November 7, 2016
Do You Suffer from Technology Stress?
Do you use electronic devices as an occasional convenience, or are you attached and addicted to them?
Over the years I’ve counseled many adults for job stress, and many young people for school stress. And I’ve counseled both young and old for relationship stress. Now there’s a new kid on the block: technology stress. AKA “Electronic OCD” or “social media addiction.”
Or is it antisocial media addiction? Isn’t that what it really is? I’m not just talking here about the incivility of the tweets and Facebook posts from this Presidential election.
What I’m really thinking about are the ways we’ve become so attached and addicted to our devices that we ignore the people and the world around us. We ignore life itself in favor of digital comments about life. When we do this—when we spend more time interacting with electronic screens than real, human beings—we’ve got a serious problem.
Here are some examples:
- We wait at our train stop with three other people, and never look up to say “hi.”
- We walk through our office and don’t notice the smile or frown of the co-workers we pass in the hallway because our face is buried in our cell phone.
- We take a lunch break and spend our time squirrelled in a corner, scrolling down our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
- We’re out and about and fail to appreciate the wispy cloud that drifted across the horizon, the monarch butterfly that fluttered a few feet in front of us, or the dazzling sunset that was there for a few moments, then lost forever. Not to mention the elderly gentleman who needed someone to hold the door for him, or the out-of-town visitor seeking directions to the hospital where her brother is being treated for cancer.
Perhaps we ought to add a new category of obsessive, compulsive behavior in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: “OCD-electronic type.” Or is it already there? I still own the old DSM-IV, so wouldn’t know.
When I’m at work meetings, many of my colleagues pick up their cell phones and blackberries every time it beeps or vibrates. They disengage from the meeting, type in a few words, then theoretically re-engage with the meeting. Sometimes I wonder if they’re ever fully engaged: with the meeting, with the person they sent those twelve words to, or anything else.
In some cases they’re doing essential work, e.g. a doctor or nurse verifying a medication for a patient, or an administrator giving someone permission to leave work immediately to pick up a sick child from school. But most of the time it’s not essential, and we’re witnessing classic, compulsive behavior. In other words, the same as when a rat reacts to a prompt, pulls a lever, and gets a morsel of food.
Many believe they’re relieving stress by grabbing their phones and typing in those twelve words as soon as they hear the beep or see the light on their phone. Perhaps they experience some stress relief in the short run, but in the long run they’re making things much worse. In the long run, they’re reprogramming their brains to dumb down to the level of a lab rat and to deprive themselves of the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources to face life on its own terms.
In the long run, electronic stressors elevate our anxiety levels and reduce the human connection we need to be resilient against all the other stressors in our work and in our lives.
So, what should we do about it? Is it like the weather? You know the old joke: Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody ever does anything to fix it.
I don’t think so. I think there are lots of things we can do to fix this problem. If you’ve got OCD-electronic type, here are several prescriptions for fixing your problem:
- For several hours each day, turn off whatever electronic device you’ve become codependent on. When you first do this, you may experience some anxiety, just like a smoker who puts away his cigarettes and keeps feeling the urge to grab one. When you feel yourself fidgeting for your cell phone, remind yourself that your ancestors survived for centuries without cell phones! So you can handle a 30-minute break—right?
- A special prescription for doctors and nurses: I know you might not be able to turn off your phones and pagers during work hours, or even after hours when on call. If you’re in this situation, it’s absolutely imperative that you take full advantage of the few times you’re not at work or on call, to turn off your electronic devices. This seems like an obvious best practice, but I point it out because many are so compulsively conscientious that they feel guilty turning off their devices, and stay electronically attached 24/7, day after day, week after week, month after month. And then they wonder why they suffer from technology stress.
- When you exercise or do your hobbies, turn off your cell phone and don’t watch TV. When I look at the line of people on the cardio machines at the gym, most are glued to televisions, I-Pads, or cell phones. Studies have shown that, while the physical benefits may be the same, the mental and emotional benefits of exercise are measurably reduced when our minds are focused on electronic distractions.
- Go outside, and don’t take your cell phone with you. Take a look at this photo. It’s the inside of a typical fitness center, with a TV in your face and a sound system blaring in your ears. How does it strike you? To me, it’s a sterile and spiritless environment. Now scroll up to the photo of Dog Mountain (near Hood River, Oregon) at the top of the page. Do you feel differently? To me, the outdoor “fitness center” is better equipped to refresh and restore my mind and my spirit. It’s a wide, open space, more like a playground than a “workout” facility. What’s more, it’s open to everybody and charges no membership fee!
- Channel your inner child. I think we’d all agree that children need down time from school and other structured activities: they just need to go outside and play. As adults, we need the same thing! We need to give our brains a break from the structure and stress of our work and family lives. These breaks build energy, resilience, and the ability to focus and concentrate when it’s time to go back to work, or back to our family responsibilities.
- Take a few moments each day to study the faces of the people you work with and live with. What is the color of their eyes? How many different types of smiles and frowns can you observe in a single day? Do they walk like someone who is happy or someone who is carrying a heavy burden? What can you learn about them, and how best to work with them, just by observing them? One day they’ll start noticing you too, and you’ll have a truly human connection.
I’ll end with a story of something that happened at the gym about three years ago. I was on the elliptical trainer, facing out a large window. I was on the second floor, so I was looking out into the limbs of a beautiful tree. After a while, a dove flew on the limb that was only five feet from where I was exercising, and I suddenly realized that her nest was tucked in there. The nest came alive with baby birds all reaching up for the insects the mom was feeding them. I had a close-up view of the whole thing. When I turned to share the experience with the people exercising on each side of me, I realized they hadn’t even noticed! They were glued to their tiny TV screens, watching some inane sit com or game show. I wanted to scream! Here the miracle of life was unfolding in front of them, on that big, cosmic screen we call the real world, and they missed it!
Don’t let life pass you by without being fully present, without noticing what’s actually happening. Get your face out of your phone and out of your I-Pad. Turn off your laptop and your TV, and turn off your anti-social media. Tune in to the real world, and turn on to life!
Note to reader: If you weren’t offended by this diatribe against cell phones, FB, and Twitter, you might also not be offended by my complete list of “Things That Are Evil.” And, if you need help managing stress (not just technology stress, but any type of stress), check out my series on stress management. I also recommend “Handheld Electronic Devices Are the Thieves of Our Meaningful Moments,” by an ER physician named Keith Pochick.