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Unplugging for your sanity and your health

Unplugging for your sanity and your health

At this holiday time of year, there are so many competing digital signals that it feels like my brain is being overloaded–emails about sales, gifts and events, advertisements on TV and the internet playing constantly, and music playing on every shop and street.  I checked (yes, online of course!) and digital sensory overload is a thing: our senses send more information to our brains than we can process.  Healthy brains have highly refined “filters” that can discard most information that is not relevant, but information overload or stress occurs when people suffer from the fact that the amount of information they are confronted with is greater than their capacity to process it.  This is not unlike the stress that people who have conditions like ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism experience; they have atypical filtering that can result in painful sensory overwhelm.  (fastcompany.com)  Today’s world is a sensory onslaught that can leave us drained and disoriented.  This short video is an animated version of how you might feel after a day of being “plugged in”!

Digital overload can be an even more prominent problem to those who have a chronic illness or physical limitations, because they depend on technology to help them and/or to provide a distraction from pain or boredom.  (thehealthsessions.com)

Physical symptoms of digital sensory overload may be trouble sleeping (the blue light of digital devices delays the manufacture of melatonin), eyestrain and headaches; if addiction to digital devices is severe, it can lead to decreased bone density (from lack of physical activity), weight gain (again from sedentary behavior), increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. (goodrx.com)  Emotional symptoms include increased irritability and fatigue, and people who use their devices excessively have a greater chance of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety. (thehealthsessions.com)

Reduced productivity from digital overload takes a heavy toll on businesses today.  Consider this: employees may take as long as 24 minutes before they are fully focused on the task they were doing before opening an email!  Sending messages to friends, scrolling through open applications, and seeing unread emails all effectively distract us while completing a task. (workspace365.net)  Those who work from home can confirm that unless you have a dedicated room and time boundaries, telecommuting successfully and efficiently is often harder to do than going to the office!

Creativity, a birthing of new thoughts and ideas, is also severely limited by digital overload.  Neuroscientists have shown that boredom is good for our brains’ health: “Boredom can actually foster creative ideas, refilling your dwindling reservoir, replenishing your work mojo and providing an incubation period for embryonic work ideas to hatch.” (Forbes.com)  Nevertheless, with a smartphone, boredom is never a “problem”. 

Here’s some interesting facts about our brains and heavy digital use: (Per Matt Richtel, Technology Reporter, New York Times, on npr.com)

  • “Multi-tasking” is a myth; we are not truly doing multiple things at the same time.  What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.  It does not make us more efficient.  It makes us significantly less efficient.

  • Heavy multi-taskers or technology users have more trouble filtering out irrelevant information, more trouble staying focused, and more trouble, remarkably enough, switching between tasks. 

  • The compelling need to “check” email or messages is called intermittent reinforcement; it makes us think that there may be something fascinating waiting for us, so we constantly check, and when we do, we get a dopamine burst, a little rush of adrenaline. In the absence of checking, we feel bored, so we are actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemical response.

If you are feeling overloaded with digital media and information, there are positive steps you can take to regain peace of mind.  It may not be easy at first to cut back on media exposure, but the results are worth it. 

  1. If you can, take a vacation with less or no digital media exposure. There is a “three-day rule” when it comes to vacations: it takes approximately three days for our bodies and minds to become more relaxed, and without your phone or tablet or computer, this might be hard, but will pay dividends to your mind and body.  (For more science on how long your vacation should be, check out this article).  How often do you truly experience solitude today?  Solitude is psychological detachment from society for the purpose of cultivating the inner world of the self. It is the act of emotionally isolating oneself for self-discovery, self-realization, meaning, wholeness, and heightened awareness of one’s deepest feelings, and impulses.  A survey on “wilderness solitude” was conducted at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in Montana in 2017, and it used four core dimensions of the 21st Century Solitude Scale: De-tethering from Digital Connectivity (disconnecting from email and other devices), Physical Separation (being away from crowds, being isolated), Introspection (thinking about who you are and your values), and Societal Release (to be away from the rules and constraints of society).  The opportunity to completely “disconnect” for days at a time is completely unique in today’s society, and the study illustrated that this type of solitude is a physical, psychological, and societal phenomenon.  (International Journal of Wilderness)

  2. Since true solitude is hard to create, sometimes it’s practical just to establish better boundaries for device exposure, in time and space.   Here’s some suggestions for boundaries (goodrx.com):

    1. Set alarms for device use, or set only a few times a day for checking messages.

    2. Turn off notifications from social media and other unnecessary notifications.

    3. Use only one device at a time…this is getting harder…

    4. Create tech free times, like at night when you can use the “do not disturb” function to keep from being awakened in your sleep.  Use other times of the day to connect with real people like family members, or take a walk outside. 

    5. Finally, create tech-free zones in your home where you enjoy other activities (like the dining room table).  

Setting examples for younger family members is important to do, because the proliferation of devices is not only causing adverse health conditions; it is leading us into “a new epoch in the human condition… Research conducted by the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self has found that younger generations of Americans are becoming more comfortable with certain technologies than they are with one another, with Turkle (the author) concluding that if “the simplification and reduction of relationship[s] is no longer something we complain about… It may become what we expect, [and] even desire.” (International Journal of Wilderness)  Face to face interactions with real people is necessary to help everyone maintain quality interpersonal relationships, adult and teen and child alike.  It’s time to “put down the phone” and stop missing the important things: conversations and feelings and walks and gorgeous sunsets and starry nights.  Get back to using the original camera: your eyes and your mind, and communicating with your own words to a loved one how awesome life can be. 

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash