I was first drawn to makeup and fashion videos on YouTube because they're fun to watch, a soothing break from the endless news media I consume. But somewhere along the line, it stopped simply being about fun. I have more than just a love of beauty in common with some of the bloggers I follow. Like me, many beauty gurus on YouTube have anxiety, including the likes of Zoe Sugg (a.k.a. Zoella), Kathleen Fuentes (or KathleenLights to her followers), and Meghan Rienks, all of whom have well over a million subscribers.
Sugg, who excels at cheerful Primark hauls and makeup favorites videos, started speaking candidly about her experience with panic attacks about three years ago in a video called "Dealing with Panic Attacks and Anxiety." Fuentes is known for talking to her followers about both drugstore foundations and her . And Rienks, whose channel is mostly populated with humorous food, beauty, and lifestyle videos, went viral about nine months ago when she uploaded a visual poem called "What Anxiety Feels Like." I personally have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember, and the online presence of these women gave me an oasis where I felt understood, both for our shared love of hoarding beauty products, and for the anxieties we cope with on a daily basis.
And we are not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects 18 percent of the adult population of the United States, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that women are twice as likely as men are to suffer from anxiety disorders. "Everyone is prone to experiencing feelings of anxiety from time to time, but anxiety disorders mean longer (or even constant) periods of worrisome feelings," Jamison Monroe, Founder and CEO of Newport Academy, an organization that provides adolescents with treatment for mental health issues, tells Bustle over email.
As New York Magazine's The Science of Us reports, anxiety is seriously on the rise. The publication noted that young Americans have been experiencing steadily increasing levels of anxiety and depression since the 1930s and discussed Dr. Jean Twenge's theory about why, detailed in her book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—And More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge suggests that, "[M]odern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life.”
These days "modern life" includes spending a lot of time on Instagram. And Twitter. And YouTube. This is even more true for people who, like myself and the beauty vloggers I admire, make a living producing content online. And some research is suggesting that all that social media can negatively affect mental health: A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Igor Pantic stated that "some researchers have associated online social networking with several psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, and low self-esteem." According to Monroe, "Social media exposes us to a whirlwind of information and content ranging from people’s personal lives, like weddings, job promotions, and health issues, to dangerous things going on in the world. This can instill anxiety, fear, and low feelings of self-esteem ... Millennials often face pressures to be ‘constantly available,’ which is mentally unhealthy."
However, Sugg, Fuentes, and Rienks are part of a whole community of anxious women who have created thriving careers for themselves out of the very thing many scientists claim might be hurting their mental health — social media. Anecdotally, open discussion of anxiety appears to be especially prevalent with beauty gurus, those people with the perfectly carved "Instagram eyebrows" who film product reviews and tutorials for their subscribers to enjoy. It's a largely female-dominated space, though there are men and gender-nonconforming individuals who are are well-known beauty vloggers as well.
Not all beauty YouTubers have anxiety, of course, and perhaps some choose not to share that part of life with their fans. But if you give a cursory glance to some of the more popular fashion and beauty channels, like the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, you might see videos like "Dealing with Panic Attacks & Anxiety" and "Living With Social Anxiety" right alongside the upbeat "get ready with me" vlogs and fashion lookbooks. And while it may appear to be counterintuitive that people with anxiety flock to those very mediums said to induce it, some of these vloggers use their social media presences as useful tools to cope.
It might also seem strange that someone like Zoe Sugg, who has discussed her debilitating panic attacks in several videos, would be willing to share her life with over 11 million subscribers. Anxiety can make it very difficult to interact with other people and, in her aforementioned video "Dealing With Panic Attacks and Anxiety," Sugg talks about how her self-described panic disorder got so bad she was afraid to leave the house, just in case she had a panic attack.
Those who suffer from anxiety disorders aren't always able to just walk into a business meeting or a party in the way that a non-anxious person might. So if that's your reality, making friends or building a career on the internet might sound incredibly appealing. "Social media versus in-person interaction allows you to remove yourself yet stay connected, which adds an element of distance psychologically speaking, also putting distance between yourself and the anxiety caused by that situation," psychologist Michele Barton tells Bustle. For someone who struggles with generalized anxiety disorder (this author included), which can make ordinary social interactions seem fraught with fear, networking can seem much easier online, when you can think about what you want to say before writing it out.
Although these days YouTube videos have increasingly higher production value, you can still film them without ever leaving your house, as long as you have the right equipment. Filming videos also has the added benefit of giving someone with anxiety a chance to practice putting themselves out there without having to approach other people face-to-face. "I've always been a shy, introverted and quiet type of person, and I decided that making videos would help me improve both my confidence / public speaking, and also improve on my makeup skills," lifestyle, travel, and beauty vlogger Danielle Mansutti tells Bustle over email.
While Mansutti, who is open with her over 1.2 million followers about her struggle with social anxiety, doesn't think that the act of making videos in and of itself helps her feel less anxious, she does believe her chosen profession has decreased her anxiety about appearing on camera. "I put a lot of pressure on myself whilst I film to make sure I look really happy ... I still get nervous when I film, and you can see when I put products up to the camera I still shake a little bit," she says. "That little shy part of me is still present! However, my public speaking has improved so much through filming. I feel like eventually I will overcome those little shakes on camera."
Annie Bardonski, who runs the channel OhMyAnnie and has over 139,000 followers, also suffers from social anxiety. She tells Bustle that making videos "helps relieve anxiety because I am more organized and focused than I was before. Making YouTube videos is something I enjoy, and when I help people through my videos and get a good response from them, it's really motivating and keeps me going."
YouTube, as well as other platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, can be a useful tool for someone with anxiety looking to meet new people or further their career, if it's handled properly. "Social media can have some benefits and opportunities for connectivity. For example, social media platforms allow people with anxiety to express their feelings and connect with others who suffer from similar issues," says Monroe, though he adds that, "social media needs to be tempered with attentiveness, mindfulness practices, and a critical eye."
Though they both began experiencing symptoms of anxiety before joining YouTube, Bardonski and Mansutti admit that putting themselves out there on the internet can also exacerbate their symptoms. "My anxiety flared up a lot more after I became a YouTuber as I never expected my subscriber count to rise so fast, and ultimately found myself on a platform to be critiqued and judged when I've always struggled to be the centre [sic] of attention," Mansutti explains. "I felt an enormous pressure to think, act, and look a certain way, and it ultimately dragged up a lot of anxious feelings."
"The only thing about social media that makes me anxious is how much it has changed and how big it's become. What started off as a fun hobby in a small community turned into a much more stressful situation," says Bardonski.
Helping others is another reason why a career on YouTube might appeal to someone with anxiety. Although the bright and cheerful makeup reviews and tutorials might draw in subscribers initially, the confessional and intimate videos some of these women make about mental health can feel the most powerful. Seeing someone who often portrays themselves has having the "perfect" life open up about the same issues I struggle with makes a real difference to me, and the effects are even stronger for some of the young subscribers to Mansutti, Bardonski, Sugg, Rienks, and others' channels.
"I'm 15 years old and I'm going through the process of getting diagnosed with social anxiety. This was so helpful and heart warming," one commenter on Mansutti's "Living with Social Anxiety" video wrote. "Dani I can't thank you enough for changing my views/actions on my social anxiety within 12 minutes and 45 seconds. Anxiety is something I 'suffer' with everyday [sic] of my life, and social anxiety is WORSE.. you worry about the opinions of others... Anyways, The chances of you reading this is rare but please know the POSITIVE and EMPOWERING impact you have on the lives of the people like me," said another. Meghan Rienks' "What Having Anxiety Feels Like" visual poem video has over 2.3 million views and 14,203 comments, many of which are fans expressing their own feelings of anxiety.
Making these more intimate videos allows YouTubers to connect with subscribers who share similar experiences with anxiety. "I have a strong passion for speaking out about mental health and breaking the stigma surrounding it. I want to use my platform for a meaningful purpose," says Mansutti. And that support goes both ways. According to Bardonski, "The majority of comments that I've received on my recent video about social anxiety say things like, 'OMG, that's exactly how I feel.' It's nice to know you're not alone and the people watching you can relate. I feel like it brings them closer to me. Things that I have a hard time saying to friends, I can say to people through my YouTube videos and it's really comforting being able to open up about insecurities and struggles to people who understand."
Social media may not be the key to solving mental health issues, but in moderation it can be a great tool for people with anxiety to make connections and expand professionally — as long as they remember to log off occasionally.
Image: Hannah Burton/Bustle