iStockphoto_Thinkstock_social_brain“Comparison is the thief of joy” Theodore Roosevelt

This month, we are zooming in to some of the ways that various forms of technology impact our relationships and daily life. This series of blogs is called “You’re Missing Out.” We are focusing on the holistic nature of this issue and how we can specifically identify and combat it’s negative effects in our lives and families. You can check out parts one and two here.

Today, we are talking about five ways that technology can negatively effect our mental and emotional health and some practical things we need to look out for in order to improve our quality of life.

1. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

According to researchers, FOMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan, & Gladwell, 2013). They found that this issue is characterized by “a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.” Author J Wortham notes that this mental health issue perpetuates the fear of having made a wrong decision about how to spend time, as “you can imagine how things could be different.” This is a new brand of anxiety that has been created by the overuse of Social Media. Most research states that the cause of the issue is the availability and escalation of real-time information. FOMO can lead to very low self-esteem, comparison, and self-criticism.

I love this quote from Dr. Brené Brown on the subject: “The “fear of missing out” is what happens when scarcity slams into shame. FOMO lures us out of our integrity with whispers about what we could or should be doing. FOMO’s favorite weapon is comparison. It kills gratitude and replaces it with “not enough.” We answer FOMO’s call by saying YES when we mean NO. We abandon our path and our boundaries and those precious adventures that hold meaning for us so we can prove that we aren’t missing out.”

2. Withdrawals & “Nomophobia”

Technology addiction is very real. A recent poll of 1,000 people in the UK shows that about 66 percent of people are afraid of being separated from their phones. The study refers to this issue as “nomophobia,” defined as the phobia of being out of contact with someone via mobile phone.

For people who use various forms of technology in excess, like a drug addiction, can experience withdrawal symptoms if their use is abruptly stopped. I had one client in past last year who stopped using video games after going into treatment and within a day, began to experience elevated levels of anxiety, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, fidgeting, sweating, and headaches.

Another study on college students asked to abstain from media for 24 hours note these findings: “They expected the frustration. But they didn’t expect to have the psychological effects, to be lonely, to be panicked, the anxiety, literally heart palpitations;” and  concluded that “most students… failed to go the full 24 hours without media… The research also found students’ used “virtually the same words to describe their reactions. These included emotions such as fretful, confused, anxious, irritable, insecure, nervous, restless, crazy, addicted, panicked, jealous, angry, lonely, dependent, depressed, jittery and paranoid.”

3. Re-wiring Our Brains

Matt Richtel of the NY Times wrote an article about research that has been done related to “our brains on computers.” He makes this statement about the effects our tech can have on our actual brain function: “Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement- a dopamine squirt- that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.”

Stress is another issue that greatly effects our brain’s ability to function, and our minds are becoming conditioned to respond to minor things in our environment with major impact. “Do you ever find yourself stressing over not getting a reply from your latest text message? Or maybe you find yourself constantly checking your Facebook to make sure you’re caught up on your social circle, or to see the number of likes you got on a photo.  If the results were not what you expected or had hoped for, it could really take a toll on your emotional health.  Over thinking a situation, excessive worrying, misreading a person’s feelings or taking something out of context can all be a result of this” Kelley Simpson (UNH)

It is so sad, but fascinating to think that our brain structure and reactivity is slowly evolving because of the constant presence of media in our lives and world. Another issue connected to our evolving brain structure is the issue of multi-tasking. This article also states that “multi-tasking is a myth.” According to research studies, where people are put into two test groups (multi-taskers vs. non multi-taskers), the multi-taskers did significantly worse on the tasks assigned. While we may be able to multi-task, it is usually not beneficial and in some cases unsafe (i.e. driving and engaging in the use of technology).

4. “Cyberchondria”

Talk to any healthcare professional and they will tell you to stop googling your symptoms! Of course we have all done it, but when people search for mental, emotional, or physical symptoms online- their results often produce serious anxiety. Want to know more about “cyberchondria”? Check out these great articles from NY Times and Greatist. Obsessive web searching can also potentially lead to misinformation and result in a decline of trust in the care of trained healthcare professionals. Most ironic are the circumstances where patients who experience high levels of anxiety, for instance, use the internet to “research” the topic of anxiety which only exacerbates their decline in mental health.  Trust your counselors ability to walk you through and help you to heal from feelings of anxiety and stop giving the internet this kind of attention.

5. There’s no Emoji for That

An “emoji” is similar to an “emoticon” which is a picture or symbol that represents a feeling, activity, or expression; emoji’s are often used during texting or in comments made on social media to more “accurately” express a mood or emotion. It is very easy to get “lost in translation” when we are communicating via email, text, or through social media. We put so much emphasis and weight on these various forms of communication that attempt to convey emotions, but fail time and again. 

Krystal D’Costa of Scientific American states that: “As social beings we require consistent and frequent confirmation of our social placement. This confirmation is vital to the preservation of our networks- we need to be able to gauge the state of our relationships with others.” When we are feeling insecure about our relationships, it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, fear, and anger. We get a message typed in ALL CAPS and feel like we are being ‘yelled at.’ Texts with a period instead of an exclamation point make us feel like the other person is upset, lacks enthusiasm, or is uninterested in what we shared.

Many of the couples I work with describe the beginning of major fights happening as the result of an email or text conversation in which there was a poorly placed (or intentionally placed) emoji or the misinterpretation of a punctuation mark. Here is one example I can remember, specifically; and for this client, a winking face at the end of an honest or serious statement cheapened it’s sincerity and caused him to feel bad:

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The husband interpreted this text response from his wife as “I’m offended by you failing to follow through, so I’m going to respond with a passive aggressive emoji and avoid my actual feelings.” This led to feelings of inadequacy, reinforcing a deeper wound and shame statement of “I’m not good enough.” Acting out of shame, the husband reacted defensively when he got home from work by saying something hurtful to his wife. She became defensive and the fight escalated. Sounds ridiculous, but this stuff happens all the time.

So, how can we change?

1. We need to deal with the deeper issues underlying our FOMO. Here are 10 great tips for overcoming FOMO if you are interested in learning more. This is a fairly new concept, but it is very real and effects people of all ages in our lives and families. 

2. Take more tech-free trips, vacations, and moments in the day. Purposefully set your phone aside during breaks, meals, and events to prevent addiction and issues like “nomophobia.” If you feel like you’re using your phone, tablet, or television too much… you probably are.

3. Engage in the use of boardgames, writing, reading a physical book, playing cards, writing, drawing, etc. You use different portions of your brain when you take part in these kind of activities verses how your brain responds to the use of technology. Again, technology isn’t bad (on the contrary, it can be very beneficial in many cases) but it is always good to practice balance and moderation. Monitor your media consumption.

4. Resist the urge to google your physical or emotional symptoms. There are therapists and doctors who have devoted their lives to addressing the things that you are going through using tools, measurements, and processes that are much more accurate and effective.

5. We need to learn how to honestly communicate our thoughts, feelings, and reactions in a more mature and authentic way. Instead of attempting to communicate an emotion via text or email, respond with statements like: “this is important to me, and I think it’s better if we talk about it in person.” As one author put it, “Communicating face-to-face involves the use of non-verbal tools like: intonation, gestures, facial expressions, and body language. We use each of these to help us more accurately convey the message we want the other person to receive. When we communicate online or via mobile, we lack all of these tools” (Andrea Ayers).

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