Dealing With Anxiety in a Digital Age

Dealing With Anxiety in a Digital Age

We often joke we don’t know how people got by in the days absent of cell phones or computers. On more than one occasion, my grandparents have given my cousins and me a hard time for being addicted to our phones. Chances are you probably spend more than a few minutes a week searching for your phone lost in tangled bed sheets.

This all seems harmless and laughable, but in 2010 a term known as “nomophobia” was coined to describe the psychological condition where a person becomes fearful when they’re away from their phone. So, maybe this isn’t such a joking matter after all.

Are We In a Codependent Relationship With Tech?

Today, people are becoming dependent and addicted to using technology. We’re constantly on our phones or laptops, texting, checking social media, emailing or surfing the web. In fact on average, a smartphone user checks his phone 85 times a day, according to the B2X Smartphone and IoT Consumer Trends 2017 Study.

Then, there’s social media, which continues to grow. Facebook now has more than two billion users, Instagram is at 700 million and Twitter has expanded to 328 million, according to Business Insider.  For all of the people who have accounts with these social sites, they’re also using them consistently and constantly as well. According to Zephoria, every 60 seconds on Facebook 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated, and 136,000 photos are uploaded.

These numbers prove just how abundant people’s use of their phones and social media is. We live in a digital age, with technologies that are now actually affecting our mental health behaviors. Remember, a brand new word was even created to describe one of the effects of cell phone usage? Nomophobia” — that’s how far we’ve come.

The Negative Effects of Technology

Because of these technologies, people today now have new and extra things to worry, ruminate, and think about.
According to the B2X study, 45% of us feel worried or uncomfortable without email or Facebook, and 50% of us get anxious without their phones.

These stats beg the question: Has tech actually increased the number of people who suffer from anxiety and other mental health disorders? Or, if at the very least, are we more aware of these disorders now? And either way, what can be done to combat this issue?

Dr. Jessica Steinman, a marriage and family therapist, has seen firsthand in her patients the negative effects of the digital age..

“I absolutely believe technology has affected the way people experience anxiety. Technology has allowed for our society to expect and experience immediate gratification when it comes to everything- food, transportation, dating, information, news and the list goes on. It has imprinted the brain with the inability to tolerate patience, waiting and the unknown,” Steinman wrote me in an email

Dr. Julia Storm, MFA agrees.

“Most alarmingly, there is very compelling research suggesting a sharp rise in anxiety and depression – especially in the post-millennial generation – since 2012. The iPhone was released in 2010 and by 2012 more than half the population in the United States owned a smartphone,” Dr. Storm explained when I contacted her.

Dr. Alyson Cohen, LCSW feels that declaring the amount of people with anxiety disorder has risen is unfair, but does recognize that there is increased visibility on disorders such as anxiety due to technology.

“I do not believe the number of people developing anxiety has increased in today’s age, however, I do feel that it may be more visible now that communication has become so accessible and more visible. Anxiety has been around for as long as humans have been on earth, but our ability to instantly communicate with each other has brought this more to the surface whereas, before the digital age, people were more so isolated with their feelings and experiences,” she responded when I emailed her.

With that, Dr. Cohen also recognizes the addictive behaviors technology can create.

“It [technology] gives you a burst of dopamine with its ability to offer instant gratification. Studies have been showing that people are becoming addicted to getting their social media fix and can aimlessly browse newsfeeds with no needed direction or reason. Social media can be very addictive as people tend to glamorize their lives by posting the best parts of their days and weeks,” she said.

Dr. Storm further explains this concept of “happy” signals being sent to the brain from technology.

“Our smartphones are the perfect escape. When we are bored, uncomfortable or feeling down, time on the phone can temporarily lift our spirits. Why? Because every time you “refresh” on Instagram and get a new photo, “refresh” on Facebook and get a new “like,” refresh on CNN and find a new tantalizing story a little shot of Dopamine is released in your brain. Dopamine is a pleasure chemical and as with any other addictive substance or behavior, our brains keep coming back for more,” she said.

A Look at Real Life Cases of Technology Leading to Anxiety

All three mental health professionals have worked with patients whose mental health has been affected by the digital age.  Dr. Storm, for example, says she notices those of her patients who utilize social media apps, play video games or read online news the most are also the most disconnected from the world around them.

As for Dr. Steinman, her specialty is in sex and love addiction, and she says both problems have grown in our society due to technology.

“Anxiety and depression occur when someone is not getting the “high” they need or the validation or dopamine fix, and acting out in these behaviors can also bring intense amounts of shame. For instance, a love addict or codependent person may constantly text a partner or possible prospect because the waiting and wondering if the person likes them or will contact them again gets too intense and so instead of tolerating the anxiety, they become obsessive and call or text often,” she said.

A case Dr. Cohen gives is a bit more simple.

“One of my clients cannot get over an argument with a friend due to a text that she found to be very demeaning. We discussed in session that had her friend said the same exact thing to her face or over the phone, it wouldn’t have the same lasting effect as it does on a written text message that can be reread over and over and engrained in someone’s head,” Dr. Cohen said.

Mental Health Issues Born from Technology

Miscommunications and the desire for instant gratification are just two of the many ways that technology leads to an increase in anxiety. Others include the constant need for validation, online bullying or fear of being left out of a social event.

“People who have low self-esteem can use social media or dating apps for validation. Messages that tell them they are loved, valued, appreciated and desired can be programmed into them and when they aren’t received, anxiety can begin… people have stopped utilizing one-on-one personal contact for building their own individual self-esteem, and count on likes and thumbs ups and match dings to tell them they are good,” Dr. Steinman said.

Dr. Storm summarizes the problems with technology and anxiety in three ways:

  • Constant seeking which leads to stress
  • Too many choices which leave you overwhelmed
  • And the availability of constant connection which results in a loss of self.

“There are a few reasons why living so much of our lives online creates anxiety, and many of them have to do with the ways in which our fundamental biological instincts are triggered by the technology itself. One major factor is the ways in which our current technology obliterates the boundaries between ourselves at the world around us. Without healthy boundaries one becomes overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious,” Dr. Storm explained

The First Step is Admitting You Have an Issue, but What Now?

So now we are left to figure out what we, as a society, and as individuals can do to combat the problem.

Both Dr. Steinman and Dr. Cohen say the act of simply disconnecting for periods of time can be a solution. Dr. Cohen offers some practical steps on how to do this. First, move your apps to a more discrete and hidden place on your phone or computer, or try setting a daily reminder for yourself when it’s time to take a break and consider meditation or other mindfulness exercises to help you unplug.

If these easy-to-do methods don’t work, though, she then suggests seeking more professional level help.

“If someone is at a level that they cannot control their use, then it may be time to find a support group that deals with gaming and/or technology addiction. As the digital age continues to thrive, these types of groups are becoming more and more common,” Dr. Cohen says.

While these suggestions will help on a person-to-person basis, there is still the greater issue of how today’s generations and technology users are responding to an increase in tech in their lives. Dr. Storm feels that since recent technological advances are happening at such a rapid speed that our brains haven’t had the chance to adapt properly, which is one reason as to why anxiety has increased. So, finding a fix to the core of this problem is also important. For this, Dr. Storm suggests targeting the next generation.

“We can take it upon ourselves to teach them how to use technology in positive, beneficial, and beautiful ways. We can teach them how to be mindful and present with technology. How to use technology with healthy boundaries and how to engage in and pay equal attention to the “real” offline world. The technology and all that it affords us is great but it should never replace touch, eye contact, smell, movement – when it does, that’s when we start to feel a deep sense of unease and anxiety. It’s up to schools, parents, older siblings, communities and even governments to be responsible and safeguard all that makes us human,” Dr. Storm said.

Photo credit: Unsplash by Priscilla Du Preez