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Is 'Reality Shifting' a Dangerous TikTok Trend or a Coping Strategy for Mental Illness?

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

For better or for worse, TikTok has become one of the most popular social media platforms. Its bite-size doses of media content are easily digested and the content itself endlessly varied. I admit to being particularly addicted to the latest viral Celine Dion “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” videos. But I digress. Some trends are questionable in terms of ethics — think TikTok Therapy — while others are downright dangerous, like many of the challenges that have led to catastrophic consequences, especially for impressionable young people. The new fad of “reality shifting” is one such trend that has recently come under scrutiny for its dubious claims and the possibility of it leading to users even dying to achieve “respawning.”

In this article which recently appeared on Insider, mental health professionals warn that there isn’t adequate regulation of and education surrounding the potential dangers of “reality shifting.” The trend began as a way of encouraging users to use techniques similar to mindfulness meditation too, in essence, “escape” to alternate realities so as to get away from the mundanity and even anxiety of life, fueled by the ongoing uncertainties and mental health challenges many of us are experiencing during this seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. And upon first glance, the practice seems harmless and might even be an adaptive coping strategy for combatting trauma.

It’s not uncommon for patients undergoing trauma therapy to be encouraged to develop what is called a “safe place” which the individual can summon when they are feeling triggered or overwhelmed. It’s a means of self-soothing that can help foster emotional regulation and prevent things like flashbacks or other deleterious symptoms of trauma. Typically, these safe places are established during eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and are processed and reinforced within the safety of the therapeutic setting, ensuring that the patient has strong boundaries and is not dissociating. 

Other similar coping strategies include daydreaming, substances like alcohol (in moderation) or drugs, dissociation, mindfulness meditation, distraction via media like video gaming or watching Netflix, exercise, and even writing or journaling. Many of these can be helpful when used within reason, where they are not having deleterious effects or causing a person to completely retreat from reality. The danger is if and when a person begins to use these compulsively or excessively, which is what is purportedly occurring with this “reality shifting” fad.

There is a particular concern for those with accompanying mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and dissociative disorders. Often these are a result of some kind of trauma and therefore individuals within these populations are more likely to take this kind of coping strategy to an extreme, even becoming addicted to the experience because it enables them to avoid or numb their uncomfortable feelings and replace them with a sense of control. That’s a powerfully appealing thing, particularly when someone happens to be struggling more acutely with symptoms associated with their particular condition.

While TikTok insists that it takes the safety and well-being of their users seriously and doesn’t allow for content depicting self-harm or dangerous activities to be disseminated on their platform, the fact of the matter is that the sheer volume of content and speed at which it can become viral is impossible to control with 100% accuracy. There’s also some debate as to what exactly constitutes depictions of “self-harm or dangerous activity,” which speaks to a wider debate about freedom of speech versus consumer protection and privacy.

The bottom line is… at its most basic fundamental level, “reality shifting” may be an effective self-soothing strategy akin to many other types of meditative practices that go back centuries. But… like maladaptive daydreaming, substance abuse, exercise bingeing and even compulsive sex, the line between healthy and destructive can easily be crossed. Those who fit within the criteria of potentially vulnerable should consider proceeding with caution, and parents of young children who might be easily persuadable should be aware of the dangers that this fad may present.

Photo by Victoria Alexandrova on Unsplash

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