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How Social Media Feeds Mimic OCD's Intrusive Thoughts

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

Social media has become ingrained in the fabric of our culture and in the way people interact, express themselves, and consume information. As a community manager, being immersed in social media is critically important to my job but sometimes detrimental to my sense of worth and peace. I am disheartened by the comparisons that inadvertently emerge as I tap and scroll, tap and scroll.

As a child of the digital age and a person with pure obsessional obsessive-compulsive disorder (“Pure O” OCD), I have observed abundant overlap between these two identities. Social media feeds are dictated by algorithms. Take Instagram, for example: a search tab so generously populates your feed with images and videos that might be of interest to you based on your behavior online. This is exactly how intrusive thoughts work. I have a thought that is ego dystonic, scares me and sets me off down the rabbit hole of mental compulsions in a futile attempt to disprove that thought. By seeking to avoid said intrusive thoughts, you guessed it, we affirm them. “What we resist, persists,” a counselor once told me. And what would have been diluted by simple acceptance is amplified by the friction our brains set into motion.

The same thing happens on Facebook and Instagram. I compare my relationship to the ever-repetitive rhetoric of #CoupleGoals, tapping and reading, tapping and linking to yet another related piece of content. My Search tab is then inundated with images of perfectly tanned, toned couples. The same goes for body image, professional success, activism, pie making abilities — you name it. Their (insert insecurity) must be more valid than mine, as they receive more engagement. It seems as if they are more worthy. I too portray aspirational parts of my life and work, but I am troubled by the unrealistic expectation perpetuated.  When I fixate on perfection, then my need for it continues. The sense of urgency remains because I keep sounding the alarm and affirming that it is important. Conundrums scream, “pay attention to me,” and although it negatively impacts my life, I pay attention.

I consistently battle with these themes, thereby guaranteeing they remain top of mind. If only I had the perspective to put down my weapons and coexist with the discomfort. If only I had enough confidence in myself, and my intrinsic worth as a person, not to compare myself to the carefully curated version of another person, not to feed into the trap of obsessional thinking. To combat the frenzy, I’ve set up some parameters for social media use. I designate specific times of day to log on for work, not when I first wake up, and not when I lie down for the evening. I want my bed and that time to be a place of gratitude, not comparison. Same goes for uncontrollable worry. I designate certain periods to utter my fears and intrusions out loud, when no one is around, and I force myself to sit with them. I cannot try to disprove them and they eventually lose their weight.

In real life, if a conversation isn’t going anywhere, you stop talking and part ways. On the internet, there is no concrete out as the information is always available, and the behavior is tracked via algorithms outside of our awareness. When your OCD brain latches onto an irreconcilable fear, you can’t excuse yourself; you just endure it, and alas the struggle continues. My goal will always be to reside peacefully in my skin and circumstances, to realize the fallacies at play in my mind and reconcile with them; the cycle is not readily overcome though. Since I cannot separate from my disorderly brain, I can always log out of the Instagram app for a brief hiatus. Maybe they are one in the same.

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Photo by Josh Rose on Unsplash

Originally published: January 11, 2018
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