A Mindfulness Practice to Relieve Social Media Stress and Anxiety
As I interviewed dozens of young adults for my book, "The Mindful College Student,"one of the most frequently shared struggles was young adults’ relationships with digital media. Given you are likely reading this on a screen, you may be able to relate to this challenge.
Many of us have heard about studies and anecdotal evidence on the challenges of social media and the use of screens. Both are often designed to be addictive so that we stay on the platforms longer to consume the material that drives revenue. A student, Sabrina, who went through one of my mindfulness courses at Brown University, shared, “I’ve noticed the effects of social media and technology in my life ... My generation specifically really appreciates and glorifies extremely, extremely skinny women to an unhealthy point. And that gets shared as an echo chamber in social media. Every female I know has a problem with eating. Everyone has a thought disorder related to weight, eating and body image. The ‘ideal weight’ is not healthy. A lot of girls will take extreme measures to make that goal.”
Camille shared another challenge with the internet and social media: “We are bombarded with stimuli. It can also suck our time and energy. Finding a way to harness what is good about the internet and digital options, but leaving behind the noise and its incessive nature, is a huge challenge for young people.”
And yet, screens and social media have transformed society in positive ways as well. For example, people from Dubai, Brazil, Florida and Rhode Island can all be together in the same video conference, have meaningful conversations with each other and learn deeply in ways that a book can’t offer. Grandchildren can connect to grandparents across oceans. Stories and wisdom can be communicated powerfully through film. So it’s clear that screens and social media can be tools that make life better. The challenge is avoiding the elements that make it worse.
As with all tools, we keep those that help us and let go of those that don’t. We can determine if a particular digital tool is helpful with mindful awareness of our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. We can ask in a curious nonjudgmental way, “Is this digital tool helping in this moment more than anything else I can do?” If so, great. Continue using it. If not, let it go, and move onto the next highest priority action to take care of yourself and others.
Our relationship with screens and social media echoes how we deal with other potentially addictive products, like alcohol, sugar and caffeine. Some people completely swear off social media, while others try to be aware of how it makes them feel and respond accordingly. There is no single right approach; the best approach is whatever works for you.
A Mindfulness Practice to Free You From Unhealthy Social Media Use
I invite you to get a screen that you would like to explore your relationship with in a mindful way, such as your phone, tablet, laptop or video game console. Put the device beside you.
As you engage in this meditation, I encourage you to always respect your limits, and if any contemplations are overwhelming, you are encouraged to let them go, such as by distracting to something healthy like a particular safe object of meditation (e.g., the breath or sound) or even taking a little walk or having a cup of tea. Please trust your wisdom more than the words in this contemplation. There are many paths to happiness and health, and meditation is one for some of us but likely not all of us.
Also, close your eyes most of the way, if you are comfortable with that, except, of course, when you are reading the contemplations below.
Choose an object of meditation to focus on that is with you every moment of the day, such as the breath, a part of the body (e.g., palms of the hands, soles of the feet) or sound. Spend some time with focused attention on that anchor point (e.g., the sensation of the breath in the nose or mouth as it comes in or out; or the sensations of temperature or touch in the part of the body that is your object of meditation, or the raw elements of sound such as the pitch, volume or how close/far from you it is). Notice when the mind wanders, and with gentleness, bring it back to that object of meditation.
Bring awareness to physical sensations. What is being felt in the body at this moment? For example, are there elements of warmth, coolness, comfort, discomfort? What messages is the body sharing right now, and can you be open to them without judging them, just exploring them with self-kindness and curiosity, seeing if the sensations are steady or if they shift and change moment-to-moment?
Next, if you like, check in with the heart, with the emotions — perhaps noticing what emotional tone is here right now, as our emotions are important signals for us, giving us information about how and who we are right now. Even silently name what emotions are present, and notice if they shift and change or are steady.
Then, if you like, shift awareness to the mind, particularly the thoughts. Can you think of it as sitting on the bank of a river watching a twig on the surface of the river float by? Sometimes, the twig gets caught in a current or whirlpool; other times it pauses. Can you just sit on the bank and observe your thoughts with curiosity and kindness? What is here? Are the thoughts currently in a familiar place, or are they fresh and new?
Here we are connecting with the body, emotions and thoughts, which is a great deal of the human experience — perhaps the entirety of the human experience. They give us important information that we don’t necessarily need to act on unless it seems wise to do so.
Now that we have perhaps connected with ourselves,and had a moment to stop, calm and rest, the next invitation is to pick up your device. Just hold it without turning it on.
What’s arising in your thoughts, emotions or physical sensations? Is there craving or aversion, for example? Just explore your responses in a safe space. You can always put the device down if it is overwhelming. What’s here?
Now, I invite you to put the device down again, as you practice attention control and self-awareness around devices, screens and social media. Now pick up your device, and go to one of the apps, programs or games that are decently challenging for you to limit your use.
As you open it, don’t go any further than opening it. Pause there. How does this feel in the body, mind and heart? What is a skillful next step?
I invite you to engage with it for 1 minute and no longer. Remember, this is a meditation, so be there with it and be aware of your mind and body as you engage with it, knowing you can stop or redirect at any time. It’s just a meditation. You might want to set a timer for a minute if you think that will be helpful.
After a minute, once again, practice the self-awareness and attention control to turn it off and come back to your anchor point. Notice where the mind is. What thoughts are here? What emotions? Allow the mind to settle back into that anchor point.
As you sit with this experience, do any insights or awarenesses arise in your relationship with the use of this digital tool? What ways are skillful for you to engage with it? What ways are less skillful?
Moving forward, would you like to commit to or experiment with any particularly skillful ways of using this device? If so, what are they?
I invite you to take action on what arose for you.
About the Author:
Eric B. Loucks PhD is an associate professor of Epidemiology, Behavioral and Social Sciences and Medicine at Brown University. He is director of the Mindfulness Center at Brown. Dr. Loucks developed the Mindfulness-Based College program for young adults that has been shown in a randomized controlled trial to improve overall well-being, sleep quality, depressive symptoms, physical inactivity and loneliness. His book, "The Mindful College Student: Essential Skills to Help You Succeed, Boost Well-Being, and Build the Life You Want at University and Beyond" will be released on April 1, 2022. A 10-hour self-paced digital program called "The Mindful College Student: Finding Your Path to a Thriving Life"is available through the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and can be taken separately from, or with, the book.His first released album of meditations, "Foundational Training in Mindfulness Meditation," was released in March 2022 on most music streaming platforms (e.g., iTunes, Pandora) and will be available for free at his website EricLoucksPhD.com.
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