How Twitter Fuels Anxiety

The anxious can often find a supportive community through tweeting, but the nature of the social media site can exacerbate symptoms.

The Twitter logo is reflected in the pupil of a brown eye.
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

In Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay on self-reliance, the 19th-century writer and naturalist sang the praises of spiritual isolation and the evils of distraction, bemoaning the forces that conspired to direct his attention to "emphatic trifles." He would not be cowed, he said, but would stand resolute in the face of such bad influences: "The power men possess to annoy me, I give them by a weak curiosity ... If we cannot at once rise to the sanctities of obedience and faith, let us at least resist our temptations."

Don't tell Ralph about Twitter.

I joined Twitter in 2009 at the urging of my husband, who works in technology. "What am I going to do, tell the internet what I ate for breakfast?" I asked him. Eight years later, I'm the one checking Twitter over my morning toast while he gets ready for work. Twitter has become the place where I get my news, where I check in on my friends, where I go to make jokes and read good essays. As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, it is where I go to talk about what I’m feeling when I’m anxious, and maybe find some camaraderie. And as a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, using Twitter is also making my anxiety worse. The like-minded community I’ve built on Twitter has made confessing anxiety easier than ever, but the comparison Twitter enables has made the experience of anxiety worse. And when it comes to Twitter, you have to take the good with the bad.

Psychologists typically distinguish between two types of anxiety: trait anxiety, a persistent and lasting tendency to experience fear and worry; and state anxiety, a temporary response of fear to a threatening situation. Many forms of social media can agitate both trait and state anxiety, and perhaps none more so than Twitter, which reminds the perpetually anxious that we always have something to be anxious about and instills a sense of anxiety in even the most laid-back user. Twitter’s constant flow of new information and the fact that users tend to follow people who are more accomplished and successful than they are creates an especially potent cocktail of comparison for anxious people. "Twitter really inflames my professional anxiety," says Caitlin Cruz, a freelance journalist based in New York. "But it's also given me a lot of professional success." Cruz deleted the Twitter app from her phone a few weeks ago, which she says has made her life more bearable.

Twitter users have to contend with competing voices that yell at you as soon as you log on. You haven't written a best-selling novel yet? Here's a “30 Under 30” list of best-selling novelists! You're over 30? Here's an article about how you're a bad parent! You haven't had children yet? This bestselling author has three, and she's under 30! Twitter is a megaphone for achievements and a magnifying glass for insecurities, and when you start comparing your insecurities with another person's achievements, it's a recipe for anxiety.

"Generally speaking, the comparisons that we make on social media are more likely to be 'upward' comparisons," says Azadeh Aalai, a professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland. "We're comparing ourselves to the individuals who appear to be higher status and are achieving more" than we are, which can lead to feelings of envy, discontent, and anxiety. It's also not the whole story. When I was young, my mom used to warn me against "comparing my insides to other people's outsides." Using Twitter, I am constantly comparing my insides—my anxieties, fears, and insecurities—with other people's outward selves: their accomplishments, polished selfies, and edited articles. There will always be someone who’s doing better than I am in any aspect of my life. And because I, like many people, tend to follow people I admire or who are already famous, I am constantly aware of just how much better other people are. Twitter also gives me a quick and handy way to quantify my worth: this many likes, this many retweets. I'd like to think I'm more than the sum of my followers, but there are plenty of days when I don't feel that way.

Anxiety functions by constantly reminding you to pay attention to it. And so does Twitter. Twitter draws users back for more and more and more. Smartphones are designed to provide instant gratification, and many of Twitter's features depend on our biological fear of scarcity, says Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center. The push notifications, the little number next to our mentions, the bar that tells us how many tweets have been sent since we last refreshed the page—all of these details are designed to keep users coming back, afraid that we might have missed something vital. "Social media doesn't really promote moderation," Aalai says (in what could perhaps be the understatement of the year).

The desire to know what is going on at every moment is quenched when met with the firehose of information that is Twitter. But my anxiety skyrockets when I’m met with the seemingly endless amount of bad news about tragic events going on around the world—ISIS bombings, systemic racism, refugees in crisis, the threat of war, political upheaval. Many Twitter users I surveyed cited feeling powerless in the face of overwhelming fear as one of the biggest causes of their anxiety. Even if it does offer the occasional practical solution—donating to the International Rescue Committee, calling a congressperson, sharing a GoFundMe—Twitter remains dominantly focused on the world's ills in a way that can decimate a person's sense of efficacy and replace it with profound despair.

If Twitter is full of bad news and anxiety-inducing fodder for comparison, why are we there in the first place? Some people, like the writer Lindy West, have left Twitter altogether due to harassment and trolling, while the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens just announced he would leave Twitter because it had become "pornified politics," although he isn't really leaving—"I'll keep my Twitter handle, and hopefully my followers," he wrote, and an editorial assistant will update the profile for him. But the rest of users are there, presumably, because they find some value amid the constant updates and jokes and hot takes. Twitter provides a sense of camaraderie.

Twitter provides a platform for neurotic people to share their fears. And for those of us who work from home or on the road, Twitter becomes an office space and the people we interact with become our coworkers. A recent Harvard University study found that "the act of disclosing information about oneself activates the same part of the brain that is associated with the sensation of pleasure"—the same pleasure center that is activated by food, money, and sex. Confessing my anxiety on social media, then, is an attempt not to feel so alone. Anxiety isolates the people who suffer from it, convincing them that they are the only ones who think in this distorted way. Bringing this kind of myopic thinking into the light and examining it can help combat it, and Twitter can actually be a useful place for doing just that. "You're anxious? Me, too!" is the kind of rallying cry that unites anxious people. But even as we find our tribe of fellow worriers, the question remains: What are we using Twitter for?

Rutledge encourages Twitter users to think about why they're online. "If you're checking Twitter a hundred times a day, what are you avoiding doing?" she asks. "That's where you need cognitive override," or the ability to step out of the moment at hand and evaluate how realistic your feelings are given your use of this technology. "When we're anxious, we feel compelled to be continually scanning the environment," Rutledge says. "That's how we make ourselves feel safe." It's what our ancestors did to anticipate attacks from enemies or saber-toothed tigers, but the advantage now isn’t quite as clear. Assuming we live in a world that is connected enough that we won't completely miss important news, there isn’t a real need to be constantly scanning the feed, looking for threats.

The cycle of anxiety on Twitter use can be especially bad for women, non-binary and queer people, and people of color. "Vulnerable populations in face-to-face interactions are similarly going to be vulnerable in virtual interactions," says Aalai. These are often people who benefit greatly from Twitter because they can speak directly to the friendly audience who follows them, cutting out the potential for harassment they might receive in other places. But trolls follow, too: A 2014 Pew study shows that 25 percent of women ages 18–24 have been sexually harassed online (as opposed to 13 percent of young men), and 23 percent have been physically threatened. Fifty-one percent of African-American and 54 percent of Hispanic internet users had experienced some form of harassment online, as opposed to 34 percent of white internet users.

"You have to make a conscious decision about whether Twitter is still adding value," Rutledge says. The difficult part is that "value" is entirely subjective, and it's hard to make (good) decisions when our brain isn't working at full capacity. A recent study from the University of Chicago found that "the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity." And a recent New Republic article asked journalists whether they could live without Twitter. The answer was uniformly "no," although many people acknowledged that life without Twitter would be "better." It reminds me of the apostle Paul's words about sin in the letter to the Romans: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."

In 1855, the poet Walt Whitman sent Ralph Waldo Emerson a copy of his newly published collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed," Emerson wrote to him. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start." Emerson saw in Whitman’s moving poetry the long and careful career of devoted practice that had gone before.

Some years later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Leaves of Grass was one of the most influential books in his career, comparing its “efficiency” to great programming. It didn’t seem to strike Dorsey as ironic that Whitman took years to craft the efficiency of language that Dorsey praised. Dorsey called Whitman a “total entrepreneur,” looking, as many of us do, for the presence of his own values in the person he admired. And that is one of the reasons people are drawn to Twitter—it gives them access to the inner lives of people they would otherwise never interact with. But in so doing, they may also start to fear that they will never become the person they want to be—never be as smart or prolific or original or beautiful as the composite of people they follow. That gap is where anxiety thrives.

In the meantime, I'm itching to know what's going on in the world. Who knows what's happened since I started writing? Is there some new political scandal? Has someone tweeted something outrageous? How am I adding up to the people I follow? I know I could wait. I could go for a walk, or read a book, or take a bath. But I think I'll check. Just one more time.