Why you need a digital detox
Do you find yourself checking news alerts on your phone as soon as you wake up, replying to emails while eating your dinner or scrolling Instagram in bed? You're not alone, and even though a compulsive relationship with our phones might be the new normal, it's definitely not conducive to good health.
Aside from the fact this constant attachment to technology affects our ability to be present in the moment and engage with what's going on around us, there are also neurological, psychological and physiological processes that our obsession with digital stimulation can interfere with.
ALWAYS BEING ON
Being constantly contactable goes hand in hand with an expectation that calls will be answered, texts replied and emails responded to immediately. Our constant state of high alert, means that our nervous system balance tips into sympathetic nervous system dominance. This means we are primed to respond to external events, and this may manifest as restlessness, anxiety and an over-active mind.
In paleolithic times, we'd be in this fight or flight mode so we could run away from a bear if we needed to. But in our present day lives, it's more likely to mean that we are prepared to deal with a difficult email or answer a stressful phone call.
In the extreme, this state of constant high alert can lead to chronic stress, which brings with it a whole host of health issues, including digestive issues, insulin resistance, weight gain, poor sleep and hormone imbalances.
Carving out technology-free time each day can help to control this. Decide on times of day when you won't look at your phone or laptop and schedule them in as you would a meeting. You might even set an automatic reply on your email stating the hours you work and the times you check your email during those working hours. This can reduce the expectation of round-the-clock responses from those who contact you.
There are other practical ways to protect your personal life from digital distractions too. For example, putting your phone on airplane mode when you're on a date, spending time with your children or meeting up with friends. This gives you more control of when you engage with your phone and can help you be more present in the moment.
SLEEP OVER SCREENS
The blue light given off by your phone and computer screens inhibits melatonin, the hormone that promotes restful sleep. So that late night scrolling or 3am googling will actually have an impact on your sleep quality, meaning that your body's rest and repair processes are disrupted.
You can get apps on your phoneand computer that turn off the blue light in the evening to reduce your exposure. Check out f.lux, which automatically adjusts your screen light to the time of day.
However, visual stimulation as well as blue light can affect your ability to sleep, so its best to keep the time at least an hour before bed as calm and dialled-down as you can. Establishing a bedtime routine that you follow each night is a really good way of doing this.
A bath, cup of calming herbal tea and a book before bed is a simple routine that can easily become a habit (notice how checking Instagram isn't included?). Remove temptation, and don't bring your phone, laptop or tablet into your bedroom. If you rely on the alarm on your phone to wake up in the morning, buy an old school alarm clock instead.
DOPAMINE AND THE QUEST FOR LIKES
The anticipation of getting a text or receiving likes or comments on your social media posts activates dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter with many functions, one of which is sending messages to the parts of the brain associated with reward and pleasure.
But it's not just receiving validation that makes you feel good. Talking about yourself or sharing your thoughts can have the same effect of releasing dopamine. This can make social media feel irresistible and can play a role in our compulsive desire to post or like images or updates .
Understanding the mechanism for these desires can be useful for controlling them and stopping them from becoming obsessive. Listening to music, exercising, being in sunlight , getting good quality sleep and experiencing pleasure from touch are all activities that will boost dopamine. So listen to music while going for a run, have sex and stick to a bedtime routine instead - voilà!
PROTECTING YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
The potentially damaging effects of social media on young people's mental health has been widely reported, but adults are also susceptible to the downfalls of making constant comparisons to others, which can lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.
It's not always easy to remember that the images we see are curated and often altered. Your favourite fitness blogger's latest story of her Monday morning gym sesh might leave you feeling despondent as you gaze at her perfect abs on your crowded commute to work. Just remember she's not likely to post an un-filtered picture of herself eating breakfast in her grubby pyjamas with greasy hair.
It's also worth thinking about who you follow on social media and reducing your exposure to accounts that make you feel bad. Think of it like weeding out negative friends - except easier, because you can just unfollow.
Looking at and smelling your food before eating are crucial first stages in the digestive process. Sight and smell stimulates the digestive enzymes that help you breakdown food and digest it more effectively.
Looking at your phone or laptop and eating absentmindedly means you miss out this first step of digestion. Mindless eating (the opposite of mindful eating), means you are also less likely chew properly or to tune in to when you feel full. This can lead to indigestion, bloating and over-eating.
So step away from the screen while you eat and give your food the attention it deserves - meals will be more pleasurable and your digestive system will have an easier ride.
MISSING OUT ON LIFE
Last but certainly not least, is the toll that being constantly attached to technology can take on your actual life.
I'm in no way saying that what happens in our digital worlds isn't important - we learn, are inspired, make new connections and maintain friendships - but life also goes on around us and it should never be replaced with what's on a screen.
Making faces with your child, talking to your partner, sharing a meal with friends, noticing the colour of the sky - these are all real moments in life. Don’t miss out on the everyday experiences that shape you and those around you. They are much more precious than your next facebook update.
Try a digital detox for 24 hours this weekend. I'd love to hear how you find it!