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Is your phone giving you anxiety? How modern tech impacts our mental health

4 minute read

Instant gratification is all well-and-good, but what about our ability to deal with the unknown? Vhi Health Coach Dr Mou Sultana examines what your smartphone usage means for anxiety and self-esteem, plus practical tips for regaining control.

Who knew uncurtailed enjoyment could be such a daunting prospect? And yet, that’s our predicament as we gaze at those screens in our palms, habitually scrolling through our feeds. We’re increasingly tethered to our smartphones and the creeping dependency is putting us on edge. You’ll have seen plenty of headlines linking our always-on lifestyles and ever-growing screen time to a kind of ‘age of anxiety’. So, what’s going on? Is your smartphone really making you anxious?

Let’s begin by putting some definition on it. ‘Anxiety’ is really anticipation of a future threat that is, crucially, something mostly unknown. When our tolerance for these unknowns starts to diminish, that’s a problem.

The erosion of resilience

One of the main culprits behind this weakening tolerance is the unlimited access to immediate gratification that your smartphone provides. We don’t have to wait for letters to arrive or TV shows to air. We have instant messaging and Netflix. We don’t even have to wait for ad breaks; we can just skip or fast-forward through them. On a deeper level, we don’t have to guess what other people think of us; we can go on social media and see it instantly, measuring our worth in the number of ‘likes’ we can elicit.

It goes without saying that are phones can be extremely useful but, for everything we gain, we are losing something. Before streaming, we would have to wait for that new movie to air on a certain day, on a certain channel, to finally feel satisfied. Before we could see other people’s locations at the drop of a virtual pin, if a friend told us they’d meet us under the big clock at 7, we had to wait without knowing if they’d actually turn up. We were familiar with being unsatisfied.

Now, we are slowly losing our ability to tolerate the unknown and delay gratification. These are necessary abilities for coping with anxiety. Our ability to imagine, our abstract and critical thinking, are degenerating. That’s before we take into account the effect of its blue light on your sleep, as smartphones disrupt our circadian rhythms and our very necessary, restorative daily rest.

The impact of social media

Recent studies have linked higher social media usage with lower self-esteem, and we know that this plays a role in both social and general anxiety disorder. Researchers suggest that people are using these sites at the expense of in-person communication; trading strong and supportive real-life relationships for tenuous, unreliable virtual ones. To further compound the problem, people who already have low self-esteem may be more likely to use social media in a problematic way. This can manifest as overuse or engaging in negative comparisons.

While social media is not inherently bad, it can be a breeding ground for peer pressure and the normalisation of certain types of appearance and even attitude. Having easy access to other people’s opinions of us on this scale appears to be quite detrimental, particularly to young minds. They see disproportionate “rewards” for certain content, which can skew how we feel about real-life accomplishments.

There’s also the “doomscrolling” aspect, where a steady stream of upsetting news activates our adrenaline and stress hormones, such as cortisol. Our body’s threat-response system puts us on “high alert”, even if you’re just sitting on your sofa. If we’re regularly receiving those kinds of notifications, we never switch off on a physiological level. This all serves to heighten the atmosphere of anxiety.

Solutions for smartphone-related anxiety

Unplugging from this very addictive device is essential, so keep an eye on your screen time. Naturally, this is easier said than done – social media apps in particular are geared towards giving you a dopamine rush that keeps you coming back. Here are some ways to break that cycle:

  • Turn off notifications: This is the easiest way to instantly cut out the loudest, most tempting distractions.
  • Set boundaries: Stop it being a round-the-clock habit by having clear blocks of morning or evening time where you put your device out of reach. Doing device-free dinners or using an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake you rather than your phone can also be helpful.
  • Disconnect one day per week: If you pick a date and let your loved ones know you’re switching off, it can have an extremely positive effect.
  • Try not to bring work home: If you can, limit calls and emails to working hours only. If you find yourself writing an email late at night, be conscious not to get lured down a YouTube rabbit hole.
  • Don’t bring it to bed: Grab anything else – a good book – that’s less harmful to your sleep hygiene and overall health.
  • Use your phone’s own tools: From downloading apps that track screen time, to removing harmful blue light and going greyscale to make your display less inviting, there are clever ways to put that device to good use. You can also find guided meditation and mindfulness exercises that will help with disconnecting and dealing with anxiety.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

Ultimately, then, it’s not the phone’s fault; it’s how we use it. Phones aren’t causing anxiety. However, our dependence on it can slowly alter our cognitive abilities and emotional regulation, impacting our psychological makeup and wellbeing. The power is in our hands – quite literally! Hopefully these pointers can help you regain control and get to grips with this very modern form of anxiety.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately. For immediate support from trained volunteers, you can speak to Samaritans Ireland at any time, free-of-charge. Call their 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or click here for more information.

Mou Sultuna

Dr Mou Sultana

Vhi Health Coach

Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist