If tiredness is the problem, you may have to cast the net wider and address your lifestyle.

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting enough downtime? Are you cutting back on caffeine and reducing alcohol consumption? Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating well? The better the quality of fuel we provide the body and the better rest, the more resources our hearts and minds have to work with, metaphorically and literally speaking.

Piecing it all together

I’m hopeful this article gives you something to work with. I can vouch for the above actions, and I believe they can have a positive influence and increase purpose. But I’d like to end with a reminder for self-compassion in the process. These steps are a designed to move you towards where you’d like to be.

It’s important to celebrate each step in the right direction; if you struggle to get up five days a week and reduce that to three or four, celebrate! If you start writing a SMART to-do list the evening before, celebrate!

And, importantly, if you read this article and nothing changes, remember rumination, and guilt, won’t fix the issue. Only action will.

Carpe diem. But first, wake up.

Have you tried any of these actions? Or do you have tips of your own? Let me know by commenting below.

Psychology, Social Media

The Subtle Ways We Seek Salvation From Our Smartphones (And How To Stop)

obsessive phone checking
Hello… is it me you’re looking for?

There’s a universe at your fingertips, brimming with promises of digital delights. How hard it is to resist the lure of bright lights, shiny icons and pleasant pings! Every aspect of this universe is the deliberate result of Silicon Valley exploiting behavioural psychology to hijack our habit-forming tendencies. Knowing how to stop being addicted to your phone seems an impossible task.

Our phones may be in the palm of our hands, but the truth is, we’re the ones under the thumb. I’m all too familiar with the iPhone’s gravitational pull. There have been occasions where I see a familiar glow in my peripheral vision. My attention immediately diverts, only to realise the screen was alight because I’d pressed the ‘home’ button seconds before, like a dull, first-person Black Mirror.

Sometimes, I catch myself in the middle of a disturbing ritual; I unlock, scroll through the icon screen, open ‘photos’, close, open WhatsApp (despite no notifications), scroll, open an old conversation, close, open Instagram, no new notifications, scroll, close. Then I realise what I’m doing and feel mild shame.

The human equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Although embarrassing to admit, I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual. Research suggests we touch, swipe or click 2,617 times every day, spread across 150 sessions. Holland Haiis, a digital detox expert, refers to technological addiction as “the new 21st century addiction.” Without a doubt, my tail-chasing icon-swiping is a sign of addiction — I’m seeking salvation from boredom.

Proactively checking vs. reacting to notifications

Notifications are highly distracting. Studies have illustrated this for a while, and more and more of us are turning off notifications to reduce stress. However, obsessive phone checking is proactive. Often I unlock my phone when I don’t have new notifications, consciously aware I won’t find what I’m looking for.

I follow a similar process on my laptop — checking for new emails, logging onto Facebook or browsing BBC football without purpose. However, this behaviour is much, much more prominent when associated with a mobile device. The UX universe becomes a black hole of temptation in my pocket.

Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset?

I’ve made steps to reduce this behaviour. I receive notifications for messages on WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, or SMS (from one friend — you know who you are). But I don’t have Facebook on my phone, and don’t receive notifications from any other apps, including Instagram and Twitter.

Most studies focus on the distraction of checking our phones when notified. But why do I find myself opening an app without notifications? Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset? Would it be better if I actually knew, for sure, whenever something occurs in iPhone universe?

Opening WhatsApp and scrolling aimlessly through old conversations, unconsciously browsing old photos, mindlessly swiping the icon screen, double tapping ‘home’ and closing apps for no apparent reason… That’s just weird. I know it is. Clearly, there’s more to obsessive phone checking than a thirst for notifications.

Is a problem a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem?

This behavioural loop is subtle, and identifying it as a problem is… a problem. If your addiction is deeply intrusive — injecting yourself with heroin or blowing your life’s savings on a 10-match final score accumulator in the Romanian second-division — alarm bells will ring.

These types of addiction pacify deep-rooted, intense emotional states such as clinical depression. But what about feelings on the “slightly below average” part of the emotional spectrum? Boredom? Restlessness? Frustration? Agitation? These states induce behaviour matching their tenacity.

“There are those of us where addiction has completely taken control of our lives,” Valerie Mason-John, author of Eight Step Recovery, told MindThatEgo. “Then there are those of us where addictions are hidden. We don’t even acknowledge them as addictions,” she added. Obsessive phone checking is in this category, subtle, easy to dismiss.

The balancing act of dopamine and subtle emotional states

Dopamine is the reward chemical flooding our brains when we have sex, eat, exercise and socialise successfully (not at the same time, though I’m sure combining these activities would feel great). Clinical depression may lead to an attempt to “balance” the state with a heavy dose, turning a Class A drug such as cocaine. Boredom, however, may be balanced the tiny hit of dopamine our phones provide.

“If you understand people’s internal triggers, you can try to satiate them,” Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, told Wired. Eyal specialises in creating “habit-building” products. “If you’re feeling lonely, we can help you connect. If you’re feeling bored, we can help entertain.” Creating a landscape primed to form habits, whilst promising connection, has manifested the inevitable. A 2014 study discovered cell-phone addiction (CPA) is driven by the urge to connect socially.

But is there harm in mindlessly picking up the phone and swiping? Are we nullifying human traits and striving for Jesus-like perfection? Let’s return to those mildly unpleasant states. The same study compared smartphone addiction to shopping or internet addiction. These addictions begin in a benign manner, until a “tipping point” is reached and a few dopamine-seeking swipes down the line, you’re dependent.

Dependency and seeking low-risk comfort

This dependency is the real issue. Valerie Mason-John refers to this process as “seeking refuge” — the source of addiction becomes a place of comfort, a coping mechanism to escape troubling emotions. You choose your smartphone because it has provided comfort in the past; the timeline of dopamine rewards become hardwired into the subconscious. Chemically, smartphone addiction creates an imbalance in the brain.

Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Trevor Haynes, of Harvard Medical School, likens obsessive phone checking to a psychological framework known as the “variable reward principle.” Habits form easily when we believe we will be rewarded at random (in this case, new likes, followers or messages) and the cost of seeking the reward is minimal. Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Whilst writing this article I’ve stopped to check my phone numerous times. This behaviour isn’t much different from someone leaving their desk every 30 minutes to smoke. The hit of nicotine is replaced by the hit from a new notification. These moments reinforce the behaviour. When the tiny buzz wears off, as it always does, I’m back to square one. Swiping. Clicking. Tapping.

How to stop being addicted to your phone

break smartphone habit.
We can learn to break the phone checking habit.

Break the cycle by journaling habits

So how do we break the cycle? Begin by catching yourself when you pick up your phone. You may find yourself suddenly staring at the home screen with no recollection of how you got there — I feel you, I do it too. But the more you become aware of the process, the more you seize control of auto-pilot. Try this for one week. Journal how many times this happens in a day. Use meditation and mindfulness to increase space between thoughts and action.

After detecting moments of obsessive checking, explore your underlying thoughts, emotions or desires. Return to your journal and note the context of each moment. For example: “Today I realised I habitually reach for my phone when I’m tired. It’s almost like I need a pick me up, something to stimulate my brain. Thoughts usually centre around the hope of someone contacting me with something amusing to brighten my day. A little laughter would give me energy.”

Explore the context of underlying thoughts and emotions

Next, challenge your perspective. Look at the bigger picture and reframe. Using the above example: “I didn’t get much sleep so I was more tired than usual. Tiredness is more of an issue than I thought; I definitely rely on others to pick me up whenever I feel drowsy… It’s as if I’m running away from the feeling of drowsiness.”

In Buddhist philosophy, seeking pleasure to avoid pain is a prime cause of suffering. To free ourselves, we need to embrace the impermanent nature of craving. Then, confront our emotional triggers.

“I’ve associated drowsiness as something inherently bad. Like I shouldn’t feel that way. That makes me feel restless and I get the impulse to turn to my phone. In reality, drowsiness is fine, it’s part of being human. To help, I can sleep more and eat better. I’ll pay attention to fluctuations in energy without magnifying the lows. Now I think of it, many times I perk up after a spell of drowsiness.”

What are you expecting to find?

iPhone addiction
The universe at your fingertips.

Another technique is to explore your expectations. When you pick up your phone, what are you expecting? A reply you’ve been waiting for from a friend? A retweet from the celebrity you mentioned on Twitter? Likes on your latest Instagram photo?

Looking at your expectations can shine a light on what you’re seeking. Maybe you are lonely. Maybe there’s social anxiety around the selfie you shared, and you’re awaiting a like or a comment for validation.

There are practical steps, such as using apps to limit mobile usage. Apple even introduced “Screen Time” as part of iOS. As useful as they are, these apps don’t stop you picking up your phone and checking. Until smartphones can physically restrain users, we’ll need to consider another option.

I always put my phone in another room when I’m working. On days when I’m particularly weak, I turn it off and hide it from myself (sometimes in my sock drawer or food cupboard!) and set a time when I’ll consciously check-in. I bought an old-school alarm clock and I turn my phone off an hour or so before bed. I won’t check it until I’ve eaten my morning oats — at the earliest.

You may find your own tricks, and please let me know if you do. The universe at your fingertips is intoxicating, but with a little conscious effort, it doesn’t have to control us.

Hang on a sec, my phone’s glowing, I think I have a new mes-… never mind.


Features, Fitness, Psychology, Social Media

Improving Body Image: How Perception Of The Body Is A Reflection Of The Mind

negative body image
Body image issues arise in the mind, not the body.

Let’s begin with a simple truth: the mainstream media, particularly the advertising industry, defines beauty standards. These definitions are deliberately unattainable and perfect, because they fit an agenda. Making us feel bad about how we look works in the favour of profit-making corporations. With multiple billions at stake, it’s unlikely we’ll witness diverse, attainable and imperfect definitions of beauty in the mainstream media, at least in our lifetime.

If power structures won’t change, there’s no choice; the onus is on us to reshape and redefine beauty, by our realistic standards, improving negative body image in the process. But how do we redefine and change our mindsets? How do we reverse and unlearn conditioning that has been drilled into us, our entire lives?

Ideas presented here include: reframing ideas of beauty; becoming aware of (and accepting) ways we instinctively judge others and compare; body shaming vigilance; understanding body image psychology; accepting impermanence; and understanding the illusion of fixed concepts, such as appearance.

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Redefining Beauty And Celebrating Individuality

The cultural concept of beauty is forcefully promoted billboards, TV screens, webpages, beauty products and everywhere since forever, like a cynical, slow-dripping serum of deceit, disguising itself as truth. But it isn’t truth, and the more we actively and consciously reject these images, the more we redefine beauty. A key principle behind this approach is redefining from aesthetic perfection to individuality.

How? We retrain our minds to look at others, and ourselves, the way we look at nature. Because as much as we may see ourselves as separate entities, cut off from the world around us, we are nature, too. Instinctively we embrace the untamed uniqueness of a landscape, sunset, forest, mountain, whatever it may be, and we see beauty. Imagine if we did the same with people? Discussing self-judgement, spiritual guru Ram Dass writes:

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is.

“The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

Ram Dass references the totality of a person, but his words are easily applied to body image. Just as every tree in the forest is beautiful in its own way, so is every person. Training our eyes to discover beauty — away from a narrow template of physical traits and towards appreciation of uniqueness — is a powerful shift. Once we see non-discriminatory beauty in others, the next step is seeing it in ourselves. But first, we must move away from the mindset of judgement and comparison.

Stop Judging Others, Stop Judging Ourselves

Judgement is comparison with a gavel (that’s a judge’s mallet, by the way — yeah, I Googled it). Evaluating others with a discriminatory eye is the opposite of appreciate the beauty of uniqueness. There’s a reason non-judgement is at the core of spiritual philosophy; the way we perceive the world is reflected in the way we perceive ourselves. Evaluating and judging others frames the human body as an object to be observed. As explained in Instagram’s Influence on Negative Body Image, objectification leads to self-objectification. It’s a vicious cycle.

Judgement reflects right back at us.

This isn’t specific to conscious, mean-hearted judgement, either. It applies to the habitual, instantaneous thoughts arising when encountering the rich variety of bodies throughout each day. Think you’re immune? I promise you, we all have this inner-judge to some extent. Living in this world, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. Unless you’ve spent your life under a rock, or living in the Big Brother house, you’ll likely have internalised a number of these biases, probably without consciously registering this process.

The next step is a difficult one — it’s time to put your ego aside and dig deep into yourself to discover these unfriendly thought-processes. I’ll go first…

I’m A Judgemental Body-Shamer

I like to think I’m a non-judgemental, caring-kinda-guy. But when actively tuning in to my inner-dialogue, I notice how quickly I react to bodies around me — too fat, not muscular enough, too hairy, too hairless. Noticing this unsavoury thinking loop is disconcerting, because let’s be honest, it comes across as mean and not very pleasant, and I don’t like to think of myself as a mean person.

However, to overcome the dark crevices of a conditioned brain, we must actively accept them by applying a mindful approach — let thoughts arise without indulgence (“Maybe these thoughts are the truth, after all, that person doesn’t fit the definition of beauty I have in mind”) resistance (“I don’t want these thoughts!”) or judgement (“I’m a horrible person”).

Such thoughts spring into our minds, outside of our control. Where do they come from? Jungian psychology suggests the “shadow,” an unconscious dark side of the psyche. I’d argue the shadow is the source of unsavoury, judgemental thoughts. Word of caution on practicing this step: having these thoughts does not make you a bad person. They are your thoughts, they aren’t you. We may not control the thoughts entering our minds, be we can control our reaction.

“We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are,” the brilliant psychologist, Carl Rogers, writes in On Becoming A Person. “Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” In my experience, this is absolutely true. Accepting dark thoughts with compassion and non-judgement allows them to be processed adequately.

Imagine your subconscious as water in a saucepan, below the conscious mind. Difficult thoughts and emotions occasionally bubble to the surface. Repressing or rejecting this process is the equivalent of placing a lid on top the saucepan. What happens? The water boils quicker, the bubbles increase. In acceptance we surrender and allow the water to evaporate. The temperature lowers, the bubbles calm.

The Importance Of Creating Communities

“It’s unfortunate what we find pleasing to the touch and pleasing to the eye is seldom the same.” — Fabienne, Pulp Fiction

Call me a deluded optimist, but I have a vision of self-aware utopia where we support each other’s wellness, and frame our own definitions of worth, beauty and success. Imagine how incredible it would be if we formed communities that actively promote equality, kindness and universal acceptance. Community, in this sense, doesn’t have to be a city, or even a district. We all have spheres of influence.

A challenging aspect of taking steps towards this utopia is calling out body shaming or objectification, when we can. Screaming obscenities won’t help, but attempting to educate the oblivious or ignorant will. This includes rejecting established structures and damaging stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and hetero-centric stereotypes.

There are actions we can take, today, to forming such communities. In terms of body image issues, it’s imperative we are open and honest in discussing its significance. It’s imperative we take the challenging step of sharing vulnerability. Scary it may be, but in doing so, we can connect with others and create spaces where we can each thrive.

“In the last year or two I’ve accepted my body more and feel more comfortable about it — mainly owing to the people I spend time with, my friends and partner, and also just knowing myself better as I get older.” — M

In a world where more and more of us are connected in cyberspace but crave real connection, I urge you to have an open, honest and challenging conversation with those close to you about your feelings on this subject. You’ll be surprised how universal these issues are, as I was when asking friends to share their experiences.

The Way We Feel About Our Bodies Is A Reflection Of The Mind

“Our perceptions of outer appearances are profoundly affected by the inner conditioning of our minds.”  — Master Hsing Yun, Lotus in a Stream: Essays in Basic Buddhism.

Psychologist Elizabeth Halsted advocates increasing self-esteem as a catalyst in improving body image. Frequently, negative body images form due to low self-esteem. As Halstead writes on Psychology Today, someone experiencing low self-esteem has self-critical perception of their personality. Consequently, someone may believe people don’t like them, or they have nothing to contribute in social situations. This lead to over-reliance physical appearance “to create a positive effect on others.”

redefining beauty
The onus is on us to redefine beauty.

Halstead identifies the importance of acceptance, instead of self-criticism. In particular, there are three thinking processes commonly associated with body image issues: perfectionism, comparison, and judgement. When I experience a bout of depression and self-critical thoughts swirl around my head in a mind-storm of self-loathing, my appearance gets caught in the crossfire and I begin to pay more attention to it. Increasing concern over my appearance is often the first warning sign for an oncoming bout of low-mood.

“When I decided to stop fighting how my body naturally looks, I managed to let go of a lot of stress.” — F

There’s no question body image is a mental health issue, yet often the first attempt at a solution is changing the way or bodies look, in an outward-in attempt at fixing perception. Which leads on to…

Exercise, Impermanence And Body Composition

“This body, too: Such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.” — Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Many people who have a negative body image will attempt to change their body composition, whether through diet, exercise, or even surgery — it’s the reason I initially started to lift weights. Attempting to overcome negative body image purely by changing the body, without an attempt to confront issues of self-esteem, comparison and judgement, is often the precursor to eating disorders, steroid use and body dysmorphia. This comes from the mistaken belief:

“I am unhappy with my body, so I will change it. I want to fit beauty standards I see in the media. Once I reach this standard, I will be worthy. My self-esteem will increase, my body image will be positive, I will be happy.”

Moulding our bodies to fit idealised perfection is near impossible, because all bodies are different. If not genetically predisposed, it’s incredibly difficult to shape our bodies a certain way, whether dramatically slimming down or bulking up. Changing body composition for this reason has the opposite affect by strengthening self-objectification.

Even if “aesthetic perfection” is reached, you’ll be no better off. Why? Because the external is the ego’s playground, and the ego is never satisfied. Don’t believe me? Check out this quote:

“When I look in the mirror, I throw up. I was already so critical of myself, even when I was in top physical shape. I’d look in the mirror after I won one Mr. Olympia after another and think, ‘How did this pile of (bleep) win?’ I never saw perfection. There was always something lacking.”

Those words are from Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is idolised by the bodybuilding community to this day, a beacon of physical “perfection” in his prime, validated by seven Mr. Olympia titles. But he’s never been happy with his body, and at 70-years-old, hates his reflection so much it makes him physically sick.

Ego, Craving And “I’ll Be Happy When… I’m Ripped”

If we identify the body as a source of worth and social status or crave desirability by becoming more “attractive,” the act of sculpting the perfect physique becomes another “I’ll be happy when.” Not that I’m going to psychoanalyse the Terminator, but… if I were going to speculate on his thinking process during his peak years, it’d go like this:

“I have reached physical perfection in the eyes of others, the promised land. But I am still unhappy. I don’t feel worthy of praise. There’s more I can change before I’m fully happy, I will keep striving.”

This is an important point: if you don’t address low self-esteem, changing the way your body looks won’t make one iota of difference to your body image. It’s the ego’s nature to constantly seek and crave. It will always perceive itself lacking. Conversely, the ego takes hold and identifies with physical appearance, undesired changes will cause significant stress, as Arnie discovered. This ranges from the mundane (bad hair days, pimples) to the unavoidable yet significant (ageing, illness).

Improving Body Image With Buddhism And The Middle Way

I’d initially planned one article on body image, related to Instagram. But the topic has taken on a life of its own. The more I explore, research and talk to others, the more I’m convinced this a key issue facing this generation — male and female. So, I’m not done yet. I want to guide you along a path I find never fails to offer insight and solace. I’ll apply the time-tested Buddhist philosophy of the Middle Way to body image, in a bid to find a balanced approach to our relationship with our bodies. Until then, I hope this article contains meaningful, applicable solutions for you to try.

< Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body ImageA Buddhist Approach To Improving Body Image >

Features, Fitness, Social Media

Instagram’s Influence On Negative Body Image

Instagram influence body image
Is Instagram damaging to body image?

It’s official — Instagram is the worst social media site for mental health. All social media sites have a potentially detrimental effect on the way we feel, but Instagram, with its heavy focus on imagery, has a particularly negative impact on one specific area: body image. Instagram isn’t the instigator of body image issues, of course, but instead a heavily-filtered reflection of a culture that objectifies, sexualises and commodifies the human body, while promoting unattainable and unrealistic standards of what beauty is.

Beauty is subjective, yet rarely seen in the beholder’s reflection. Global research by Dove discovered just 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while simultaneously, 80 percent acknowledge all women have something beautiful about them. This negative self-perceptions begins a young age, with girls as young as six-years-old having expressed body-related anxiety. If unchecked, such bodily insecurities can turn into Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), causing “persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance,” leading to “severe emotional distress and difficulties in daily functioning.”

Social media sites, particularly Instagram, have been challenged to do more to combat this growing societal concern. But how can we take control and learn to love our bodies, when the forces of society thrive on us feeling insecure in our own skin?

This article contains anonymous quotes from friends, male (M) and female (F), who have shared their experiences on body image.

Advertising And Beauty Standards

“All we’ve ever wanted,
Is to look good naked,
Hope that someone can take it,
God save me rejection,
From my reflection,
I want perfection” — Robbie Williams, Bodies

Say hello to the beauty industry, a persuasive and pervasive money-making machine convincing the masses we need to improve our appearance. More and more of us don’t like the way we look. As a result, this industry — the cousin of fashion — is growing rapidly. At twice the rate of the developed world’s GDP, to be precise. Skin care alone is worth $24 billion per year, make-up $18 billion, haircare $38 billion. A report by the British Youth Council, A Body Confident Future, highlighted the “massive” role such industries have in setting idealised images of beauty. This comes at cost — a third of young people say media influence has made them feel the need to lose weight.

It’s not hard to see why. From a young age, we are all immersed in an environment rigidly defining beauty on their behalf, from adverts to fashion magazines to billboards to Hollywood. Look around you, and you’ll see a variation of all shapes and sizes, with no two bodies the same. Look at the media, and the same perfectly honed (and electronically retouched) body shapes appear, over and over again. Women are expected to defy logic by attaining the “curves in the right places and not much everywhere else” look. Men are expected to do their best impression of Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, with bulging biceps, washboard abs, a full chest and muscular legs.

Profit — The Reason Your Body Isn’t Good Enough

Sadly, we live in a world where conglomerates like Goldman Sachs question whether curing illness is a sustainable business model. Western culture’s portrayal of conventional beauty is moulded by the same profit-making agenda. Body positivity and revenue don’t fit. If encouraged to age gracefully and embrace wrinkles, would people spend millions on expensive skin care? If encouraged embrace our natural hair, would people use straighteners, or buy hair-thickening shampoo?

Anxiety around appearance isn’t vanity or a case of millions wanting to look nice. Consumer culture consistently tells us we need things to be successful and happy. Advertising no longer sells products, it sells lifestyles. The beauty industry sells us the idea that a beautiful appearance, dictated by their idea of beauty, is the key to success and self-worth. We want to look good because we’ve been told looking good is living a successful life. But the people shaping this falsehood earn money from our endeavours to look “better.”

The Deception And Exclusion Of Mainstream Body Positivity

The Body Positive movement is the mainstream media’s response to body image issues. Body positivity is vital, of course,  but the profit-agenda is still at play. “Brands may pay lip service to the idea of diversity but continue to emphasise the message that some conventional ideals of beauty are important,” according to A Body Confident Future. The movement is defined by ever-so-slightly-altered standards. Or as plus-size fashion blogger Stephanie Yeboah put it, “body positivity seems to only serve those who fit the ‘acceptably fat’ description: white, beautiful by Westernised standards, and small/hourglass shaped.” Anyone outside of these standards — the vast majority — is cast aside.

“I went to a strip club in Nigeria and it was really interesting because I’d never seen women who actually look like me. A lot of the time I just see white bodies, but they were all black women with different shades of brown skin. They had very different body types — some were like mine, some weren’t like mine. I thought, ‘wow, this is amazing!’ It gave me confidence.” (F)

For example, women of colour are still marginalised in all aspects of beauty. This ranges from a lack of make-up options for women with darker skin, to Grazia magazine editing Lupita Nyong’o’s hair to “fit a Eurocentric idea of what beautiful hair looks like.” The Western idea that fair skin is beautiful ripples across the globe, too, resulting in worldwide “rampant darker skin stigma,” or colourism. Colourism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” It’s instigated by institutional racism but isn’t exclusively race-related.

Follow the money and you’ll find the continual rise of a skin bleaching industry expected to acquire $31.2 billion by 2024.

Let’s Talk About Sex(ualisation)

Internet changed the pornography star [Credit: PornHub].
It’s impossible to discuss body image in the media without also discussing sex. Using sex to sell degrades the human body, turning it into an object existing for the viewing pleasure of others. This is a facet of a hyper-sexualised culture, perpetuating objectification in all forms of media. Nowhere is this more evident than the porn industry. The internet has made porn more accessible than ever; in 2017, PornHub received 81 million hits. Daily. Across the year, 28.5 billion hits resulted in 68 years worth of porn being uploaded.

Although porn use in general shouldn’t be a cause of shame, the majority of online videos depict inauthentic, friction-heavy and genital-focused intercourse. By portraying unrealistic gender stereotypes, it influences how men and women feel they should look and behave in an intimate setting. It’s an industry with an underlying, venomous and sometimes violent attitude toward preserving the status quo of gender inequality. Women are shown as submissive bystanders, existing to serve male desire. Although porn feels distant from mainstream media, they share the same destructive aspects, the latter in a diluted form.

The Beauty Myth

Author Naomi Wolf deconstructs objectification and beauty in The Beauty Myth, a titular theory “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” In her framework, beauty needs to first be approved by men in order to be validated. According to Wolf, this dynamic limits women’s freedom because their behaviour, as well as appearance, is scrutinised — including the way they walk, talk, dress, and interact.

The Iron Maiden is a term Wolf applies to societal expectations and assumptions about the female body. Wolf argues unattainable images of beauty are used to punish women. Any female not conforming is made to feel “monstrous,” despite being physically functional:

“A man’s thigh is for walking, but a woman’s is for walking and looking ‘beautiful.’ If women can walk but believe our limbs look wrong, we feel that our bodies cannot do what they are meant to do; we feel as genuinely deformed and disabled as the unwilling Victorian hypochondriac felt ill.”

Though written in 1991, the myth is still relevant. A 2014 report by the UK’s Government Equalities Office, The Watched Body, highlights how women in leadership roles are expected to adhere to perceived feminine traits in order to be respected. A 1997 study referred to this as the objection theory, where women are frequently “looked at as objects by society, with a sexual focus being placed on their bodies rather than on their abilities.”

Men, Muscle Mass And Eating Disorders

Body images issues aren’t exclusive to women, though. Men used to be conditioned for nonchalance, a squirt of Old Spice and a hurried sink wash. But a shift in masculine stereotypes has seen the male population become more concerned their bodies’ appearance. Last year it was reported eating disorders had risen 70 percent in men, in only a six year period. In another study, 45 percent of men said they’ve experienced a period of “bigorexia,” an obsession with muscle building. Although gender bias with body image issues can make it more difficult for men to speak openly about their insecurities, the insecurities are certainly there.

“Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder,” Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian. “Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” These unhealthy images for men focus on an increasingly muscular, low fat physique.

“Body image has been an issue for me since secondary school, especially playing rugby and other sports in an all-boys school. I often felt inferior or weaker, and the pressure was quite high to workout and get big, which I didn’t achieve to the same extent as most.” — M

Hollywood is often a reliable reflection of its time, including changing definitions of beauty. Look no further than the superhero genre, the most lucrative and popular in modern cinema. The likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Chris Evans (Captain America), Henry Cavill (Superman), Ben Affleck (Batman), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and Chris Pratt (Star-Lord) saturate the media with images of their bulked up physiques. Away from superheroes, contrast Daniel Craig’s physique as James Bond with Roger Moore or Sean Connery, or Dwayne Johnson or Zac Efron with David Hasselhoff in Baywatch.

There’s also a growing trend of using these examples — attained by 24/7 devotion and support from the world’s leading nutritionists and personal trainers — as ways to inspire the Average Joe to pick up some iron. News outlets shared inside scoops on the A-list’s workout routines and diet, while social media is awash with behind-the-scenes clips. Apparently it’s easy, if only you know how.

The Rise Of Bigorexia

It’s not only acting royalty who promote unrealistic mass. Reality television — tabloid in TV form — presents objectification and beauty standards without restraint. Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in addiction at the University of York, apportioned blame in the rise of male body image issues on show’s such as Love Island, combined with social media. “In some ways young men have been catching up with young women over the last few years, they are more sensitive and vigilant about how they should look and this is becoming more acute,” he told The Telegraph. “I think it is to do with appearance and masculinity, and the messages we absorb through social media.”

“I really dislike wearing shorts in public because I genuinely feel like my legs from the knee down are weird. The internet creates a world where we compare, compare, compare, and so when I go out in summer and men are all wearing shorts, I can’t help but compare my legs to other’s. Most of the time it leads to some kind of negative feeling.” — M

Back in the day a little Burt Reynolds chest fuzz or Sean Connery’s realistically slim physique were seen as attractive. Now, muscle is mistaken for “manliness.” Consequently, a growing number of men experience muscle dysmorphia, the mistaken belief they aren’t muscular enough. It affects 10 percent of gym-going men in the UK (and, important to note, some women too). It’s natural to automatically assume vanity is the root cause, but muscle dysmorphia is defined instead as shame over one’s appearance. According to a 2016 study, men experiencing muscle dysmorphia mistakenly believe mass is an outward showing of inner strength, an indicator of success, sexual prowess, and so on. The result? In 2017, steroid use quadrupled amongst 16-24-year-olds in the UK. It’s the only drug with increased usage.

My Struggle With Body Image And Muscularity

body image
Chubby-cheeked, ready to “man up” and… self-objectification?

I’ve always fixated on my body. When I was really young, I was chubby-cheeked and curly haired. Looking at photographs, I look cute (even if I say so myself), but at the time I stressed about being fat. Before going on holiday with family friends who were naturally slimmer, I’d stand in front of the mirror in my trunks and pinch the fat around my body, willing it to go away and wishing I looked different. In my teens I was concerned for different reasons — I was a late bloomer. I was embarrassed as my peers developed hair in strange places, an outward sign of adulthood, while I was left behind.

To make matters more confusing, my body composition changed dramatically when I was 15. Not via exercise or a healthy diet, but glandular fever. Bedridden for weeks, my throat filled with a thousand paper cuts, I couldn’t eat and lost around three stone (40+ lbs). Now I felt stickly thin. I felt I lacked muscular definition and strength. I wanted to feel manly. I was insecure, and my insecurity was validated when people would comment on my weight loss. Apparently, it seems socially acceptable to call a guy skinny, despite this being a common insecurity in men.

Weightlifting was the remedy. With trepidation and high anxiety, I signed up to my local gym when I was 18. On my first session, I looked around at brawny, tattooed Bristolians bicep curling my body weight. I attempted to bench press just the bar to “ease into it.” It was too heavy. No one warned me the bar was forged from Valyrian steel. Anyway, I persisted and eventually gained muscle. I’ve continued to train regularly, and my weight has shifted up and down. Even now, I frequently compare myself to men who are much bigger or stronger or more ripped than I am, like chasing my shadow with Men’s Health under one arm, a protein shake under the other and a sense of despair as to why I couldn’t pack on 30lb of lean mass in 30 days or look like Tyler Durden in six weeks.

Instagram’s Influence On Body Image

“I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop,

Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor,

Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks” — Kendrick Lamar, HUMBLE

What about Instagram’s influence on body image? Due to its user-driven dynamic, there’s an expectation Instagram is authentic. Ideally, social media should be the antithesis of the illusions portrayed in the mainstream. Just normal people uploading normal images of their normal lives. Well, not quite. The feverish quest for profit finds its way into anything if there’s opportunity to advertise. Instagram is no different. ‘Grammers with a substantial following earn a tidy sum promoting products via the medium. Fitness “influencers,” for example, regularly make six figures for campaigns shared on their profiles. Those with six-packs and six-figure followings frequently earn $5,000 or more for a single sponsored post.

“When I’m in a good mood, I have no urge to look at Instagram. But when I’m having a day where I feel down, I’ll spend time stuck in the scroll-loop. Inevitably, I end up comparing myself to the women I see online, and I feel even worse.” — F

Though plenty use Instagram to challenge conventional standards, beauty standards have infiltrated social media. Celebrities like Kim Kardashian (who has 110 million followers) regularly receive millions of likes, but they present heavily-doctored snippets of meticulously pruned unrealities. Often, they’ll post airbrushed photographs. Sometimes, they get caught. These airbrushed images mix with photos of friends and family, with no distinction other than a blue tick. Further still, they aren’t images taken on the catwalk or during a photoshoot — they’re “authentic,” behind-the-scenes selfies with everyday, humanising captions. This camouflage erodes the boundaries between the glitz and glamour and us muggles.

I suspect Instagram’s influence on negative body image is enhanced because the nature of the platform catches people off-guard. If you pick up a copy of Vogue, you’re prepared for what you’re about to see. Using Instagram’s perceived authenticity to spread the same unattainable standards of beauty is arguably more sinister, more deceitful.

Instagram and Self-Objectification

This desire to conform to beauty standards is tantalising and has a drip-down effect into everything we do. Unwittingly, as we assimilate the media’s powerful messages, we internalise and reproduce those same ideas. Uploading images to social media conforming with beauty standards is a form of self-objectification. This occurs when objectification is internalised and the person views their body as an object to be evaluated. This is far from a superficial issue, either. There’s a whole host of evidence highlighting the damaging impact self-objectification has on one’s well being, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders and depression. In men, it has been identified as a precursor to steroid use.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, but social media accentuates the process. Most of us will be guilty of doctoring our appearance on Instagram, whether in the form of filters, choosing an image from a selection of many, or using set angles and lighting that is flattering on the body. I’m guilty on all of these counts. Additionally, each and every like becomes a signal of approval, and for some, Instagram becomes an avenue to temporarily boost feelings of negative body image. In presenting ourselves as objects, virtual feedback provides validation and a fragile sense of worth.

“I’m aware Instagram can be damaging, so I’m careful with who I follow. Even though I’ve never searched for fitness or health, the discover section is ridiculous, it’s just filled with women with perfect bodies. I wasn’t even choosing to look for it, but it appeared and made me feel crap.” — F

Fitspiration is a trend often falling into this category. Its aim is to provide motivation for exercise and encourage a healthy lifestyle, but most posts emphasise aesthetics over health. Studies show browsing #fitspo posts on Instagram, for as little as 30 minutes, increases self-objectification. Further, another study discovered women who shared their own “Fitspo” photographs scored higher in charts monitoring a drive for thinness and compulsive exercise. Eighteen percent of the same group were at risk of developing an eating disorder.

Comparison And Negative Body Image

Body image issues rise in the space between how our bodies really are, and the projection of what our bodies should be. On top of mainstream media, social media — in particular Instagram — leads to information overload and incessant streams of people with seemingly perfect bodies. It creates a vicious cycle of comparison and negative self-perception.

“People not only compare their own bodies, but attribute perceived social value with the likes and followers that come with having a ‘sick’ body. The inverse of that is, someone who thinks they don’t have a ‘sick’ body then thinks they aren’t as valuable as a person. This obviously isn’t true, but we’re all susceptible to feeling shit about ourselves because of it.” — M

It’s possible to change our bodies through diet and exercise, to try and reach levels of perfection. But such is the nature of comparison, no physical change will ever bring lasting contentment. Losing weight or gaining muscle becomes an “I’ll be happy when.” The body is always changing, from the moment we’re born, to the moment we die. We are flesh and bone, a constant flux of regenerating cells. We get pimples, shadows under our eyes, hair in random places. Beauty standards defy human nature because they are designed to be unattainable.

Has Instagram influenced your body image? Let me know your experience in the comments section below.

Next up:

Features, Social Media

Social Media And Mental Health: Data Isn’t The Only Reason To Consider #DeleteFacebook

social media wellbeing
You need to consider the impact of social media on your mental health.

The Guardian has again worked its whistleblowing magic, exposing the role of Cambridge Analytica in illegally obtaining masses of personal data from 50 million Facebook profiles. This data was then used by Trump’s digital political campaign to target the U.S electorate. It’s not good news for Mark Zuckerberg — as Facebook’s stock falls, the momentum of an online petition to #DeleteFacebook rises, endorsed by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton, Elon Musk and other prominent names.

For the conspiratorial amongst us, it’s clear online data has been targeted by the elite for some time, as exposed by the likes of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Instead of focusing on why this industrial breach of privacy should be cause to #DeleteFacebook, this article will assess whether you should boycott social media for the sake of your mental health.

It’s easy to mindlessly swipe and scroll without considering the consequences on your wellbeing. Does it make you feel anxious, depressed, jealous, agitated? Does it have a detrimental impact on your self-esteem or body image? Do you find yourself checking your phone habitually, as if there’s a psychic connection, and you and your phone are unified, half-human, half-Android?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re certainly not alone. There’s a growing field of evidence highlighting the negative influence social media has over our lives and our mental health, from making us feel a bit jaded to full-on, self-destructive addiction. There are benefits, but as a bad-news-first kinda guy, let’s take a look at the drawbacks before offering some resolution to digital doom and gloom.

Our Survey Says… Depression, Anxiety, Isolation!

Heaps of scientific studies conclude social media often makes us feel rubbish. There’s a direct correlation between the number of social media platforms people use, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. A study by the University of Missouri noted when participants browsed Facebook, they experienced feelings of envy due to negative comparisons to those in their newsfeed — leading to feelings of depression. How many of us have stalked our ex’s new partner, making a mental checklist of how many ways they’re cooler and have better stubble and nicer clothes? Just me? Moving on…

Last year, The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) published a report on the role of social media in young people’s lives. Instagram and Snapchat had the most detrimental effect for those aged 14 to 24. “Both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people,” noted Shirley Cramer, the Chief Executive at RSPH. Not only do we compare our lives with others, we compare our bodies to unattainable, and heavily photoshopped images.

With a concoction of negative body image, FOMO, comparison and feelings of envy, anxiety and depression, it’s not surprising studies have linked the time spent online with perceived social isolation. This isolation is “perceived” as it isn’t objectionably true; even people with fulfilling relationships and social lives can end up feeling very much alone after prolonged periods online.

Distraction And Multitasking

Managing distraction and instant gratification is integral aspects to spiritual practice. Meditation and mindfulness emphasise the importance of paying focused attention on the present, noting the moment you become distracted. Not only do our thoughts take us away from the present, but the craving and impulse to check our phones distracts us, too. Think you can have a cheeky browse on Pinterest while conversing with your BFF? Think again — there’s no such thing as multitasking.

The neocortex is the part of our brain responsible for thinking and focus, but it can only focus on one thing at a time. When we believe we’re multitasking, we’re instead rapidly turning our focus from one task to another. This isn’t a skillful practice; MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller notes we pay a “cognitive cost” when attempting to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.

Numerous studies identify this cost as anything from a significant drop in IQ to, disturbingly, reduced density in the anterior cingulate cortex — the area of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control. The vast majority of us are distracted by our smartphones, like 97% of college students who admitted to losing focus in class. Such multitasking isn’t only damaging in a working or learning environment, either. Scrolling Dwayne Johnson’s Twitter while watching Netflix or opening a new tab to ask Google questions you wouldn’t raise with your therapist are two examples that have the same negative impact on the brain.

Your Smartphone Is Draining Your Brain’s Energy

Our phones aren’t only influencing our brains while we are transfixed on them. A study by The University of Texas tested participant’s concentration after dividing them into three groups. One group had their phones turned off and facing down on their desk. Another group placed their phones in a pocket or a bag. The third group placed their phones in another room. Unsurprisingly, the third group performed significantly better.

Scientists linked reduced concentration with colloquially termed “brain drain.” This is the result of the subconscious constantly expelling energy when trying to not check your phone — like how you think of a pink elephant when someone says “don’t think of a pink elephant.” We all form phone-checking habits to some degree, causing our subconscious to murmur away whenever our phone is in close proximity. Presumably, for every sip of coffee I take, my subconscious is using all its energy to suppress the thought: “log onto Facebook and tell everyone how delicious this flat white is, hipster scum.”

brain drain
Not looking at your phone causes “brain drain.”

To make matters even more complicated, when we eventually pick up our phones, our brains release the reward hormone dopamine. The same occurs with each ping, notification or match. Then begins a vicious cycle of instant gratification: we have an impulse to check our phone, we check it, we get a dopamine hit, we repeat. Worryingly, the more we seek instant gratification, the more impulsive we become in all areas of life. When we reach a stage where we struggle to control our impulses and need to constantly satisfy them, we move into the realm of addiction.

Addiction And Instant Gratification

“Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.”  — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show (a regular voice of wisdom).

When was the last time you were waiting for a bus and didn’t check your phone? Or the last time you didn’t immediately glance at your device when left alone for a few minutes in a social situation?  Most of us have formed the habit of constantly checking to see if we’ve been notified or messaged. These habits aren’t entirely our fault — Silicon Valley has cunningly exploited psychological insights to make social media as addictive and tantalising as possible. Apps prey on our core needs, such as connection, and use them against us. Ever wonder why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use Apple products? Clue: it wasn’t because he preferred Android.

Most of us have fallen victim to these addictive qualities to some degree. There have been numerous times where I jolt to lucidity and notice I’m mindlessly scrolling through the Instagram feed of my ex three-relationships-past in a fog of melancholy and regret and self-pity, without conscious recollection of how I got there, like the middle of a dream. Sometimes I actively indulge in this brain-numbing activity as a means of procrastination. I doubt I’m alone.

This never-quenchable desire to jack into the Matrix of social media fulfils all the criteria of other forms of addiction — the consistent craving, the mistaken belief one more hit is what we need, a slump in mood when we realise we aren’t satisfied. This level of addiction is real; when excessive internet users stop browsing, they experience withdrawal symptoms. As with all addictions, the behavior is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a form of escape from undesired emotions — be it feelings of lack, restlessness, fear, anxiety, depression, or simply boredom. I’ve also noticed such browsing habits as a form of self-harm. I know looking at my ex’s Instagram makes me feel sad, but I sometimes actively look, indulging in the unpleasant emotion that comes with it.

Escapism, in the manner mentioned above, is the opposite of appreciation. It’s impossible to appreciate when you’re negatively comparing yourself or cyber-teleporting to social media land. Whether we realise it or not, if we constantly find ourselves checking our screen whenever our present moment isn’t satisfying us, on some level, we’re seeking salvation. We’re acting on the impulsive of “my current situation is boring me, it isn’t fun or enjoyable, I need to escape and find something to make me happy.” That happiness, concealed in a like or a comment or social validation, is delivered as a fleeting, superficial hit of dopamine. It’s not the answer.

It Ain’t All Bad… Thankfully

Uhhhh, are you feeling disillusioned? Worry not. Catastrophising the negatives of modern tech wouldn’t be telling the full story, and I told you, I’m a bad-news-first kinda guy. Maybe you don’t need to #DeleteFacebook after all — social media also has some big benefits. Like everything in life, a lot depends on the way we use the tools, and not the tools themselves. For example, the study on feelings of envy and depression when using Facebook also discovered that, when used with the intention to actively connect with others, social media can have a positive effect. Hurray!

Although I’ve listed numerous studies suggesting a multitude of ways social media is no good for our wellbeing, it can have a positive influence on those suffering from severe mental health issues. Those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts have used social media to form communities with those experiencing the same symptoms. In the midst of a depressive episode, it feels as if you’re the only person on Earth feeling that way. The emotional support, reduction in stigma and safe space to share difficult emotions with those who relate is invaluable.

Facebook Helped Me Talk About Depression

I can vouch for this sense of community. When I started university, I’d suffered from depression and anxiety for some years. Though I’d started to understand it, I was still afraid of openly discussing it, other than mentioning it to a few close friends when suitably intoxicated. It was — as it is for many people, particularly men — something I’d kept secret. I felt weak. I felt ashamed. I felt I was somehow a failure. I felt I was pathetic. Everyone else seemed happy, why didn’t I? However, Facebook helped me become comfortable opening up about how I was feeling. Consequently I realised the sense of shame and isolation was the depression talking. It wasn’t truth.

A few years ago, on World Mental Health Day, I posted this Facebook status:

Facebook can help us understand the way others feel.

I was terrified. Could I post something for all my university peers, friends and family to see, after wasting years of mental energy hiding behind a facade? I still had regular panic attacks around this time, and I was concerned others would tune in to my anxiety, making it worse. Or noticing whenever I was having a bad day, giving me nowhere to hide.

Shaking, I published my “confession.” I was overwhelmed by the words of encouragement and support in response. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear in relief and a weight lifted. It showed me the power of social media for the good, and the power of sharing my experience with depression. Without posting that status, Mind That Ego wouldn’t exist.

I’m not alone, either. Studies have shown that adolescents using social media experience an increase in both cognitive empathy (I understand your situation) and affective empathy (also known as emotional empathy, i.e., my feelings reflect the way you are feeling). This is pretty significant, isn’t it?! For all the talk of the illusion of connection online, if we control the way we use social media, it can enhance the way we relate to each other.

You Are Not Alone

For all its superficiality, there is the opportunity to use social media for genuine connection. As well as mental health communities, those suffering chronic illness find support on social media. Platforms like Facebook are “invaluable for people with health conditions to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through this and got better,” according to Professor John Powell from Oxford University. The same applies to marginalised groups, too.

Providing the space for such groups to share and feel comfortable doing so has another surprising benefit. While researching this article, I stumbled across another profound reminder social media can indeed be a force for good. A UCLA-led study used Twitter as a tool to research the health needs of transgender and gender non-conforming communities, an area of research traditionally difficult as stigma can prevent transgender people from disclosing their gender identity. By collecting data using transgender-related hashtags, Twitter can be transformed into a tool to support marginalised groups, whose voices struggle to be heard.

To #DeleteFacebook Or Not To #DeleteFacebook

So, what’s the final answer? Ultimately, it comes down your personal relationship with it. Social media isn’t the dreaded boogeyman or life-enhancer; it falls somewhere in between. But what is clear is the need to sit back and reflect on the impact it has on our lives. In what areas does it serve us? Where is it causing us unnecessary harm? What can we change?

I believe that with a little habit changing and closer inspection, we can all find the sweet spot where technology and social media becomes an ally, not an enemy. To conclude, here are a few steps to kick start your positive relationship with social media:

  • Assess your social media habits, honestly. Is your browsing behaviour making you feel a bit shit?
  • Change bad habits. If you scroll Instagram and feel your self-esteem seep away with every image of a chiselled, #Photoshop model on a beach, you have two options — delete the app, or change the way you use it. For the latter, try to actively follow body-positive or socially inspiring accounts that make you feel good. Here’s a list to get you started. This applies to platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (COUGH FOLLOW MIND THAT EGO COUGH).
  • Do you have good habits? Great! Increase the time on your device cultivating these habits, whether using relaxation apps or watching educational videos on YouTube (note: cat videos are rarely educational, sorry).
  • Be accountable. Yes, Silicon Valley exploits us, but we can empower ourselves. Don’t passively wish for the days where your only distraction was snake on your Nokia 3210. Take responsibility and use social media for positive activities, such as connecting with friends, arranging events, joining communities.
  • Schedule social media time, don’t let it schedule you. If you don’t feel ready to #DeleteFacebook, instead manage the time you spend online. Be active, not passive — schedule times to log on and connect, and try and avoid passively browsing as a means of distraction.