When did cellphones become our oxygen and how mindfulness can help?
Updated: Oct 19, 2019
By: Chelsea Hudson, LCPC
When was the last time you awoke in the morning and the first thing you reached for was not your cell phone? If you’re like me, you probably can’t remember. Personally, I think it must be close to a decade ago when the first thing I did in the morning did not involve checking my emails and scrolling through a news feed or social media site.
I was inspired to write about this when I was walking home from work one day. It was a windy afternoon in Chicago and I found myself waiting for the light to turn green at a crowded street corner. I remembered that I had told one of my psychotherapy clients that I would join her in her mindfulness practice and attempt to walk home in a more mindful manner. For me that meant putting my phone in my handbag so that I could be more present in my surroundings. Commuting home without my eyes glued to my cellphone felt unfamiliar, yet surprisingly exciting. What would I discover? Well at that particular corner, I found myself enveloped by a group of dull faced human beings fixated on small rectangular metal objects in their hands. I made it my point to try and lock eyes with anyone who was not staring at their phone. I guess I was hoping to perhaps exchange a smile or a nod, but at that particularly busy corner, there were no eyes for me to meet. It was in that moment that I realized that for many of us, cell phones had become as important as the oxygen we breathe. Human beings cannot live without oxygen and likewise, in a research poll conducted in late 2014, one third of people admitted that their cell phones were “something they couldn’t imagine living without”.
So why is excessive technology use such a big deal? After all, everyone’s doing it right? I’ll be the first to admit that I rely on my cell phone for everything from waking me up in the morning with a gentle alarm, to finding directions to the nearest pharmacy, listening to music at the gym and scrolling through annoying Facebook feeds on an hourly basis because God forbid I’m the last person to see that a random girl I once met at a college party is now engaged. Well it’s a big deal because it fuels experiential avoidance, a psychological concept that refers to attempts to disconnect from one’s unpleasant internal thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. If we are constantly engaged with our cellphones, then we don’t have to “spend time with ourselves”. Scrolling through a twitter feed can temporarily help us forget about our work day, ignore our self-critical thoughts, and pretend that we’re not walking around with a constant lump in our throats. However, “temporary” is the key word here. Ignoring unpleasant thoughts and feelings does not diminish them. In fact, avoidance actually increases their intensity and frequency which is why it’s no surprise that high levels of experiential avoidance are associated with mental health issues such anxiety, depression and addictive disorders.
While checking our cell phones might feel as vital as breathing in oxygen (two thirds of people report checking their phones for messages and calls even when their phone has not rung or vibrated), doing so literally robs our souls of wellbeing. When we are engaged with our phones, we miss out on opportunities for meaningful conversations with people and intentional connection with our surroundings, both of which are imperative for our mental health.
Thankfully there is an antidote to all this. Mindfulness, the act of paying attention, with intention, to the present moment, without judgement. Brain studies have revealed that regular mindfulness practice is associated with a decrease in the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing intense emotions such as anxiety, depression and anger. The easiest way to start practicing more mindfulness is to put your phone away and engage your senses with the world around you. When you’re walking around, intentionally take note of your surroundings. What colors do you see? What sounds do you hear? What is the ground beneath your feet feel like? When you’re having dinner with your family, lock eyes with your children and taste the flavors of your food. If you’re commuting home from work, turn off the music or podcast and identify things you’re grateful for that day. When you get home from work, lock your phone away for a few hours so you can be fully present with your family. When you wake up in the morning, ditch your phone, open your curtains, take a slow stretch, a few deep breaths and feel the sun on your face as you look out of your windows into the world. Remember, when you first start reducing phone interaction time, you might notice withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety and irritability, but rest assured that you will soon start to reap the benefits of a more mindful existence and who knows, you might even discover that you like spending time with yourself.