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What a Disaster! – Does Facebook Foster Catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is an interesting term, but we have all experienced it. When someone comes home from a long vacation, they’ll likely share with you a familiar tale.

“We sat on the runway for, like, half an hour! Then they just gave of a tiny bottle of water to drink and the movie was Bio-Dome with Pauli Shore.”

It’s that tendency we have to over-exaggerate our problems in an attempt to elicit a response from those near us. Sometimes the problems in our daily lives really are as stressful as we perceive them, but most of the time, all of our stressors combine in a multiplicative manner making them seem even larger than they would normally be on their own. Certainly having to do my laundry should not cause me grief. However, if I have to do my laundry, get a haircut, go get groceries, drop off the mail, wash the car, clean the house, pay the bills, fix the faucet, order a new hard drive, vacuum, take out the garbage, do the recycling, and walk the dog… it could lead to an excessively stressful day.

Why would Facebook matter? I’m sure you may be thinking of it already. Some people can treat Facebook like a stage, and their friends are their audience.

Before we talk about what potential damage Facebook may cause us, let’s look at some interesting research on chronic pain. It should become obvious how the two are so similar!

McClelland and McCubbin (2008) were curious about the differing incidence rate of chronic pain that was apparent between males and females (females are diagnosed with it more often than males). Could it be a difference of genetics, or was it related to social behavior? If you’re like me you’d say it’s the result of emergent epigenisis, but we’ll ignore that for now since I don’t want to talk about torturing ducks again!

Individuals were brought into a testing room on a college campus. Half of participants were asked to bring a same-sex friend with them, while the other half was instructed to come alone. The participant (and their friend if present) would walk into a plain study room which was split in half by a divider. If the friend came with them, the friend was instructed to sit on the other side of the divider. The friend was not allowed to communicate with the participant until the end of the procedure, and the participant was instructed not to communicate with their friends as well.

The participants were asked to sit down and place their dominant hand in ice water for two minutes, or as long as they could handle it. I know this sounds simple, but after a few moments it gets extremely uncomfortable. After a few minutes it becomes very painful. Not to worry, no one left their hand in long enough to cause anything more than discomfort! So what was the key variable of interest here? The amount of pain they reported immediately after the two minute period ended (or if they had to remove it sooner than that). The pain scale used was McGill Pain Questionnaire. This scale, ” included present pain, visual analogue scale pain, and the affective and sensory subscales,” as stated by McClelland and McCubbin (2008). Let’s not get too bogged down in the methods, though. The higher they reported on this scale, the worse they perceived the pain!

McClelland and McCubbin (2008) found that male group with a friend acted about the same as the male group without their friend (no statistically significant difference). An interesting finding was that females tended to report higher levels of pain when their friends were present. Let’s keep in mind, these participants did not talk with each other or even acknowledge each other during this task. The participant simply knew their friend was in the same room as them. This perceived social support appeared to lower their threshold during this procedure.

  • The graph above shows each groups average reported level of pain. As you can see, the female groups have extremely different scores. The results show that a female with their female friend  will report the highest level of experienced pain even though everyone was taking the same task! 

Well that could go some way explaining why chronic pain is more prevalent, and Taylor (2008) describes that social support is often at fault with chronic pain patients. As we gain social support, we are reinforced for expressing our pain, and we lower our threshold. The enormous issue is that it could be permanent. It’s definitely a vicious cycle, and, as you will see, this affect is almost certain to be at work online.

A patient suffering from chronic pain is in an especially tricky situation. They are experiencing pain but it has no physical manifestation. It’s hard to diagnose, and it’s tough to treat due to the potential for a manipulative patient attempting to obtain medications to abuse. Just imagine it – you are a doctor and someone is talking about all this pain they are experiencing but you just cannot find anything wrong with them. Their blood work is good, their X-rays look fine, their MRI and PET scans seem normal, so what can you do? Is it all an act? Do you just give anyone who wants drugs whatever they want? It’s hard for both parties, as you may guess.

The chronic pain patient complains about their experience and they typically get support from peers and family. We all want to help our loved ones, so why wouldn’t we lend a hand, right? Let’s look at a hypothetical situation.

Mary and her sister Sarah are talking one evening.

“Ouch! I can’t bend down because I’m in so much pain all the time. Cleaning my house will be intolerable. This is very annoying,” says Mary.

“Oh, Mary, let me come over and help you clean up your house. I know how hard that is to do alone,” says Sarah.

Was Sarah simply being supportive or was it something else? Mary is not trying to manipulate other people in this case, she is simply venting about her pain. Sarah, on the other hand is reinforcing the expression of that feeling by committing her assistance to Mary. That’s the mechanism at work. The chronic pain patient expresses their feelings and people reinforce it with support. Thus, they are more likely to express these feeling as they occur. This lowers the threshold for this expression, and over time it actually decreases pain tolerance (Taylor 2008).

So we often wonder what the correct supportive response is, and I will tell you it’s not easy. Our normal reaction is to take care of our loved one’s problems for them so they are not under pressure. However, with chronic pain, you have to be extremely careful so you do not accidentally begin to moderate their pain threshold. What should Sarah say next time?

“Ouch! I can’t bend down because I’m in so much pain all the time. Cleaning my house will be intolerable. This is very annoying,” says Mary.

“I’m sorry to hear that Mary. Did your doctor show you any good stretches for when you will have to bend? Perhaps I could come by later and learn some from you,” says Sarah.

Sarah’s intention here is to keep Mary’s mind off the pain, and still be available to assist Mary when she comes by later that evening. When dealing with chronic pain you really should avoid co-rumination at all costs. If you have helpful advice, you can try to mention it like Mary did. The more attention you give them for talking about the pain, the harder it will be for them to cope with it. I know it starts to sound a bit heartless, but I would hate to be responsible for lowering someone’s pain threshold when they are already suffering from chronic pain.

How is chronic pain similar to Facebook? I’ll spare you all my jokes about getting Farmville invites and Facebook’s Timeline for now!!

When people post information on Facebook (be it a minor thought, a picture, or a rant) friends are able to give feedback. This feedback comes in two major forms – the THUMBS-UP (!!!!) and the comment. Let’s imagine I make a few Facebook comments which are listed below…

1.      Check out this picture of my friend’s doggy!

2.      It was rainy today. Just imagine the last few years where we had droughts all summer.

3.      Today was a hard day at work. I’m very stressed.

I make these comments and I check back on Facebook a few days later. After quickly looking over my notifications I see that my doggy picture received 7 thumbs-up! Wow! My comment on the weather received a comment from my brother saying, “yeah. It sure was hot last year…” My final comment only gets one comment, “you should feel fortunate to even have a job.” Well that’s not very supportive! A few weeks later I start posting more comments.

  • Printer broke, computer is on the fritz, the deadlines are piling up and there is no end in sight. Who’s up for a drink!?!?!

This note receives more comments as I’m being a bit more dramatic and admittedly cheeky. The point is, the comment system and approval of our friends (through thumbs-up) acts as a social reinforcer.

We will avoid making comments like, “I’m feeling so tired today. I should get more sleep,” because they do not elicit a comment from others, nor a “like.”

We will be reinforced for saying comments like, “After working overtime three days in a row, I’m thinking I need a break. What’s a good ‘get out of work excuse.’ 24 hour kidney failure, fake your own death, or something plain like, a really bad headache.”

The second version makes it easier to “thumbs-up” because it’s a form of approval. It’s hard to show approval of someone going through something hard.

Certain statements of ours are being reinforced while others do not become reinforced. Interestingly, you can probably tell how long someone has been into social media based on how the phrase their comments, status updates, or tweets. Those who make “approvable” statements are likely to be the veterans to social media. Every now and then, however, we see someone who seems to always have either the ‘BEST TIME EVER OMG!!!” or “OMG I JUST WANT TO DIE.” Either way, they will be using all-caps when they type anything.

The question is this – does Facebook have the ability to change the way someone sees their own life offline. For someone who is overly dramatic, they now have 24/7 access to an audience to vent towards. When something happens in their life, they have been continually reinforced with sharing those events that are extreme. Thus Facebook (via your friends) could serve to lower your tolerance, or threshold, of overreaction. Thus, if someone is always talking about how stressed their work life is, or how much they don’t get along with certain people, they are actually worse off when you engage with them. That is, if Taylor (2008) comments can be generalized to all of us, not just the folks with chronic pain.

When you see a post that is dying for attention, avoid giving support for things that do not warrant it. If you are really concerned for someone, feel free to give them a call to see how they are doing. Avoid co-rumination at all costs, because you will just make it worse!

In conclusion, let’s end today’s post with a nugget of wisdom adapted from the world of “folk psychology.” A wise man once said that a king is nothing without his people. This holds true today! A drama Queen, or drama King (I thank you), is nothing without their adoring public!


Taylor, S. E. (2008). Health psychology. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.

McClelland, L., & McCubbin, J. (2008). Social influence and pain response in women and men. Journal of Behavioral Medicine31, 413-420.