Online obsession aggravating depression - how to reset brain?
June 18, 2015 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I have recurrent depression, in a bad phase at the moment. (I am in therapy, on meds, and not at risk of self-harm.) Being in a sub-optimal living situation, with no immediate financial need to seek work, few nearby friends and no relationship I have taken to spending way too much time in bed and online. I know what I have to do to recover: how do I handle my mind in the very short term / meantime?

The internetting in bed for hours was bad enough before this last week or so when I fell deep into the hole of a particular fandom/ship. I have spent literally days in bed indulging this on fanfic sites, tumblr etc., fundamentally uninterested in my actual life, and I need to stop it. Thanks to years of AskMefi, I know this is a symptom of depression, a sign of unmet needs (love, intimacy, meaning, adventure) and an avoidance tactic. I know I need to give myself a structure, exercise etc., work on building connections and getting my needs met in the real world. But my question is, and I hope its not too chatfiltery, how do I handle my mind and my feelings while I do this? Do I have to go cold turkey on the fandom or is it realistic to try to limit it to half an hour a day or something? How do I concentrate on valuing what is real when I feel panicky, like I just broke up with someone, when I delete the relevant bookmarks? How do I put the i.e. “I need to make X fanart NOW cos its really important for X reasons” preoccupations the hell aside, at least, and how can I convince my dopamine-seeking brain that by distancing myself from this habit I have not lost anything that was ever actually there? (And, this is utterly silly but I am kind of serious, how do I come to terms with the fact that when I do next have a relationship, it will have little to do with swordfighting, horserides and doomed nobility?! (ack))
Any shared experience/practical tips for being sensible in the gaps from one second to the next, and any philosophical advice on handling/reconciling fantasy vs reality much appreciated!
Throwaway email if preferred:
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
You need to take a walk outside. You don't need any particular destination-- you just need to get outside. Don't take a cell phone, don't bring a mp3 player. Aim for 30 minutes to a little over an hour. Look at the leaves on the trees. Notice the puddles on the ground. The birds and squirrels skittering about. The smell of bread baking, or car exhaust, or whatever is prominent wherever you live. Notice all the people going about their business. Go to a cafe or park and people-watch for a little while.
Getting outside, however briefly, will be a good first step.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:45 AM on June 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

Ask your therapist about this if you haven't yet. But I wonder if it might help to use a timer. Look at what you want for 25 minutes, then when the timer goes off, set it again and go outside for a walk or something for another 25 minutes.

On preview, totally agree with gemutlichkeit. But still recommend giving yourself set time periods. I think your brain will adjust and it might be easier than going offline cold turkey. But I'm no expert.
posted by three_red_balloons at 11:47 AM on June 18, 2015

Get out of bed and offline, for starters. Then get outside. See the sun, feel the wind. Exercise. Don't fight your thoughts, just observe them and let them go. Watch some of Noah Elkrief's videos on youtube for more. Your thoughts aren't reality; your reality or anyone else's. Keep breathing. Go make friends who do things you are interested in or want to learn more about.
But first, get out of bed and offline!
posted by jtexman1 at 11:48 AM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't think its a great idea to abandon your passions when you're like this, when I've done that it hasn't gone well.

First take a walk. After that maybe you can try taking your passions in a different direction! If you have the time, start writing your own fiction with themes from what you like, or work on adapting your art into something a bit new. In the beginning it will suck, but it's not for anyone else anyway. It sounds like you're embarassed by the fan aspect of it, so working towards something original might help that. You might still be depressed, but you'll be productively depressed which always feels better for me! Good luck
posted by JZig at 12:02 PM on June 18, 2015

I came to suggest what three_red_balloons did (and then this got long. Oops!) -- I have this problem, too, as someone with chronic depression, and this is what I do. (That is, when I remember to do it!)

When you notice that you're in this pattern, set a timer for 20 minutes (or 30, if you want to be generous with yourself). When the timer goes off, the only thing you MUST do is get up, move to someplace else, and do something different. That might be going outside, taking a walk, doing a small chore -- for me, it's better if the Something Different is also something that can be construed as "productive," however if you're feeling particularly low the Something Different might be just getting up, moving to a different room, and reading a novel or watching an episode of something cheering/comforting. The important thing is to break the loop of next tab, next tab, reload Tumblr, next tab.

I do not recommend "going cold turkey," especially if this is something that brings you some measure of happiness during a depressive episode. But I do know that feeling of "I love this stuff but also I just lost 8 hours of my life," so I think the real answer is to learn how to moderate it so that it's not just an avoidance tactic that you then feel guilty about.

Fandom & transformative arts can be excellent tools for feeling better. It's okay to take pleasure and comfort from things that are "not real." What is real is the engagement with a community that is making and talking and sharing about something that they all find exciting/good. That's a valuable thing for those of us who struggle with depression, and a valid tool to have in your Dealing With Depression toolbox. (In other words - stop letting your depression-brain beat you up about having nice things. Learn how best to engage with those nice things in moderation.)

One other thing I would suggest is that if you are feeling the "I need to make fanart NOW" feeling, then GO MAKE THE ART. This is a good and productive thing to do that will help you to generate more good feelings -- you are being creative (which can be so hard to do when you're depressed), you can share what you made with your friends/community, which will result in people saying nice things, etc. Stuff like this can stoke the embers and help you turn the Bad Brain Train around.

I think that some of the rest of what you ask about (the managing expectations for romantic relationships, etc.) will come sort of naturally once you've got a good foundation and are feeling a bit better. For now, build the structure that you're looking for by starting small - use the timer tip (I actually use Pomodroido for this), and keep some daily notes on the Good Things you got done or did for yourself (taking a walk, doing the dishes, making a piece of art) so that you can see your own progress.

You can MeMail me if you want to talk more! Good luck!
posted by dryad at 12:05 PM on June 18, 2015 [7 favorites]

I actually did go cold turkey on tumblr and fandom related stuff, two years ago when I was in the pit of my worst depression. I think it helped, in combination with CBT and exercise and all the other stuff. I feel like it opened up a lot of time and space in my day when I just had to be with myself and that felt awful sometimes but it also felt like a skill I needed and that the therapy was helping me to acquire.

I would say, though, that the cold turkey approach is quite limited as a solution. It's easy to find something else to play the role of distraction -- I still had days when I spent all day in bed on YouTube or reading novels -- and you can't go cold turkey on all books, movies, TV shows and cute kitten videos. It's important to learn to manage those days regardless, which I did by setting timers and telling friends to call me at particular times or even just moving to a different room in the house.

With that proviso, though, I still tentatively think that it was a good idea for me to cut off from online fandom, even when I switched to binge-watching Buffy instead. That's because there was something in my brain that reacted to fandom with a kind of compulsive and inexhaustible focus - I could just go on for hours and hours into the night - whereas it was possible for me to reach a natural saturation point with Buffy or British panel shows or kitten videos. YMMV, but if you feel like you experience that compulsiveness in relation to some things and not others, it may be that, like me, you could benefit from going cold turkey on those things and planning limits for the others.
posted by Aravis76 at 1:23 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I came to suggest the timer solution also. You take a 30 minute walk, do 15 minutes of positive stuff (could be anything....chores, yoga, meditation, shower) and then you get 15 minutes of fandom. Repeat ALL day. The timer app on my phone is especially helpful. I can get SO MUCH DONE in a day like this, and it's especially helpful when I have a long list of crap I really don't want to do.
posted by raisingsand at 1:41 PM on June 18, 2015

Don't cut out your source of pleasure: your fandom. Make friends with it. That means not feeling ashamed about it, and not judging yourself for it. It's an area of interest (you draw fan art? That's cool!) so I hope you're easy on yourself and not feeling bad about it - that won't help anything.

Do NOT delete the relevant bookmarks, and don't try to limit yourself to just half an hour each day, that sounds like it's setting the bar way, way too high. This sounds like a bright spot in your life and cutting it down to that small window will make you resentful and unhappy. I would try the "add-in" approach: keep doing what you like doing, but "add-in" more more stuff that pushes your area of interest to the side a bit.

Are you getting comments from your fan art if you upload it to a website or Tumblr? I'm not really clear on that but if part of your staying on the internet so long is because you connect with people through your love of fan art and your own drawings, that's a positive thing in your life. I notice your language is a bit judgy and loaded ("indulging"). Your fan art and Tumblr and what not IS real. It's real to you and fulfills a very real need.

I would say try adding just one more thing in your life, like volunteer work, or a part-time job, or AM and PM walks - you don't have to overload your plate! You'll get overwhelmed and drop them. Just one thing.

Without further details it's hard to give any other advice but don't be too hard on yourself - you're in a very big boat.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:20 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

This answer rorgy wrote on a similar (but not identical) AskMe might be useful for you to read.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:23 PM on June 18, 2015

Baby steps and tiny habits.

Tell yourself that you're going to shut down your computer for just one minute. Just one minute, then it's cool to turn it back on.

Once you've turned it off, it really is okay if you only leave it off for the one minute and then turn it back on. An hour later, maybe tell yourself you're going to turn it off for two minutes and then turn it back on. Again, it's okay if you just turn if off for two minutes and turn it back on.

You may or may not feel compelled to do something else while the computer is turned off. If you're in bed and haven't really moved once you turned off the computer, tell yourself that you're just going to stand up out of bed for five seconds. You can get back in after the five seconds have passed. Later, tell yourself you're just going to stand up for ten seconds. Sometime later after that, even waiting until the next day, try thirty seconds.

If you're already standing up out of the bed, tell yourself to walk five steps out your front door and then you can come back in. The next day, tell yourself you're just going to walk ten steps outside and then come back in. Again, it's okay to do these things and go back inside, get back in bed, turn on the computer again. Just keep trying out those five, ten, thirty second moments here and there. Make it like a video game.

It all sounds ridiculous. But, at some point, you're going to realize that one of these things (one minute with the computer turned off, standing up out of the bed for five seconds, walking five steps outside and then back in) isn't so bad after all and you can go for longer than a few seconds.

Anything other than baby steps (including trying to go "cold turkey") doesn't work well for (most) folks in the throes of depression. It just doesn't. It feels like self-flagellation, or something to actively resist. So don't force yourself into new things with a crowbar just because it seems like the good ol' beat-self-up thing to do. Making changes does not mean renouncing compassion for yourself.

These changes in behavior take time, so give yourself plenty of time to change them.

If you feel up to it at some point, browse the Tiny Habits website (I know, I'm recommending that you get on the internet, but Tiny Habits is a good way to use the internet to push you toward non-internet things). Consider signing up for the program (it's free, just daily emails checking in/providing motivation, only five days). I did it recently and found it not only effective, but also encouraging.
posted by nightrecordings at 3:45 PM on June 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I do this, and so do a lot of other people. It's OK, you don't need a brain reboot!

You do need other ways to blow off steam. Make sure you work out and get your rocks off EVERY day. Seriously, treat that as non-negotiable. Nobody ever got less obsessive from being trapped indoors and horny.

This is what works for me. Every day:
-- Get off
-- Work out
-- Do 1+ chores/errands
-- Contact 1+ friends or relatives (can just be a text or facebook comment if you want. Doesn't have to be fancy).

Even though you don't need the money, get a job. Even (ideally?) a lousy part-time job that pays for shit. It'll give your life more structure. You'll HAVE to go there when you're scheduled and you'll HAVE to be productive while you're there -- even if you've been laying in bed futzing around with fandom stuff since your previous shift ended. That'll help, seriously. If working seems daunting, just remember not to borrow tomorrow's trouble today -- start applying to one place a day and see what happens.

In the meantime, and/or if you can't get a job for some logistical reason (don't have a work visa, etc), then sign up for a volunteer shift somewhere. Ideally something that you'll go to every week or two, but if you can't find that, no problem. You just want something that will give you some measure of structure and accountability/responsibility.

Also, I use fan-related stuff as a reward. So, I can continue obsessing over some theory about my ~fav show~ as long as I do it while I'm out on my run. And I can watch an episode of my ~fav show~ as long as I do it once I've already finished my run and am doing the rest of my workout in front of the TV. Etc. That helps keep me from just futzing around for limitless amounts of time.

Overall, I think it's a GOOD thing that you have a hobby that nourishes your soul! Just make sure that your life/schedule isn't a big unstructured blob, because that's really stressful and overwhelming to deal with. And make sure you have other outlets for lowering stress and blowing off steam. Fan stuff is a great outlet for your mind, but you still live in a physical body and you'll feel better if you have physical outlets for stress and ways to engage with the world physically, too.
posted by rue72 at 4:15 PM on June 18, 2015

I can relate. Here are some things I've done; they've all helped, but had downside of their own.

First, is it possible to monetize your art in some way, by doing commissions or something? I used to write kinky stories and put them online for free, and every second I spent on it felt like pure self-indulgence and a waste of time. But then I started selling my stuff on Amazon, and all those old stories suddenly became inventory. When I'm not writing new stories I'm designing covers or hyping my stuff on social media. Now it's not a waste of time to spend all day in bed writing smut, so I don't have to feel guilty about it. I'm paying my rent with my eBooks now, which is absolutely great!

The downside is that when you make your secret vice into your vocation, you can get burned out on your vice and start to long for some other way to waste time. I'm going through a rough patch, and in the past maybe I would have dived into writing smut as an escape but now making a living with my smut is one of the things that's stressing me out. In the past I didn't have to worry if my smut was good, but now I have to meet a certain standard I've set. If I'm feeling really depressed or panicky, it's hard to make good smut. It's a great, weird, complicated way to make a living.

So maybe it's not realistic to try and make a living selling your stuff, but if you can start selling some of it you'll eliminate a lot of guilt.

As for general motivation, I'm always trying to do this thing where you just don't let yourself dither and laze around in a funk. As soon as you feel an urge to do something, you get right up and do it before the depression pins you to the mattress. I've only had middling success with it, but it's my goal.

Definitely get outside more, or at least get out of the house and go sit around in cafes or something. Too much time alone makes you peculiar. If we don't get regular fresh air, we get kind of mossy and ingrown.

Finally, who says you'll never find a relationship where you can indulge your love of swordfighting, horserides and doomed nobility? Do you have Renaissance fairs in your town? What about signing up for one of those LARP groups or one of those Society for Creative Anachronism-style groups? What about Dungeons and Dragons? There are plenty of nerds out there who would love to find a girl/boy/whatever-friend who is into riding around on horses and playing knights of the Round Table! I'm not sure what period or genre you're specifically thinking of, but if you want to find somebody who considers fencing a form of foreplay, you can totally find 'em!

I'm here to tell you that private fantasies can be great, but few things in life are more fun than making your secret, shameful dreams come true in public. When I went to my first fetish ball I was practically sobbing, because it was so awesome to see hundreds of people wearing their weird fantasies on the outside. (It helped that this was LA, so you had unusually attractive ponyplay fetishists and costumes designed by, like, the guy who did the makeup for Hellboy. It made being a kinky weirdo seem glamorous as hell.) It may be that you don't need to eliminate this obsession of yours. Maybe you need to dress up in it and go play.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:39 PM on June 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since you're already in therapy, you could work with your therapist on a list of things you can do while you take a break from fandom. Small, enjoyable things, because even 'go to a yoga class' can seem overwhelming when you are trying to recover. It might be better to go cold turkey for a couple of days before you try setting limits and using timers. Fandom can enable or reward unhealthy, obsessive behavior, and it's really easy to turn off a timer.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:16 PM on June 18, 2015

Wait . . . you mean you DON'T date people who swordfight? Everyone I've ever dated has at least tried a little bit of fencing. Options include fencing classes, the Society for Creative Anachronism (as mentioned above), other historical re-enactment groups (if you're in Europe, there may be some really neat ones), LARPs (Scandinavian-style LARPs sound really immersive, but just about any LARP should let you hang out in a park in a cloak with other people who think cloaks are cool), Western Martial Arts (if you want to fence the way a sixteenth-century swordsman would've done it), kendo, . . .
posted by yarntheory at 6:36 PM on June 18, 2015

ride a bike, like for a while maybe hours. or join a gym and ride the bike there or treadmill. something repetitive and physical. don't do it for the exercise. do it for grounding your brain in your body. the best thing about repetitive exercise like this is that if you are obsessing about something you can let your mind wander but eventually your limbic system kicks in and starts modulating everything.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 9:40 PM on June 18, 2015

Any shared experience/practical tips for being sensible in the gaps from one second to the next

Yes, those seconds are so important. Quoting myself from elsewhere:
the first step is to trick yourself into getting off the computer. What you want to do is to muster just 2-3 seconds of willpower, and leverage that into a much longer period of time by locking yourself out. I use a technique I call "look over there!" - I get myself to look across the room, and meanwhile slam shut the laptop lid. For me, the boot-up time is enough of a disincentive. A more technical and longer-lasting approach is listed here. You can block certain websites all day -- might be worth it for you. Over the next couple days, if you do want to obsess over [...] maybe you can start to make it more of a discrete activity instead of something you can't quit. Maybe tell yourself you can do it for an hour after you finish your work or something. But then, lock yourself out and go take a walk.
In my experience, the internet exacerbates the depression, as you say, and the depression gets a lot better once I can spend some time off of the internet. I've found crutches helpful, particularly podcasts. Podcasts distract one part of my mind while my body walks around and does chores. It's like a gateway drug to the real world.

I do find that long breaks work better than short ones in resetting my brain to recognize the real world as a source of pleasure, rather than just a boring moment in between moments of internet excitement. Could you take a morning or afternoon to go somewhere beautiful out in nature?
posted by salvia at 12:43 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

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