I Went Off Social Media for a Month and My Panic Attacks Stopped

What one likes-obsessed writer gained when she opted out of the digital rat race.

Woman in black dress throwing stone in a fountain gif
(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

It all started two years ago. I was six months out from the release of my debut young adult novel, and I had hired a private publicist to build book buzz. "You need to post to Instagram every day, and your pictures need to be better quality," he said during our first phone call. "And you need to post less about personal stuff. You're trying to sell a book."

For the longest time, I had viewed Instagram as a place to share pictures with friends and family—kind of like Facebook 2.0. But in the last few years, it's become the go-to spot for bloggers, businesses, photographers, and anyone else looking to use the platform for marketing. Sure, some people use it "to keep in touch," but for the most part, it's about selling a commodity, whether that's a product, an image, or a personal brand.

After that initial call with my publicist, I started to change how I posted on Instagram. I took better photos, edited the hell out of them (#noshame), and thought way too much about it. Even though it began to occupy—really occupy—my thoughts, and I knew in the back of my mind I was becoming too obsessed, I didn't stop.

So one night before bed, as I was scrolling through my feed, my body suddenly felt like it was on fire. Next came the hives, then my legs started to shake. The room was spinning. I could hardly catch my breath, and my heart was racing faster than I could count. It was a panic attack, and it was so bad, I had to have a friend drive me to the E.R. I was convinced I was dying.

"I was scrolling through my feed, when suddenly, my body felt like it was on fire. Next came the hives and my legs started to shake. The room was spinning, I could hardly catch my breath."

If you've never had a panic attack, first of all, count yourself lucky, but know they take a huge toll on the body. Once it's over, you feel like you've been hit by a bus, and you're completely depleted of energy. Think of it as the worst hangover ever. (I've struggled with anxiety on and off since college, though my trigger, stemming from a traumatic incident from when I was younger, has always been the same: health-related issues.) But having a panic attack while scrolling through my Instagram feed? This was completely new. I brushed it off as an anomaly and continued to do my daily social media blitz and nightly feed scrolls. But about once a week, the panic would return, continuing for months without me making any connection.

After another panic attack, I finally met with a counselor. "So when are these happening?" she asked. "Always at night," I replied. Then I went on to tell her my evening routine of scrolling through my feed. I also gave her some background on my experience with the private publicist, whom I had stopped working with by this point. Then I informed her of some trolling happening on my profile (an unfortunate side effect of writing books with diverse characters). She agreed the haters could be adding to the problem, but then told me her real assessment: "Maybe you feel like you can't measure up?"

I was silent. I knew she was right, but I didn't want to accept it.

I've always been one of those people who prides herself on not getting caught up in what I consider "first-world problems"—and to me, having anxiety because my photos weren't getting as many double-taps as everybody else's definitely qualified as a major first-world problem. I was constantly griping to friends about how I believed Instagram was too staged, self-indulgent, and basically a load of bullshit. And yet, my posts were self-indulgent, staged, and full of shit. In that moment, I knew I had gotten too caught up in the social media game and that this wasn't who I was—or who I wanted to be. It was time for me to walk away.

"I believed Instagram was too staged, self-indulgent, and basically a load of bullshit. And yet, my posts were self-indulgent, staged, and full of shit."

And I did. Even though Instagram was my main cause of stress, I also took a month off Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. The first day without a social media fix was—not gonna lie—hard as hell. But then I hit day 15, and suddenly, I felt as though I were swimming in a sea of calm.

I never thought an extrovert like me would enjoy being out of the loop, but I did. And strangely, I kind of liked people not knowing what I was up to. The entire month went by, and I didn't have one panic attack. Honestly, I contemplated never coming back. But with my job, I'm not sure if I can ever be 100 percent offline.

Since the hiatus, I have returned to social media (hence the Instagrams above and below), but I have boundaries in place: First, I post what I want to see instead of focusing on what looks best for my "brand." I still try for decent pictures and still filter the hell out of them (because my skin needs some help), but I only put up photos after contemplating my motive—and I never check the like count. I also went through and deleted any old photos I considered to be "like-bait."

Second, I *never* scroll through any feeds. I post to my own account and then, I'm out. I will admit to feeling guilty about this because I love to like and comment on my friends' posts, but the few post notifications I do still follow, I try to give my full attention. The bottom line is, my mental health will always be first priority. And even though these "social media boundaries" are not always fun, they need to be there.

As it stands, my panic is under control, and I'm happy with where I'm at on social media. But I plan on going on another hiatus soon, because every once in a while, it's nice to focus on what's right there in front of you—and to keep people guessing.

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