How Facebook Helped Me Overcome My Anxiety
By Erica Troiani
July 6, 2018

More than the actual anxiety was the anxiety about the anxiety. I felt tremendous shame for having negative feelings at all.

When I finally gathered the courage to open Facebook again, I had a torrent of messages and notifications.

It was 3pm on a Tuesday, and I was sitting at my desk with my head on my keyboard; I was too revved up to sit still, much less concentrate on work. I was in the midst of a resurgence of my lifelong anxiety and couldn’t talk to anyone or even focus on anything. Months later, I would finally be diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

The diagnosis was a relief. It made sense of overwhelming feelings I’d had my whole life that had mostly been regarded as a character flaw. I grew up in an alcoholic home, and I’d been going to therapy for years to face the trauma of my childhood. For the first time I was feeling my emotions instead of mashing them down, and expressing anger before it turned into resentment. My anxiety had decreased throughout this process, but then I decided to get married. My fiance did nothing wrong, mind you, but somehow the thought of marriage made me feel trapped and put me mentally back in my childhood home. I grew incredibly anxious — and yet completely unaware of it.

I’d had trouble sleeping for months but I wasn’t upset or stressed about anything — at least not anything conscious. My stomach felt like it’d been glued shut. I couldn’t eat. Soon enough my weight starting dropping enough for other people to comment on it. Compliments at first that slowly morphed into expressions of concern. I felt nervous all the time and I was hyper-vigilant, no matter who I encountered or where I was. If I was in a car, I’d flinch at the sight of another vehicle pulling out of a parking space as though it was about to hit me — even if it was well outside my physical range. I was sleeping two hours a night and not even feeling tired the next day. Sitting still felt like torture, and I was constantly second guessing myself as if I couldn’t trust my perceptions. I’d had episodes like this off and on for most of my life but I’d always pushed it down. But now, after a lot of therapy and ACOA recovery work, when the anxiety attacks returned, I had to acknowledge them. My overwhelming anxiety was there and I couldn’t hide it no matter how badly I wanted to.
But that was the problem: I really really wanted to.

More than the actual anxiety was the anxiety about the anxiety. I felt tremendous shame for having negative feelings at all. (All you ACOAs out there know what I’m talking about, right?) Growing up in my house, negative feelings had been treated like a disease that had to be banished. This didn’t just come from family but from the entire culture where I was raised. I explained to my therapist that even as an adult I felt like a streak of tar ran through me that marked me as broken, and I lived in constant fear of people seeing it. So when my anxiety revisited me, I tried to hide it, but piling that shame on top of it only made it worse. I wanted simultaneously to jump out of my own skin and hide inside my house forever.

Then I remembered what Brene Brown said in her book on shame: that silence fed shame while a sense of common humanity combatted it. That meant talking about what I was feeling. Reaching out to tell someone was a major part of fighting shame because it made you feel less alone. Then it occurred to me: what if I just preempted this terror of someone discovering my anxious state and just told them? If I owned how I felt in advance, perhaps I’d feel less shame because I wouldn’t be so desperate to hide it. Problem was, any time I tried to talk about it in person, I completely fell to bits and I didn’t exactly want to put myself through that over and over again.

So instead I opted to put it on Facebook.

Of course, Facebook is the capital of oversharing and I normally kept my digital shouting box strictly to jokes. But I just didn’t see a better way to inform people of what I was going through or that my behavior might be different than my usual. In fairness to Brene Brown, she clarifies that reaching out to others in order to combat shame needs to be aimed at people who are receptive to hearing your pain. She definitely doesn’t suggest blasting it all over your social media. But that’s what I did.

I wrote a long explanation of my mental state asking for compassion rather than advice and hit “post” before I could change my mind. Now, I should be clear that I didn't exactly blast this to everyone I knew on Facebook. I used customized security settings so only those in the same city as me and my oldest, closest friends could see it, and I blocked my whole family as well as loose acquaintances. I hit post and immediately shut my laptop, vowing not to log into Facebook for at least a couple hours. I’d purposely planned my post to coincide with a concert I was attending because I knew it would prevent me from checking my phone constantly. I figured if anyone was judgemental or shaming, the bite might sting less if several hours had gone by — or possibly I wouldn’t even notice it in a flood of other tiny red notifications.

When I finally gathered the courage to open Facebook again, I had a torrent of messages and notifications. Most of them carried the same sentiment: I have anxiety, too. While I’d certainly blasted my personal world with my emotional state hoping to get some level empathy, I didn’t anticipate which corners of my social circles would be delivering it. Close friends of mine, people I used to share every secret with, messaged to tell me they’d recently gone through something similar and not talked about it. Acquaintances wrote with ideas and (indeed) some advice. Much of the advice wasn’t especially helpful, but knowing that I wasn’t alone made a world of difference. For months afterward, casual acquaintances told me that sharing my experience actually helped them feel less alone, which I hadn’t even thought about.

I can't pretend like simply talking about my anxiety made it go away or even lessen much. It still took another year of focus, self care, and work before I truly felt like myself again. Sharing my anxiety online allowed me to deal with it without shame and without feeling like I was broken. In other words, it meant one less roadblock to contend with, and — given my emotional state at the time — I might not have made it through the anxiety without it.