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You’re not alone if you feel anxious. It’s OK. We are all feeling it.
That’s the stark, simple truth that emerged in a recent report by Project Healthy Minds, a nonprofit facilitating mental health services, that revealed a whopping 96% of people aged 18-34 report struggling with some kind of anxiety. That’s our baseline.
To be anxious is universal. So, what do we do?
Let’s start here. On your screen, where these words are reaching you.
How does your body feel? Are you holding tension in your shoulders? Your neck? How deeply are you filling your lungs with each inhale? Can you feel your heartbeat?
These may be unusual questions to be asked through a screen, but they are the very questions that you should be asking yourself each time you scroll across a page, through a feed, or tap Like on a meme. It’s called media hygiene.
Just as vital as personal hygiene
Our relationships with our devices—and the media we consume on them—are the foundation of a modern mental health practice. Media hygiene is about discerning what effects the media we consume has on our mental and physical health. It is about understanding not just the content that is presented to you, but the feelings that come with how the information is conveyed.
The economics and algorithms of the media industry are built on optimizing your engagement but not your feelings. It is incumbent on each of us to recognize not just what we are being told but how we are being made to feel. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally.
Nothing drives attention to a story quite like anxiety; it’s optimal for engagement. But this dynamic is at the core of the mental health crisis we’re experiencing today.
The purpose of media hygiene is to take notice of your emotional reactions to online content and then mindfully adjust your habits around what you consume and share. To understand what brings you happiness or sparks your curiosity, and what pulls you down into that anxious place. To know which cultural pain is of real purpose before you absorb it and pass it on.
We are living in an anxiety pandemic. In every avenue, polarization is destroying what were once unbreakable relationships, and even communities. You’ve probably seen it happen, too.
‘Wash your hands’ of anxiety
What can we do? Stop the spread. We can end the anxiety with ourselves.
Just as we wash our hands, put on face masks and get our vaccines, we must also practice media hygiene. Content spreads through all of us—it’s called “going viral” for a reason. Do you know what feelings you are spreading along with the content you like, comment on, and share?
So how do you “wash your hands” of anxiety? Meditation is a good start, as a daily washing away of the content that causes anxiety. It builds your understanding of which feelings are truly yours and which feelings are being fed to you and why. It’s rediscovering who you are, not who the algorithms want you to be.
I say this not just as a creative strategist, but also as a meditation teacher. In fact, I’ve been holding weekly meditation sessions with my co-workers, friends and family. Meditation, to me, isn’t only self-help—it’s for helping others.
If you are interested in starting your own media hygiene practice, begin with these simple steps:
- Get an alarm clock and charge your phone outside your bedroom. If scrolling your phone bookends your sleep, the content you consume influences your dreams. Your dreams should be yours.
- Start your day with a basic meditation. Seated comfortably, back straight, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale all the way into your belly. Exhale pulling your belly all the way into your spine. Hold briefly at the top of your breath and hold briefly at the bottom. Feel what fullness feels like. Feel what emptiness feels like. Find peace in between. Do this for at least five minutes.
- When you start scrolling, notice how what you see changes your breathing. You’ll be amazed at how much that alone will show you. Choose what you share accordingly.
The message isn’t to stop consuming content or sharing on social media. The message is to share mindfully with a focus on its mental health impacts.