heart icons surround phone screen of someone who is nervous about sharing photos on instagram
Mental Health

Instagram anxiety: why we feel so nervous about posting on social media

Do you ever feel an overwhelming sense of nervousness when you go to post on Instagram? Writer Alyss Bowen explores why the app makes us feel this way and how to cope. 

My phone flashed and a message appeared. “Can you help me with something?” read a WhatsApp from my friend. My phone bleeped again. “I need help posting to Instagram, I’m too scared!!” My friend was paralysed with fear about posting to their grid.

I remember the first picture I ever posted to my Instagram feed. I was around 20 years old when the app first came out, but I was too busy enjoying drunken nights out at university in Manchester to have used it.

The day my parents came to collect me and all my stuff from uni to make the long five-hour drive back home, I felt sad. Something magical, messy and fun had ended and I wanted to document it. So, I took a photo of my parents’ Volvo filled with boxes and posted it to Instagram. I didn’t think about it. I just posted.

The image was grainy, my caption was something like “bye Manchester, you’ve been brill” and that was that. I think it got one like, but I didn’t care. That was 2012 and now it’s almost 2022, where we live our lives online, tied to every like, share, algorithm change and update.

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Today, Instagram has over 2 billion daily users worldwide. According to a report published in the journal Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, excessive Instagram use can cause women between the ages of 18 and 35 to experience depressive symptoms, self-esteem issues, general and physical appearance anxiety and body dissatisfaction while using Instagram.

These raw feelings are things I know my friends and I suffer from when we head to Instagram. Our brains have been hijacked by a constant stream of perfectly curated images so that when we come to post ourselves, we freeze. But what is it we actually feel in that exact moment we go to post and why?

Naomi, a writer from London, tells me there’s something about baring her soul to the internet that fills her with “pure, unadulterated existential dread”. For her, posting to Instagram is something she shies away from because it causes such debilitating anxiety.   

“In my selfies, I’m wonky and decidedly uncool,” she tells Stylist. “In my ramshackle attempts to promote myself, I feel embarrassing. Instagram flares up the clunky fluster of neuroses I have in my mind that I burrow away in the deep and dark depths of myself, the ones I refuse to admit into my life.”

Kayleigh, founder of In Progress Collective, feels stunted by the app and has grown anxious about using it. “The way my thumb just goes there on my screen or automatically reopens the app after I close it – I feel like I’m no longer using it with any intention. It’s just a mindless scroll,” she says. “When I go to post on my own page, I no longer know what I’m doing or who I’m doing it for. I get bursts of creativity and then when I start posting I think what’s the point and never post because it fills me with anxiety.”

For Kayleigh, it feels as if we’ve “moved away from grainy ‘in the moment’ posts to creating content”. She adds: “We have to have something big to share and say or a photo we look hot in to fit our personal brand while we chase the algorithm dragon. It’s a lot of yourself to hand over to something that doesn’t always feel nourishing.”

“We’ve moved away from grainy ‘in the moment’ posts to creating content”

Like Naomi and Kayleigh, I too stop and pause to think about all the variables that could go wrong whenever I start posting. Is this the right time to post? How will I come across if I post this? Will people think I’m lame? Is my caption too try-hard? I like to think I’m a confident person who doesn’t spend my daily life paralysed with fear about whether people like me, so why, when it comes to posting on Instagram, does my heart rate go up? How can we stop and enjoy the app as a place to share photos of our lives and not become consumed with negative feelings?

According to therapist and consultant Kemi Omijeh, Instagram taps into our human urge to be liked. “We are social beings that seek connection with one another, and social media has provided us with that instant gratification of connection in the form of a like or a follow,” she says. “Our egos get a little psychological boost with each like and we repeat the process again to get that boost. This is why social media can be addictive.”

However good you feel after posting a selfie that gets hundreds of likes, it becomes a cycle of post and pause as you wait nervously for the likes to roll in to see if your latest post will perform as well as your last. When it doesn’t, this creates feelings of anxiousness, reinforcing feelings of not being enough or liked.

“Today’s culture places a lot of value on being liked and this can make people feel anxious about posting as there is uncertainty about what will get a big hit of likes,” explains Omijeh. “Every post is essentially saying, ‘I have something to say or share and I want you to like it.’ So we must separate the digital world from the real world.”

It’s easy to forget we are in control of what we post and do not post. Elysee Desai, a coach and hypnotherapist, believes the best way to approach your Instagram anxiety is to understand what the “fear” actually means for you.

“Two common fears are not being good enough and not being liked,” Desai says. “To overcome this, try journalling to understand where this belief stems from and understand how it’s stopping you from posting.”

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Desai also recommends noticing if a recurring negative thought pops up as you’re about to share something. If it does, she recommends trying to reframe it as something neutral so it no longer has a negative impact. “By repeating this over and over, your subconscious mind will start to accept it as the truth and posting will become less of a stress.”

Attaching so much meaning to what we post on Instagram is a sure way to heighten our anxiety, so it’s important to remember that what we see online is only a tiny piece of the story of our lives. We are not our feeds, and the more we remember that the better. Take digital breaks, step outside your online world and remind yourself that your social media is just a snapshot – it doesn’t define you.  

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Images: Getty