Social Pros—Tips to Protect Your Mental Health (From a Neuroscientist)


It’s no secret that too much social media takes a huge psychological toll. And for social media professionals who are on it practically 24/7, this toll becomes exponential. That’s why it’s so important to take care of your mental health.

In this blog, we’ll break down the different ways overwork and overexposure to social media can affect your brain. We’ll also look at steps you can follow to protect your mental health, despite the many stressors your role may have.

A little more about me

I’m Nawal Mustafa, a cognitive neuroscientist, and a psychological health educator. My academic training focuses on behavior, cognition, and neuroscience. Currently, I’m a PhD candidate in clinical neuropsychology at the University of Windsor in Canada. Neuropsychology is the study of how human behavior, emotion, and cognition affects brain function and the nervous system, and vice versa.

I share my knowledge and expertise on brain health and psychology through @TheBrainCoach on Instagram. Since launching in August 2019, the account now has over 1 million engaged followers and is one of the largest mental health platforms on the social network.

It’s also provided me with personal experience in the multi-faceted role of a social media manager and digital content creator—which is why I’m personally invested in maintaining optimal psychological health while navigating the complex role of a social media manager and feel especially passionate about helping others in the same position.

Our brains on social

Like everything we interact with, our brain reacts chemically to social media. But what does that actually look like?

Meme of an illustration of a brain that reads "Me: Sees dope meme, My brain: *Releases dope-a-meme"

The good

Social media platforms are designed to be addictive and reinforce our biological need to connect with others and feel validated. This connection is optimized on social, and activates the brain’s reward system through the release of dopamine, a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and motivation.

This can be a good thing—to an extent. There’s preliminary evidence of social’s positive effects on mental health, based on a study by Harvard scientists. It found that people who used social as part of their everyday routine and engaged with content that others shared saw a positive correlation with social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health.

This means that mindful use of social media in our daily routine may promote certain health benefits.

The bad

It’s when people felt an emotional connection to social, such as feeling disconnected outside of it or excessively checking their feeds due to FOMO, that health-related outcomes were negatively correlated.

So while thoughtful use of social can be beneficial, many find it difficult to use social mindfully. And this struggle likely exacerbates for social media managers.

A wealth of research points to various mental health and cognitive concerns due to overexposure to social media. There are higher levels of psychological stress and symptoms of depression associated with exposure to stressful news, like COVID-19. Getting an influx of negative news can also lead to compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress.

Overexposure to social also results in poor sleep quality. Yet, a good night’s sleep is critical for brain health. It’s when the brain consolidates information into memory and cleans harmful toxins produced throughout the day. It also gives your sympathetic nervous system (which controls your fight or flight response) a chance to relax, allowing you to feel more rested and recharged.

So imagine what happens when your brain doesn’t get the chance to do its thing. Poor sleep quality leads to increased stress and fatigue, mood dysregulation, and decreased ability to focus.

The ‘uh-oh’

There’s more. Other research points to the dependence on social media to feel happy due to how it activates the brain’s reward system. This is considered a form of addiction—people seeking out online social feedback, even if it leads to self-sabotaging behaviors like neglecting sleep or daily priorities.

Since social media managers create content with the goal of receiving higher engagement and positive feedback, this problem may be even more prevalent within the industry.

Understanding the potential psychological effects of social media on our health and well-being is still a new area of research, especially how this information applies to the work of social media managers who are on the platforms much longer than the average person. The demands of the role are much more nuanced than ever before, so it’s important to become aware of the harmful effects of social media overexposure and how it impacts day-to-day performance.

Burnout red flags

There are always early signs of trouble. Look out for these things to avoid going down that road.

9 signs of burnout

One of the best ways to determine whether it’s time to re-evaluate your time on social is by recognizing the warning signs of burnout, an acute state of physical or mental exhaustion that involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.

Burnout is most often caused by problems at work, but it can also appear in other areas of life, like in romantic relationships, parenting, or a combination of these.

Nine key warning signs of burnout include:

  1. Fatigue and difficulty in staying focused and completing tasks
  2. Not finding your job fun or fulfilling anymore
  3. A sense of inadequacy when it comes to your ability to perform your job
  4. Having a hard time believing that you bring value to your work
  5. Feeling like you’re taking on more than you can realistically handle
  6. Cynicism and struggling with regulating your emotions
  7. Withdrawing from people or pushing them away
  8. Neglecting your needs often and making little time for yourself
  9. Losing your sense of self and often evaluating yourself critically

3 types of burnout

There are various reasons why burnout and exhaustion occur. A helpful way to identify the root cause of your burnout is understanding why you might be feeling this way.

Researchers have categorized the way people respond to chronic work-related stress into three main types: frenetic, underchallenged and worn-out.

  1. Frenetic burnout occurs when people channel too much energy into their work—often as a result of anxiety—that the rewards of the role start to feel lacking compared to their efforts. These people disregard work/life balance, invest maximum energy into their role, and work to the point of exhaustion.
  2. Underchallenged burnout occurs when a person feels trapped in a monotonous and unstimulating work environment, performing a role which does not provide job satisfaction. This contributes to an overall lowering of mood and satisfaction.
  3. Worn-out burnout occurs when people feel despair and lose heart in their job due to an unhealthy work environment that is consistently a source of intense stress, or which yields negligible rewards.

Don’t burn out—peace out

There’s good news too, though. There are plenty of ways to prevent and counteract burnout.

5 ways to battle burnout

If you’re experiencing signs of burnout or constant fatigue, it’s crucial to step away and recharge. Enduring and pushing through these feelings is counterproductive, and can lead to severe mental and physical health conditions.

Here are five ways to recharge when feeling burnt out or exhausted:

  1. Schedule frequent breaks in your calendar during work hours. For example, take a 10 minute break after every 50 minutes of focused work. Do some stretches or a guided meditation. The brain has a limited capacity for sustained attention, so pushing it past its limits will likely result in struggling to focus and stay efficient.
  2. Shake up your work routine. It could be as simple as taking a new route to work or going somewhere new for lunch. This jolts the brain out of autopilot, helps it refresh, and brings pockets of joy into your day.
  3. Keep a victory log in your phone or journal. A list of your wins can remind you of how far you’ve come and what you’re capable of, especially when you’re struggling to recognize your accomplishments or develop feelings of gratitude. It helps prevent cynicism and high self-criticism that often result from burnout
  4. Focus on deep connections. Socializing with people who lift you up and make you feel energized can be highly beneficial for mental health. It’s also a way to wind down and take a step back from work-related obligations. But remember, it matters who you socialize with, so say no to social interactions that pull from your energy.
  5. Get off the grid. Once you finish work, try to mindfully spend time away from the grid. Turn off notifications, get off your laptop, and resist the urge to respond to emails. Try to completely disengage and take time to focus on you and things that make you happy.

Manage priorities to achieve balance

Managing social media—especially if you’re also a solopreneur wearing many hats—is a complex job. This often makes prioritizing tasks a challenge and finding work-life balance difficult.

To proactively take care of your mental health, I encourage social media managers to spend 30 minutes every morning analyzing tasks and prioritizing those that have the biggest impact on your business.

Another recommendation is to avoid multitasking. It’s the quickest way to overwhelm yourself and increase stress levels. It also reduces productivity and makes you more prone to mistakes. One study even found that trying to complete two tasks at once decreases productivity by 20%. This number increases to 80% with five tasks. Not good.

To avoid multitasking, make a checklist instead. Checklists are a way to create clarity regarding the tasks ahead and allow your brain to stay focused on one task at a time before moving on to the next one.

Most importantly, it’s imperative that social media managers learn to set boundaries around work hours. Boundaries are a form of self-love that allow us to protect our psychological health, honor our needs, and set realistic expectations. When you put yourself last and don’t set boundaries, you have the highest risk of experiencing burnout.

Listen to your body. Pay attention to your needs. If you already have enough on your plate, decline requests that aren’t urgent. If you’re feeling constantly overwhelmed, set a boundary around the time you spend on social media every day. For example, set an alarm at 5:30 p.m. to unplug from work and turn off all email and social media notifications.

Hootsuite’s Tip: Worried you’ll miss important messages? Set up an OOO message on Slack, an email auto-reply, and, for your actual social channels, a simple chatbot to let people know when you’ll be online and when they should expect a response.

Ask for help when you need it

Talking to managers about job expectations can be intimidating but it’s worth initiating if you’re feeling overwhelmed. These difficult conversations not only help you manage your current workload, but also increase your teammates’ awareness around work-related expectations.

To initiate a difficult conversation, try the DESC model of assertive communication by Sharon and Gordon Bowers, adapted from their book Asserting Yourself.

  • Describe the situation. Specifically, describe the situation giving you cause for concern.
    • Example: “I received your email regarding the project you’d like me to complete by this afternoon.”
  • Express your feelings or thoughts. Explain how the situation makes you feel. Use ‘I’ statements and take ownership of your feelings.
    • Example: “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed because I think it might be difficult for me to complete all tasks required from me today.”
  • Specify what you want. Clearly describe your suggestion or resolution
    • Example: “I was wondering if you could help me prioritize my project list? I hope this is not too much trouble.”
  • Consequences. Indicate the positive pay-off of this outcome to your boss or colleague
    • Example: “This will help me target tasks of high importance first and work on other tasks later on.”

Managing social—and mental health

Protecting your mental health can be a challenge, especially when a lot is required from you. But it doesn’t have to be a losing battle—even if it sometimes feels that way.

By knowing the risks you face working in social media, identifying factors that aggravate these risks, and having our handy list of “peace out” methods in your back pocket, you’re equipped to handle whatever social throws your way.

And for a quick solution to reducing overexposure to social media? Plan and schedule your posts on Hootsuite, so you keep firing the social content engine while spending less time on it. Get started with a 30-day free trial. 

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