I’m sure a lot of you reading this are having a difficult time believing that Twitter could help decrease anxiety. I wouldn’t have believed it before I tweeted myself. In fact, the only reason I ventured into Twitter territory was because a social media expert at a writer’s conference highly recommended it, saying it was “a virtual cocktail party for writers.” With shaky hands — literally — I created my Twitter account that very day.
Five years have gone by since that first login. During this time, I’ve connected with Twitter folk from all over the world, people who are passionate about many of the same topics I am, including the arts, civil rights, and, of course, mental health issues. When I read about other people’s journeys through anxiety and depression, I became less isolated. And, may I add, less ashamed as well.
In the past, I hid my anxiety from all but my closest friends and family. My thoughts swirling with irrational fear, I tried everything from therapy to meditation. Nothing assuaged my constant apprehension. Having bought our culture’s pervasive notion that it was “mind over matter,” I felt as if I had failed, as if I were too weak to confront the very thing I needed to conquer. Yet Twitter showed me just how strong, successful, and empathetic fellow anxiety warriors can be.
Alongside the slow but steady healing that occurred when writing my debut novel, “The Grace of Crows,” the world of hashtags (#) opened a window onto other people’s lives that inspired me as well as helped me to inspire others. I learned to search almost anything with a # before it (such as #Anxiety), and there I was! Day or night, I can click into ongoing conversations where there are people who are experiencing similar issues, who understand, who want to help — and who want to be helped. And… people who are brave enough to share their emotional struggles with a global community (#MentalIllnessTaughtMe).
Of course, we have all heard about (and some of us have experienced) the downside of social media use, including online bullying and the warty troll who can pop its ugly head up from time to time. Depending on how these issues are affecting the user, actions may include blocking certain accounts, taking a social media break, or even working with a counselor. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, learning how to ignore less-than-supportive comments can actually help empower people living with anxiety deal more productively — and less reactively — with those less-than-nice people they may encounter in real life.
Current research backs up the positive aspects of social media use in regard to mental health and anxiety. An article in the News Corp Australian Network, January 5, 2017 cites a study conducted by the University of Melbourne, concluding that social media use can help people suffering from anxiety. According to this article, a senior lecturer in psychology, Dr. Peggy Kern, told ABC TV that over 70 studies on the subject have shown that for some people, social media use was very beneficial, as it helped people to feel more socially connected to others. She also added that “those with social anxiety actually seemed to benefit from being able to connect in a way that is less anxiety-provoking.”
A 2016 article by Samantha Cowan titled “Why Twitter Is a Great Place to Talk About Mental Illness” in TakePart (a digital news and lifestyle magazine from Participant Media, the company behind acclaimed documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth) points out that “Talking about mental health online is especially popular with young people, who might struggle to talk to their families or seek out mental health professionals.” This piece also states that founder, Jenny Jaffe, and social media manager Jose Rivera Jr. of Project UROK (an organization that works to end the stigma of mental illness), feel that “more often than not” tweets regarding mental health issues are “supportive, helpful and empowering.”
I often think about the phrase “The Kindness of Strangers” when I engage with another thoughtful follower. Although the average person is surrounded by neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends, sometimes it’s that online person you’ll never even meet who can “get” you, uplift, and soothe your weary soul at the very moment you need it the most.
What a gift, too, to be a part of a movement that is working to end the stigma of mental illness (#endthestigma). So, yes in my opinion—as well as I bet millions of others — Twitter is a place that can empower, motivate, and heal. Who would have thought all of that could happen in 140 characters!