Why We’re Seeking Emotional Support from Strangers Online

Why We’re Seeking Emotional Support from Strangers Online (Photo: PeopleImages via Getty Images)

After a year of being cooped up in our homes in the midst of a global crisis, the way we seek support has drastically changed. Sharing your problems with a group of friends in a café or a bar has been replaced by weekly Zoom or FaceTime check-ins. But with rising socioeconomic tensions and diminishing resources, friendly catch-ups are no longer enough. To cope with the multitude of stressors, people are turning to social media for support. This is true not just in the United States, but internationally too.

But why is this?

At first, it may seem odd to see people broadcasting their deepest fears and problems to thousands of strangers online, said Bonnie Williamson, a clinical hypnotherapist working at Chestnut Hypnotherapy Canterbury in Kent, England. But the moment you connect with others going through a similar situation, it all makes sense.

Shana Gujral, a UK-based entrepreneur, agrees. “There’s only so much you can tell your friends,” she said. After quitting her full-time job, she was confused about what her next steps should be. That’s when she connected with a business owner on Instagram, who offered support and guidance.

These kinds of connections are the reason Gujral prefers sharing her struggles with online communities. “Your family and friends can’t always help you with everything,” Gujral said. “Instead, you need like-minded communities who have been through the same problems and can advise from a place of experience.”

Take Katrina Mirpuri, a 26-year-old journalist, for instance. She was overwhelmed by the news regarding the death of Sarah Everard, a white marketing executive in South London. Around the same time, Mirpuri found a resurfaced story on social media about Blessing Olusegun, a young Black woman who was killed last year in Sussex. She was shocked to know how little attention was paid to that story in comparison. 

“When I voiced my concerns on social media, I realized I wasn’t alone. Hundreds of strangers from all over the world offered their support,” Mirpuri said. 

This wasn’t the first time she had experienced the power of seeking support online either. “When I posted an article about my friend’s death in November 2020, the number of strangers offering support was higher than the people I actually knew.”

You might think talking about your personal problems with your loved ones seems like an obvious step, but it is awkward and challenging for many. Not all families share the same values. Opening up about identity or religion at home can spark long-term conflicts. Not to mention, many young adults have moved back in with their families who they physically can’t get away from.

Williamson, the hypnotherapist, said, “It’s safer to chat in a large group because our problems will be forgotten after a while amidst hundreds of incoming messages. You are probably not going to meet these people so there are very few consequences to what you say.”

When Iris Goldsztajn, 26, was rejected from a professional opportunity she wanted, it hit her hard. “It was like a momentary full-body shock in the middle of a workday,” she said. “I didn’t want it interfering with the other things I was doing and I didn’t know what to do so I turned to Twitter.” 

The kind words and emotional support Goldsztajn received after sharing her feelings helped alleviate her disappointment. “We often talk about our successes on social media and it’s helpful for people to also read about the struggles people face so they can have a clearer picture of what ‘success’ really looks like as a process,” Goldsztajn added. 

The need for a supportive community is more necessary than ever as COVID-19 continues to take lives and disrupt whatever normalcy came before these times. “The pandemic represents a collective trauma for all of us,” said Dr. Rhonda Mattox, an Arkansas-based psychiatrist. “The universality of this experience has made it ‘acceptable’ to be struggling and reaching out for help.

Members of the LGTBQ+ community who haven’t come out to their families find comfort in sharing their truth on safe public forums. Platforms like Clubhouse that don’t allow users to record conversations seem perfect for sharing deeply personal thoughts that you wouldn’t want anyone else to hear. 

This fleeting intimacy of audio is as close as you can get to a private face-to-face interaction. This, combined with the sense of anonymity the platform offers, helps us shed our inhibitions and actually open up in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the kind of high-stake relationships we have with our families where one hurtful comment can permanently scar the relationship. 

When we’re all in the same boat, it feels natural to hold on to each other for support and assurance. Support groups have cropped up around common problems like managing studies with full-time jobs, paying bills after being laid off, caring for children and elders after a death in the family, and more. They are full of people you have never met but immediately become a great resource because they are safe spaces of like-minded individuals willing to help. 

Everybody is struggling and we all need help. Maybe that is why people are more likely to offer support to a complete stranger now. 

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