How Social Media Makes Stress And Anxiety Worse

Sometimes, following the news obsessively isn't helpful.
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If your heart rate's up, put the phone down.

That simple advice could save you a lot of grief this holiday season. Experts say social media is liable to increase your anxiety during stressful times, so you're better off trying something else to chill out for a bit.

"Social media is full of all kinds of anxiety," Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told The Huffington Post. "Would you go to a party and hang out with a bunch of anxious people? Recognize now that this is an anxiety hub where people are trying to dispel their anxiety."

Rutledge points to recent events like the terrorist attacks in Paris as particularly troublesome when experienced online. No one is saying to avoid the news and current events, but when bad things are happening, social media makes it easy for the most intense elements to bubble up: violent imagery, outraged commentary and so on. Even on a normal day, you've probably noticed that an outlet like Twitter is filled with bellyaching and jarring headlines about whatever appalling things leading political candidates are saying.

"We see all of this stuff and we start to feel like the world is a very scary place," Rutledge explained.

For that reason, your smartphone probably isn't the ideal thing to escape into when you're feeling uneasy this holiday season.

We see all of this stuff and we start to feel like the world is a very scary place.Dr. Pamela Rutledge, Media Psychology Research Center

Dr. Anne Marie Albano, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, agrees. She recently spoke with The New York Times about how social media can be overwhelming if you're feeling anxious about terror threats, and in an interview with HuffPost explained further that it can amplify anxiety in general.

"What happens to individuals who may be depressed or anxious, they develop a bias. We call it a confirmatory bias -- to selectively find information that validates what they're feeling or fearing," Albano told HuffPost. If you're feeling anxious at home, you're probably going to focus on negative feelings online.

We get it: Holidays are stressful. Air travel has become a nightmare haze of lines, oversold flights and security checkpoints -- not to mention the horrifying "what-if" scenarios your mind conjures from recent headlines. There are entire explainers about the "inevitable" arguments your family will have at Thanksgiving dinner. Wanting to escape is natural.

But there are healthy ways to do it. We asked the doctors for some tips.

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First, prepare for things to go wrong.

Flights get delayed. Food burns. Admitting this to yourself can make a big difference.

"There's always something to upset you," Albano told HuffPost. "Go into it thinking, 'What can I do to make this an easier flight?' Do some calming meditation or deep breathing. Have something in your hands, whether it's a book or a film or your iPad to listen to music that's going to relax you."

If you're traveling, Albano recommends downloading a movie ahead of time rather than relying on in-flight options. Services like Amazon let you do this so you don't have to worry about streaming. Try putting Headspace on your smartphone. Bring a book or two that you're super interested in.

Make a pact with friends and family.

You're not the only one who's feeling overwhelmed around the holidays.

"If you know you're going into a stressful family situation, I would ahead of time reach out to my best friends or my family members who are going to be there and see things similarly," Albano said. "Say, 'Hey, I'm going to need breaks, how about we help each other?' "

When you're feeling frustrated, step aside and communicate in person if you can, or make an actual phone call to someone you care about. Ask how they're doing and tell them what's bothering you.

Check in on yourself.

"Set your alarm on your watch or your phone to beep at you once an hour. Stop and say, 'I'm grateful it's a sunny day. I'm grateful for this cup of coffee. I'm grateful for these nice shoes,'" Rutledge told HuffPost. "Whatever small thing shifts your brain, you will be shocked at the end of a few days at how great you feel."

Go outside.

Sometimes a bit of fresh air is all you need.

"When there's stressful family events, take a run. I'll be the one to run errands to get out of the house. That's where you can connect with a friend," Albano said.

When all else fails, cut yourself some slack.

You're not alone: It's totally normal to feel a bit freaked over the holidays. Maybe you'll be bugged out 50 percent of the time, or maybe just 5 percent. Don't judge yourself.

"Recognize that your fear response is normal," Rutledge said.

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