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How to Care for Your Soul Online When You’re Feeling Lonely, Other, or Generally Crappy

By Nanea Hoffman

Navigating the wondrous, complicated, and sometimes treacherous world of the Internet can be a tricky business, especially when you’re not in the best shape mentally, emotionally, or physically.

It’s good to take breaks and consume all things in moderation: television, chocolate, any menu item that has four chili pepper icons next to it, you get the idea. However, all those well-meaning people who, ironically, take to social media to urge other people to get offline and go live REAL life are forgetting something. For all its pitfalls and dank, dark corners, the Internet is primarily a way for people to connect, and some of us depend on that.

For example – and I’m just pulling examples out of my hat here – say you are on your fifth round of chemo, and your bald, fatigued, no-white-blood-cell-having ass is not about to leave the house any time soon. Or, perhaps you are having one of those days when your anxiety is in high gear, and it feels like the skin is crawling right off your body. Or, your depression or PTSD has flattened you. Or, your chronic pain is so bad you can’t think straight or get around. Or, your disability limits your mobility, and your abled friends don’t call or visit as often as you’d like. What then?

Should you curl up in an analog ball and resign yourself to isolation because other people with physical and mental health privilege think that interactions you have online don’t count? Should you chastise yourself for not being out there hiking and taking yoga classes and eating photogenic meals in trendy restaurants? Should you take up woodworking and maybe whittle yourself some friends?

Or, maybe you decide to engage with the Internet in a mindful way that allows you to stay connected but not be depleted. It’s possible, you know. I do it every day. People can be absolutely horrible when they’re sitting in front of a screen, but also, some of my dearest friends live in my computer. I need them. I like to think they need me, too. Besides, my work requires me to be on social media.

A while back, I was in crisis. It was not good. I was not good. I was in the darkest place, the one you think you won’t come out of. The one you think maybe you shouldn’t come out of. I had to go away from Internet-land for a while, but when I came back, I had some new strategies that have helped tremendously with keeping my life in balance. If you’re interested, the plan I made with my mental health team and husband was this:

  1. Weekly (at one point, twice weekly) therapy.
  2. Taking my meds every day and checking in regularly with my psychiatrist. For me, an important part of this was finding the correct diagnosis in order to get the right medication. (Bipolar II, if you were wondering. It was presenting as depression. Also, I’m very good at invalidating my own experiences, so my care providers can hardly be blamed for not catching it until I was in the throes of a breakdown.)
  3. A set schedule. This was challenging because creative people don’t like restrictions. We flow all over the place, but what I realized is that while I had learned to set boundaries in my personal relationships, I had none when it came to work and self-care. (See: small business owner problems). The schedule, said the mental health professionals, would provide external structure that would teach my brain to regulate. Some people can do that naturally, some of us need training wheels. Anyway, I learned to set a wake-up time and a bed time. I learned to schedule work with a hard stop time. I learned to set timers so I could perform my social media duties without needing to constantly monitor. I even scheduled specific acts of self-care at specific times during the day (reading, meditation, exercise – even if only for 20 minutes at a time, though it’s more like 10 minutes for meditation because I’m too squirmy).
  4. Exercise, in my living room if I couldn’t make it outside. Maybe not every day, but if I had the energy it was worth the effort.
  5. Forgiveness if I couldn’t stick to 3 and 4.
  6. Connection. If I was lonely and wanting someone to reach out, I’d make myself do it. I told myself it was like lobbing a bottle into the ocean. Sometimes, lots of times, it came floating back with a message of gladness and friendship.

NOTE: If you are in active crisis or feel as though you may harm yourself or others, please call the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) hotline at 800-950-6264 or text “6264” to 741741. You can also all the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255. I’m not kidding. You are precious and necessary and no matter what your brain is telling you, you belong here. Okay?

Remember when I said the Internet can be an important means of connection? And perhaps a necessity, depending on your work? Here are my personal strategies for engaging with it in a healthy (or at least healthier) way. I am in no way a professional or expert, and you should take these with an entire shaker of salt. I merely present them in case anyone else might find them of use.

Don’t comment on anything that makes you feel activated – you may say something you regret and/or behave in a way that hurts others. You’ll think about it later and cringe. In fact…

Don’t go into the comment section. Like, at all. There’s a high statistical likelihood that you will be triggered and/or plunged into a well of existential despair. Best to play it safe.

Don’t stalk the profiles or timelines of your friends or family and look at their cheery, heavily filtered posts about living their lives.

DON’T GOOGLE YOUR EX. OR FORMER FRIENDS.

Don’t click on stories about tragedy of any kind. In fact, maybe stay away from the news, just to be safe.

Don’t go online shopping unless you like getting “surprise” packages in the mail. And surprise credit card bills.

Don’t feel guilty for still wanting to be online, especially if you’re chronically ill, have a disability, or are dealing with a mental illness. You’re not addicted or pathetic. You’re a human being who needs connection, and sometimes your computer is a lifeline. You don’t need to add to your suffering by telling yourself you aren’t out there “living real life.” Of course, your life is real and valid. You’re not a fictional character. Forget what the Luddites are saying. You know yourself best.

Do use browser extensions like Social Fixer that allow you to filter posts that appear in your feed on Facebook. For example, I have filtered out mentions of a specific holder of public office so that I don’t get blindsided by distressing news. I’ve also filtered out posts about suicide and other triggering topics. Not because I don’t care or don’t want to read about these issues – I just need to be able to do it on my own terms, when I am prepared.

Do watch adorable animal videos.

Do read inspirational stories.

Do text or message friends (remember, you’re throwing a bottle in the ocean, and you’re doing it for you; if anyone responds, that’s gravy).

Do zone out on Pinterest.

Do watch soothing recipe videos that look way easier than they actually are.

Do download podcasts and books. Pleasant distractions are therapeutic. Two therapists and a psychiatrist have reassured me this is so.

Do make playlists, but not emo ones.

Do turn off screens two hours before bed. This is hard to stick to, but worth it if you can manage.

Be safe out there, my computer friends. And be kind to yourselves.

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About Nanea Hoffman (287 Articles)
Nanea Hoffman is the founder of Sweatpants & Coffee. She writes, she makes things, and she drinks an inordinate amount of coffee. She is also extremely fond of sweatpants. She believes in love, peace, joy, comfort, and caffeinated beverages.

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