Influencers Open up About PTSD-like Symptoms — Legendary Psychologist, Philip Zimbardo Tells Us How To Overcome it

Social media affects the lives of millions of people — it can build us up or tear us down. There’s plenty to read about its constructive side: new faces making it in the world of social media from one day to the next, stories of instant success. But a lot less is said about the other side, even though there are rather serious problems underlining online wars and creeping behind the closed doors of content creators “forced” into high performance and day-to-day creativity. Somehow everyone expects those working in social media to deal with each online attack as if it was natural. “You’ve chosen this. This is what living this kind of life means,” they often say.

But what if you haven’t chosen this yourself? What if you’ve just been creating content for years as a hobby, but one day, everything you post online starts spreading like a virus for the next three years, making hundreds of thousands of people happy, and at the same time, irritating even more?

Well, this had been my life for 3 years. In 2016, Forbes Hungary elected me as the country’s most influential blogger. By then, I had achieved everything I possibly could: 3 years, 7 best-sellers, more than 100 000 books sold, sold out talks. Yet, I wasn’t happy. In the second half of the journey, I began to feel that this wasn’t my path, but I didn’t have the courage to take a leap. I kept on saying yes to expectations — up until life forced me to make a change.

Last June, while I was at Philip Zimbardo’s book launch, the psychologist famous for his Stanford prison experiment, I received a message. It was from an Internet troll. A fictional fan page had sent 1 million of their followers after me as a part of a smear campaign. They tried to hack every one of my profiles around 50 times a day for a whole week. In case you’re wondering, I’d advise you never to read through the comments of 500 trolls, because they have the power to annihilate your entire capability to feel. Moreover, you’ll think that everyone you meet wants to hurt you. You can also say goodbye to creativity for a while, because as long as you’re terrified of what’s going to happen next, your creativity will simply not function.

For the longest time, I was convinced I was alone with my troubles, and that something must’ve been wrong with me. I thought I would stay like this forever, but luckily, that’s not what happened. During this time, the topics of depression, PTSD-like symptoms, burnout, complete isolation emerged in more and more interviews conducted with international digital creators. I remember them repeating the sentences “I can finally talk to someone about this,” and “Someone finally sees the 360 degree picture,” at every interview.

Eventually, I decided to make a move and dig deeper into this topic. To complete the story, who else could I have asked about PTSD than Zimbardo, the expert of this field? He received me in his home in San Francisco. At the end of this article, various influencers open up about their own stories honestly.

Apart from a little organization, I didn’t change anything about Philip Zimbardo’s answers this time. With no particular aim to be exhaustive, I’m going to share his most important thoughts, followed by a few famous influencers opening up about the topic.

Philip Zimbardo: “Usually, the people I work with in Maui — where we have our clinic — are mostly military war veterans, and also women who have been raped, people who survived car accidents. It’s really about guilt: you survived, other people died. Why?

What you have to realize is that it’s all about time perspective. You are stuck in a negative past and you keep replaying the old record, over and over again.

“People don’t like me…”

“What was wrong…?”

“Why did I do that?”

It’s all about regret.

Especially with social media, we are replaying all the negative things. Actually, we say we have to clean up the past, and then say, “I am going to live in the present”. I am going to say, “I am a good person, I am going to focus on who those people are who love me, who respect what I do, and screw the others.””

Philip Zimbardo: “It’s about learning how not to make it about your failure. Again, the world is filled with different points of view. In some cases, you say, “Is there anything reasonable that I can change?” Because sometimes, you learn from criticism. Clearly, you want to focus on what you have to do now to make it positive.“

Philip Zimbardo: “You can’t allow to be stuck in a negative past. There are a lot of critics out there. A lot of them are jealous of your success. Just like in school, sometimes, if boys like you, other girls who are jealous will say, “Oh, boys like her because she is easy.”

It’s really about rising above: I have to believe in myself, I am a good person, what I am doing is worthwhile, and there’s always going to be critics. I respond to them once, like, “You are wrong, and here’s why,” and I have to move on.“

Philip Zimbardo: “I still get e-mails about the prison experiment. “You are so evil. You let those kids suffer. You should be in prison. You should lose your job.” And I am, like, “did you read my book?” I apologize. I explain. Maybe they’ve seen a video or something. I say, “I am sorry that you feel that way, but I think you are wrong. Please, read my book,” and sometimes I even send them a chapter. They never respond again. They just want to see themselves in light.“

Philip Zimbardo: “Instead of saying “I was a victim,” say, “What did I do to make it happen?” You are partially the creator of the problem. You can undo it.

To put it in a capsule: that was what happened then.

Why are people saying those negative things about me?

Are they jealous?

Many people are.

Did I say something in the wrong way?

In which case I am going to phrase it better.

Is there anything I should apologize for?

I apologize, and it won’t happen again.

You have to lift yourself out of the negative past.“

Philip Zimbardo: “When many people anonymously attack you, maybe there are 10 of them, maybe 1000. In your mind, you make it worse.”

Philip Zimbardo and Rosemary and Richard Sword made a 20 pages therapist guide that anyone can use to overcome PTSD.

“Social media began affecting my mental health around high school. I had always experienced mental health issues, but didn’t come to terms with them until I was older. Growing up, I was isolated because of my selective mutism. I would rarely speak to anyone besides 2 people and went to special education preschool. Throughout elementary school, I was termed with ‘the awkward girl with the aid following her around’. Then in high school, I started to struggle with mental health issues because of my social isolation. I didn’t even know that the feelings I had felt my whole life were associated with the term, “social anxiety.” When social media became more prevalent it was naturally easier for me to open up online. I always struggled with the idea of comparison and self-worth, and when social media became so prevalent I found myself comparing myself not only to my peers, but also to people online. I’ve always been insecure, but this was a whole new insecurity where I felt less than everyone else because of numbers on a screen.”

“When people aren’t forced to have personal interactions with each other to bond with other people or even to overcome confrontations, they unfortunately sometimes feel much more empowered to say and write things they’d never say to someone’s face. Because I’ve lived on both sides of this digital age, I understand that not everything we experience online is real. Do I still feel the effects of the negativity? Most definitely. On the whole, our Clevver audience is beyond kind, but when I’m looking at a sea of lovely comments and notice one hateful comment, I will be the first to admit that the mean comments are what stick with me longer than I’d like.”

“I had one incident that forced me to change my profile to private for a while and not want to log in to any of my social accounts. I am originally from Azerbaijan, where people are conservative, mostly Muslim, so once one big news website published an article about me. The article wasn’t bad per se, but instead of focusing on my professional achievements and my acclaimed research on museums in digital space, that journalist decided to praise me as a model (which I have never worked as) living in London, and accompanied his article with handpicked photos from my Instagram. They were all of me in a bikini or tight dresses. That article gained over 2000 comments in a 1–2 days and almost all of them were disgusting. There were a lot of slut shaming, comments with terrible grammatical mistakes with condemns of my inevitable burning in hell. My pride was wounded for sure, but the worst part was the way it all affected my mother. She called me crying, and I honestly thought I should just stop ever posting anything publicly, and just be as invisible as possible. It did affect me for a few weeks then, and even now when I get an occasional mean comment (and some of them are particularly nasty and elaborate), I get intense anxiety that lasts for at least an hour and paralyses me with the thought of someone hating me so much.”

“Recently, I received multiple comments and direct messages when I posted a comment congratulating Gucci on their decision to go fur free. I was immediately attacked on my choice of clothing and shoes, which were not vegan. Many of those people had read in my bio that I am vegan, and then started attacking my choice of styling. I agreed with their comments, and I was not defensive — we all (including myself) can improve our habits! No animal should suffer for our fashion choices, and many more brands should become cruelty free and conscious of the environment. However, these comments also made me think — would they tell their best friend that their shoes are “offensive” because they are made of leather? Would they say something to a perfect stranger on the street? What makes us feel OK to “hide” behind the screen and attack those we feel “influential.” I love receiving feedback, and I am looking to change so many things regarding my habits (including me going completely vegan with my styling choices), but attacks really do hurt. They are not of the “here is some constructive criticism” kind — they are sometimes just blatantly hostile and cruel.”

Editor: Xylia Buros


Originally published at on November 7, 2017.

Like what you read? Give Nora Oravecz a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.