How To Practice Immediate Self-Care When Social Media Says the World is Burning

Smartphone on fire in front of blue background.

It may seem easy to have a social media self-care plan in place, whether that means limiting the amount of time you spend plugged in or choosing not to interact with news that you know will upset you.

But in the moment when something unexpected happens — you’re trolled or harassed online or you see breaking news that’s deeply harmful to you—it can be hard to think logically about what you can do to protect yourself.

After the news of the Las Vegas mass shooting and while more information was breaking, many people were left wondering: How can I deal with how this is affecting me, particularly when it feels so unavoidable on social media?

When news of the Pulse shooting swept across social media, I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel. As an LGBTQ+ person, at first, I felt comforted by the number of people on my newsfeed who were standing in solidarity with the victims.

But as I scrolled, I also saw many people arguing that the Pulse shooting wasn’t a hate crime and that queer and trans antagonisms don’t exist in present-day American society.

At the time, I didn’t have any social media self-care tips prepared for these moments, so I felt frozen.

On one hand, I knew I could get off social media for a little while and do something else, but I also wanted to be informed about what happened and look for solidarity among my friends who had posted about the incident. It’s important to think ahead.

While we can’t prepare for every social media eventuality (I didn’t know how the day after the 2016 election would affect me until it happened, for example), we can arm ourselves with options for those moments when social media makes you feel like the world is burning.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Build an emergency self-care plan.

An emergency self-care plan will look different depending on who you are, and you might use different strategies for different social media emergencies.

When I was online in the days after the election, what I needed was different from when I was harassed by readers after I wrote a post about disability representation in the Wonder Woman movie.

The best emergency self-care plan has different actionable steps you can take and backup options if those fail.

One of my go-tos is getting offline immediately to read a book, but sometimes I might find that whatever is going on has me too anxious to sit still and read, so one of my other options is taking a long walk alone or with someone I trust.

When designing this plan, keep in mind the possibilities: Since we’re so easily connected to the Internet and social media, it’s possible you might encounter something awful on the train or the bus on your commute home, during a break at work, or just before you’re sitting down to dinner with friends.

Does your self-care plan include options you can turn to if you’re not at home, for example? Do all your methods require you to have financial funds, or are some of them free and accessible? Are they all possible if you’re dealing with physical or mental illness?

I also recommend checking in with yourself to see if your self-care tips are working after the fact. If you encounter trolls and use your plan to deal with it, do you feel better in the moment and after the fact?

2. If you can, get offline as immediately as possible.

I recognize this isn’t always possible, whether it’s because social media is a part of your job description or you still really want to find the information you were looking for when the harm was done.

If you can, even step back from the particular post or platform where the harm occurred, that’s helpful too.

When it’s possible, take a step back from social media—ideally, the Internet as a whole—and get your mind off it.

Whether “it” was an image or video that was triggering, encountering harassment, or dealing with traumatic news that impacts you or your community, you deserve some space (however marginal) from the situation, even for a little while.

3. Ask your community to help you get what you need.

I’ve been harassed online before, because not only am I multiply marginalized as a queer, disabled, and historically low-income person, but I’m also a public figure because of my freelance writing and activism work.

No matter how “used to it” you might think you should be if you’ve experience trolling, harassment, or doxxing before, online violence is real violence and can be very traumatizing.

Several of my friends who are also marginalized public figures have taken to asking their community to step in when they can.

It’s helpful if you can ask folks in advance for their support — like if you’re a YouTuber and you know that your upcoming video will likely result in a lot of trolls. But that’s not always possible because trauma online is unpredictable.

For people with mental health issues like phobias, PTSD, and OCD, coming in contact with triggers on social media is common and not always preventable.

Friends, family, and community members can do things like: check your social media accounts for trolls and harassment, block and report trolls, filter out upsetting comments, hide triggering images and content in your newsfeed or on your post, read the comments for you and report back, respond to systemic violence or oppression on your behalf, or search for information that you’re looking for online.

One of my close friends recently made me aware of a 40-minute YouTube video that tears apart an article I wrote. The video is filled with ableist slurs.

She recommended, based on watching some of it, skipping through it, and reading the comments, that I shouldn’t watch it.

This was beyond helpful because I had someone who I could turn to that was able to let me know that the toxic content existed but give me an overview of the scope and make a thoughtful recommendation.

In the past, I’ve also asked people to read the comments on my articles for me, step in and interact with people commenting on my Facebook posts, and parse through articles that have triggering videos or photos and give me the information I was looking for.

Your needs may differ based on what exactly is causing you harm, but it’s a good idea to ask if anyone you trust is up for lending a helping hand—and offer the same in return when and if they need it.

4. Talk to someone you trust about what’s going on.

Even if you already have folks who are stepping in to do the dirty work, like responding to transphobic comments on your page and educating people on how to perform allyship, it still helps to have people you can just talk to.

Whether you’re looking for advice or just a place to vent, you should seek out trusted members of your community both in the moment and after the fact, if you can.

Look for someone else who isn’t harmed by whatever you’re dealing with and who can provide an objective opinion if you’re looking for one.

When one of my articles about queer parenting received some trolling in the Facebook comments on its post, I asked a friend of mine who is straight to read them for me and let me know if the criticism was legitimate.

I was too upset in the moment to figure out on my own if what was happening was trolling or someone’s constructive criticism that I was taking too seriously.

Once my friend confirmed that she felt like it was unnecessary trolling and pretty toxic, she offered to respond to some of the comments on my post with her own opinions. I thanked her and told her that if she had the bandwidth, I would appreciate that.

Sometimes we’re too close to what’s happening to see clearly and we need to talk it out with someone. Other times, we’re well aware that harm has been done and we want to vent to someone we trust for a little while.

No matter what you’re dealing with and how you’re feeling, knowing that people you trust have your back can be really validating during a traumatic social media situation.

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Self-care is often the most difficult when a traumatic experience is happening in the moment. It’s also really hard to plan for what will upset us, and we can be blindsided by an incident or by our response to it.

When news about Hurricane Irma’s potential destruction to Florida was sweeping across social media, I found myself surprised by how upsetting it was for me because of friends and family I have there.

I haven’t historically been someone who worries in advance about events like natural disasters (and I’ve been fortunate that no one I love has died or been seriously injured during one), so my level of anxiety felt unusual and I wasn’t ready to handle it.

That’s why it’s good to have a plan. When it happened, I didn’t have one, but looking back, it would have been useful to step back from social media and ask someone I trust to monitor the situation for me and report back only useful, intermittent information about Irma’s development.

In the future, I’ll probably give myself more of a social media break if something like this happens, because I found that I kept turning on my Facebook and Twitter apps, which was only making me more anxious.

We can’t be prepared for every eventuality, especially online, but having a self-care plan for what I call “social media emergencies” — situations online that are harmful, toxic, and/or violent — is a great first step, and so is being able to ask for help when you need it.

Alaina Leary is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. She is a Bostonian currently studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. She’s a disabled, queer activist and is on the social media team at We Need Diverse Books. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her at her website or on Instagram and Twitter @alainaskeys. Read her articles here.