Actualizator, the most recent DoR project, is a newsletter split into seasons of several weeks each, while we will be supporting each other to learn new things, to improve the way we are living, communicating and making decisions.
This is the second episode of Digital Control, a season about how we can improve the dependency relationship we have with our mobile phones and its promises. Our host is Cristina Chipurici, content creator seeking for ways of doing things better.
Today we are talking about how technology is feeding our stress and anxiety.
It’s 7 AM. I just woke up. I am staring at the ceiling, and for a split second I am trying to resist the temptation of grabbing my phone, which was right next to the bed. Why did I even bring it with me? I am giving in. Proximity is stronger than will power. I am unlocking it, thinking of having a look at the sleep monitoring app. Only that once the screen is on, I am losing myself in an emotional roller coaster.
I am opening WhatsApp and within a few seconds I am updated with all of my friends’ and also the world’s emotional crises. I am mind-shouting at my phone about the fact that the latest bullshit of Trump is the last thing I want to find out about in the morning.
From WhatsApp I am jumping straight to Gmail. Just a little bit, what if something urgent happened over night? I am having a look through the new e-mails: problems with the clients, newsletter replies and all sort of semi-urgent tasks. Few minutes ago my mind was calm, free of any thoughts, and now it’s like a piece of clothing in the washing machine.
After all these I am concluding that, in fact, I didn’t miss anything important. Why did I grab my phone? Oh, to check the sleep monitoring app…
Every morning I am starting my day this way I feel the feeling my pulse will go crazy. Actually, I don’t just feel it, I can see it, because I have an app for this as well. And afterwards I can compare it with my heart rate in the days when I am not ambushed by all the apps. In these days I am calm. I am in control. The Selfish-Cristina is minding her own agenda before filling her head with others’ agenda. And those are the good days, the days when I could move mountains and I am achieving the majority of things I’d planned.
REAL STRESS OR FALSE ALARMS?
Nowadays we are not in the jungle anymore, chased by the sharp teeth felines or the enemy tribes. We solved one of the worst threats of our existence and we are living more than ever. We have non-stop access to food, we have heat, we have social connections, we have medicine and hospitals, we can travel anywhere, whenever we want to. And everything is just a few clicks away. We locked ourselves up in a comfortable cocoon, which keeps us safer than we’ve been in any other moment of the history of our species.
However, we have the feeling we are permanently being threatened and that tomorrow the world is going to end, an apocalypse fed by the noise we hear every day in the digital world where we begin and end our days. It’s a form of stress our body cannot distinguish of the real stress.
When our life is being threatened, our body automatically enters a fight mode, a flight mode, or, worst case scenario, a freeze mode. You either fight, run, or freeze – this is what often happens when a stimulus we encounter is unknown. In those moments we reduce to the minimum any energy we use in useless processes like tissue repair, growth or digestion (it’s worthless to waste our energy on those if it’s very likely we’ll be dead in a few minutes) and we redirect it towards priorities.
The heart is beating stronger, we start sweating, we have our eyes wide open so we can see everything happening around us, the blood starts flowing towards the limbs’ muscles, as these parts of our bodies are essential for survival, for running or fighting the enemy. After escaping the danger, we can return to processes like resting, tissue repair and digestion. We can breathe normally again.
These processes are dictated and controlled by the oldest part of our brains, the amygdala. It instantly takes control over the body when it detects a potential danger, it’s not waiting for the rational part of our brains to decide if this is about an owl or a bear. We risk being already dead by the time we find out, we better run, and we’ll see what it was afterwards.
We evolved and there are not so many dangers anymore, but our brains work as primate as they used to. It initiates the same reactions to both physical and emotional stress, because it cannot make the difference – stress is just stress.
So, even if we are not chased in the jungle by wild animals, we are reacting the same when we read an e-mail from our boss, saying he wants to talk. Or when we read news about all the catastrophes happening in the world, which remind us of the financial, climate or geopolitical insecurity we live in, and they become false emergencies, because most of them don’t depend on us.
We start sweating when seeing the notification icon telling us how many unread e-mails have piled up. Our heart beats stronger. Our stomach is going crazy. We don’t sleep as good anymore. Long term, all this chronic stress leads to health issues, both physical and mental.
Of course a little bit of stress helps us evolve. It benefits us. But when it’s too much it can hurt us, and our addiction to the digital stimuli is also a stress generator. Basically, we hurt ourselves on purpose. And it doesn’t have to be like this.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
The part of the brain that is in charge with the way our body reacts to stress is not working rationally, but emotionally. It’s pointless to come with logical arguments and try to educate our body to react in a different way.
I can nevertheless tell you what worked for me:
1. Discover the main perpetrators. I analysed the digital sources that were giving me the highest rates of anxiety, as well as the ones that were bringing the most value. There was a disproportionate relationship between them, because they were only a few among the ones that were giving me the highest dose of stress, so I achieved the best results by getting rid of them. Closing my Facebook account was one of them.
Make your own list of the digital factors causing you the highest dose of stress. Is it that Slack channel at work? Is it a WhatsApp group? Is it the links with politics news your friend is sending you?
2. Discipline your usage. Every we check our phone “just a little bit”, we risk finding out about new tasks or obligations which we can’t deal with in that right moment. As humans, we are built to remember the unfinished or interrupted tasks rather than the finished ones (it’s called the Zeigarnik effect), which contributes to our stress and anxiety.
Once I became aware of this, I limited my exposure to all those apps. I didn’t allow myself to check them at any time, but only if I was undertaking a few actions before, as for instance writing 500 words for an article.
I disabled the notifications on my mobile phone (you can do this for every app individually if you don’t want to disable all of them). I organized the apps on different screens, all with a different purpose: one screen for tools (map, public transport app or home bank), one screen for the aspirational apps (the meditation app, the reading app) and one screen for “slots” (the addictive ones that make me lose track of time).
I set myself time slots when I could check the apps I was feeling the most addicted to, but I knew I couldn’t completely cut off: once in 2 hours ore maximum 10 minutes a day, for example. No more apps or tabs left open continuously, “just in case”.
I am not checking my e-mail anymore if I don’t have time to focus on it 100%, because I want to avoid going over a message twice. I am reading it once and I action on it straight away. In the evening I am leaving my phone in a different room, on silent and with no internet connection.
I accepted that there will always be unfinished tasks at the end of the day, and I made a list where to write down all of them. I have a notepad where I am writing down the ideas coming to my mind in the evening or things I remember about, and I am getting back to them when it’s the right time for it – the next day. This way I am sending a warning sign to my brain that I am in control and I won’t miss anything, because I have a system that works.
Before those moments where the stakes are high, I am becoming even more defensive with any information trying to reach me. If I am about to speak publicly at an event or to run a workshop for instance, I am temporarily uninstalling some apps, and this way the chances of me being emotionally ambushed decrease. If it’s truly important, I know I will be called.
HOW IS IT GOING?
Did you also feel the effects of the stress caused by a certain app? Which are the “emotional vampires” of which you don’t know how to break apart? Which of the tools I recommended so far worked for you? Send an e-mail to email@example.com and share your experiences; you are not the only one facing these issues.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM CRISTINA AND DOR
Take 15 minutes and watch this Ted Talk with Tristan Harris; he is a former Google employee who studied persuasion ethics and now he advocates for a better relationship of people with technology. (Cristina)
DoR recommends the podcast Mind Architect, a Romanian podcast about how our brain works, why is it so easy to hijack, what is happening in stressful situations and how do we end up doing all these to ourselves. It’s a great podcast, but there is no English version for it, so unless you have a translation soft or you actually speak Romanian, you won’t be able to understand much.