Unplug to Help Manage Anxiety and Stress

Young businesswoman typing messages.

By Tracey Dowdy

I recently saw an article with a title something like “Five Minute Method to Reduce Stress” and my first thought was “Five minutes? That’s a long time.” My next thought was “Are you kidding? Since when did five minutes become a long time?”

Don’t get me wrong, depending on the circumstances five minutes can feel like eternity – have you been to the DMV lately? – while in other situations time flies by.

Living in a digital age we’ve become accustomed to instant gratification. In just a minute or two we can have coffee from our Keurig, heat up lunch in a microwave, and track shipping on our next-day Amazon Prime order. Because so many of our needs are met immediately, some of us have lost the ability to wait and, when we are made to wait, we consciously or unconsciously feel the need to fill that void with technology.

A study led by Professor Ofir Turel of California State University found that Internet addiction impacts the same areas of our brain as cocaine and other drugs. Researchers measured volunteers’ responses to Facebook statuses and found that the amygdala, the part of our brain that helps establish the significance of events and emotions, and the striatum, which processes and anticipates rewards, were both affected.

The good news is the addiction is easier to break than drug addiction but our biggest barrier is low motivation. When everyone else is doing it why stop? Our mindset is, “If everyone else is doing it, what’s the big deal?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. Countless studies on the impact of the overuse of technology show addiction increases levels of anxiety and stress. Disconnecting for even a short time has been shown to reduce those stress levels and help individuals re-focus as well as become more productive and creative. Small changes can make a big impact and significantly improve your overall quality of life.

Small changes like these can help you get back on track:

  • Ease into it. Don’t cut yourself off cold-turkey – that’s setting yourself up for failure. Instead, set time limits or boundaries like “I’ll leave my phone in my bag during dinner” or “I won’t check out Facebook until I finish this project.” Professor Turel’s study found that although tech addiction mirrored substance addiction, it’s a much easier habit to break because the the impulsive systems in the brain aren’t interrupted or impaired as they are with drugs.
  • Follow a single-screen rule. In other words, if you’re watching TV, watch TV; don’t get lost online for an hour and suddenly realize you’ve no idea what just happened on your show.
  • Leave your devices in another room. How far are you from your cell phone right now? Be honest. It’s probably within arm’s reach if not closer. Instead, especially at night, leave your phone in another room. Leave the ringer on if you’re worried about missing an emergency call, but leaving your devices outside your bedroom means you’ll start to fall asleep faster and the quality of your sleep will improve as well.
  • Leave your phone off the table. Whether you’re at home having dinner with family or sitting in a restaurant with friends, be with who you’re with. Engage in conversation, make eye contact and revel in the miracle of real, live, non-Photoshopped facial expressions.
  • Turn on Silent mode and turn off Notifications. Do you really need to know every time someone Instagrams their lunch or Tweets about Trump? We’ve become the human embodiment of Pavlov’s dog – every time our phone chirps we pick it up and see what’s happening. Not having that audio cue will dramatically reduce the temptation to check your screen.

Remember, a strength out of balance is a weakness. The ability to connect instantly is a wonderful thing – but not if it’s at the expense of your overall well-being.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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