Mca blog

How To Be Smarter Than Your Smart Phone

The other day I entered an elevator in a building in Sydney’s CBD and watched as everyone took out their smart phones and became engaged in the head-down position. As each person entered on subsequent floors they did like-wise, avoiding eye contact or conversation even with colleagues. I thought, what busy, important people they all must be, that they can’t spare the 15-30 seconds it takes to reach their floor before checking their emails or sending texts. I wanted to say “Good morning” out loud to everyone, to reassure myself that I wasn’t the only human in the lift, but was afraid that this verbal communication would be too weird!

I left the elevator feeling sad at how disconnected we’ve become, and at the lack of mindfulness in the people I encountered. We live in a world where it’s become natural and acceptable to communicate with anyone electronically at any time of the day or night, but verbal communication has strict etiquette and restraints. It seems no wonder that stress and anxiety are endemic in our society.

There are many reasons why smart phones increase our stress. The obvious one is that we’re expected to be on tap 24/7.  So why is it so difficult to turn these gadgets off? The answer lies in your neurotransmitters, the chemicals your brain secrets to help it fulfil its essential functions like thinking, moving, sleeping, attending, seeking.  And perhaps the main culprit responsible for our addiction to smart phones is dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that controls our “seeking” or “wanting” behaviour.  And this behaviour is critical for our survival. Seeking behaviour keeps us motivated. It drives us to learn, explore, find solutions to challenges; it makes us curious and increases our goal-directed behaviour. 

This seeking behaviour is almost instantly satisfied every time you check your emails or messages. And when you check into social media or do a web search it’s easy to get caught up in a dopamine-loop, ie dopamine starts you seeking and when you get rewarded for that seeking you want to seek even more. This behaviour can become as addictive as gambling or comfort eating. Have you noticed how hard it is to ignore the bells and whistles of our smart phones?

One of the difficulties with the dopamine loop is that it responds best to small amounts of information (such as in a text message or a twitter feed) and this constant switching of attention can be exhausting. It also makes it difficult to actually get anything done. Have you ever felt like you’ve spent the whole day answering emails, texts and calls but not actually accomplishing anything?

To complicate things further dopamine is a precursor to norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) and is therefore intimately connected to our stress response: increased heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, etc. Studies show that dopamine can affect immune cells and may be important in certain autoimmune diseases. There is also evidence that an increase in dopamine in the prefrontal cortex during stress may decrease working memory (perhaps related to that sense of “brain fog” when trying to concentrate under extreme pressure).

So if we’re wired to “seek” and to respond addictively to technology, what can we do about it? Firstly you might reflect on whether there are times of the day when you can turn your smart phone off.

Second, consider deactivating the bells and alarms that tell you a new message or email has arrived. After all, unless you’re on the waiting list for a kidney transplant you may not need immediate notification of every text and email that comes in.

Importantly, ask yourself this question: what would happen if you noticed the urge to check your smart phone but resisted? What if you took an extra second to pause and consider if there’s anything truly urgent you need to check or if it can wait. This pausing and reflecting is the essence of mindfulness and fuels resilience to stress by engaging the higher cortical regions of the brain (executive function, considered response) and disengaging the limbic region (fight-flight, reactivity).

During this pause, try mindfully checking into your body and noticing the discomfort you feel when you resist the urge to check your phone. The pull is strong, a craving, an addiction perhaps.  But where do you feel it? Is it a tension in your shoulders, a constriction in your chest or belly, a furrow in your brow? Find where the discomfort of transient boredom is located. Notice it, acknowledge it, allow it to be there. This allowing is mindfulness. Remember, the discomfort is not life threatening, it will pass. Everything does. Take a deep breath, shift your attention back to whatever you were doing before the urge to check technology cut in. Re-establish your focus to where it’s really needed.

It only takes a few seconds but the effect is profound. Giving in to smart phone addiction is not satisfying in the long term. Our brains start to feel dull, tension increases, we feel stressed, like we’re being pulled in every direction.  You don’t need to push against the urge, just notice it with mindfulness, ie with non-judgmental acceptance that this is how it is in the 21st century. This acceptance doesn’t mean you have to give in to this addiction. Notice the distraction, notice the discomfort you may feel when you choose not to give in to the distraction, and return to what you were doing. And then watch the discomfort pass. This is empowerment, emotional resilience, choice, and it comes from mindful awareness of your response to the present moment.

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