Digital Overstimulation And Stress

There's no need to re-state the statistics on phone checking. We all acknowledge we spend too much time staring at a screen, but wasted time aside, more concerning is our decreasing level of patiencereduced levels of empathydwindling conversational skillschallenges with real human connection and our inability to be alone with our own thoughts... not to mention the negative effects smartphones are having on our ability to focus.  

But it turns out the most detrimental side affect of our smartphones is, in fact, stress. In 1972, Peter Blythe started his book “Stress Disease” with the statement “Authoritative medical opinion in the US and Britain has gone on record to the effect that up to 70% of all patients currently being treated by doctors in general practice are suffering from conditions that have their origins in unrelieved stress”. Two years later, Dr Elmer Green remarked that “even stuffy doctors are now agreeing that 80% of all problems are psychosomatic”, with less ‘stuffy’ doctors suggesting that figure is even higher. And today, as a result of our relationship with technology, experts expect this percentage to be even higher still. But what impact is all of this actually having on our bodies?

Digital Overstimulation and Clarity of Thought

The damage caused by the constant tension resulting from our body's outdated "Fight or Flight response" is not purely physical. Continuous over-stimulation and hyper-arousal raise the level of background activity in the brain, limiting our ability to think clearly. Today’s digital revolution plays a huge role in our clouded vision. What was previously a quiet level of conscious thought while waiting in line at the post office has now become a tsunami of non-stop digital stimulation, submerging our thoughts, relegating them from the conscious mind. Thinking becomes less clear, less resourceful and less efficient. We feel dull or flat, and our body becomes less responsive and less effective.

Digital habits have become so ingrained in our daily behaviors because they draw upon our craving for dopamine, the natural pleasure endorphin. This hormone is usually released following physical contact with another person, such as a hug, or after a positive verbal affirmation, such as hearing “good job” from a friend. But it turns out that digital affirmations such as social media ‘likes’, or digital human connections such as emails result in the same dopamine surges experienced after real physical human connections. Our body's biochemical responses to technology have led many researchers to believe that our ongoing desire for digital clout, and our obsessive need to repeatedly check our smartphones, is an indication of a cultural desire for more authentic human connection.

The Reversal of Stress

Thankfully, the build up of stress and digital over-stimulation can be reversed. Given the opportunity, the body will automatically dissolve accumulated physical tensions and return towards the optimum homeostatic balance. All we have to do is make time to allow the body to fall into a state of deep rest.

Being mindful of how we spend our free time and when we check our smartphones (in particular, work emails during non-work hours) is a great place to start.

Being conscious as to why we are checking is an important exercise in self-awareness; are we craving human connection, or attention?

Are we unable to sit alone with our thoughts? Are we desiring approval, or the feeling of being needed by someone? These are the social questions of the digital revolution. 

At VINAYA we regularly question our true need for our devices, attempting to walk the fine line between ‘requirement' and ‘habit'; the exact points at which productivity, focus and happiness stop being improved by technology, and our smartphones start to have to an opposite effect. 

Disconnecting to Fulfill our Full Human Potential

In many ways, technology improves our ability to create, learn and solve problems; but this is only true up until a point. There’s a "technology-cliff" for these types of activities, after which point, our cognitive abilities are hindered by the presence of technology.

Try testing your own response to a certain app, by being conscious as to how many times a day you open it. Be aware of how checking or not checking it affects your emotional state, and try to amend your behavior as your learn. This important personal feedback loop is the first step towards approaching your technology with more intention and purpose.

This is about more than just breaking bad habits, it’s about exploring our full human potential.  When our eyes are locked on a screen or scrolling through images, our time for contemplation, cognitive processing and creative thought is hindered. Creativity, for example, is often thought of as the ability to produce novel and original ideas, incorporating previously unassociated concepts; when Newton watched an apple fall from a tree, he made an association between the motion of the apple and the orbit of the moon, and created the theory of gravity… Would 21st century Newton have come to the same conclusion? Or would his mind have been unable to rest in that pure state of consciousness and clarity? 

As humans, our most ingenious ideas often occur during what is called a ‘flow state’; this is when our attention is directed towards one task at a time, executing it to the best of our ability before moving on to the next. Indeed today, intelligence is measured by much more than IQ, or other fixed constant measures; intelligence is the ability to learn as a result of an experience. This ability is drastically affected by smartphones, which take us out of the present moment and distract us from experiencing situations and emotions fully, thereby inhibiting our ability to learn from them. 

Interestingly, studies in The Netherlands have shown that school children who practice meditation have significantly higher ‘intelligence growth rates’ compared to children who do not practice meditation.

When you consider that meditation is the practice of quieting the mind, making flow states much more attainable, the results of this study support the idea that a quieter mind really is a happier, more productive mind.

The good news is that we’re each in control of our own propensity to disconnect from the noise of modern life and manage our own stress levels, the first step is simple:  If you’re checking your phone more than 3 times in an hour, try an experiment with yourself, and keep a note of your levels of productivity. Focus and happiness. Start by only allowing yourself to check your phone for 5 minutes of every hour of the work day. After a week, move that to 10 minutes of checking every 2 hours, and work towards scheduling 30 minutes of email and digital checking twice a day. This will slowly begin to reset your body’s dopamine balance, subsiding your digital cravings.