Technology, with all the amazing benefits it brings to our lives – convenience, connectivity, efficiency, advances in medicine – also exacts a mighty toll in terms of stress. When talk turns to the advantages of turning off your smartphone and laptop for a while, Ann Pardo invites us to examine the metaphor of “unplugging.”
“It’s interesting when you think about what popularized the term – it was when rock musicians unplugged their instruments and discovered it was possible to make some beautiful music.”
As Director of Life Management in Tucson, Ann sees a lot of “plugged-in” Ranch guests in the course of a typical week. She describes an all-too-common scenario in which someone first arrives at the Ranch – a person, let’s say, with a high-level executive lifestyle and all the responsibility, complexity and stress that entails.
“This guest emerges from her car and walks to the Reservations desk with a phone stuck in her ear. She is gently reminded of the Ranch policy, which is no cell phone conversation except in rooms or specially designated areas. She’s thinking about having a glass of wine, then learns there’s a no-alcohol policy here. You can see a kind of stunned look come over her face. How is she going to manage?
“Three days later,” Ann continues, “she has discovered that the wine isn’t an issue. She’s had three brilliant experiences since her arrival. She’s relaxed. The cell phone is gone, and it’s not the end of the world.”
Connectivity vs. relationships
There’s little doubt that technology greatly enriches our lives, but its overuse can wreak all kinds of personal damage and disruption. “Data smog” is the term for the overwhelming barrage of useless or trivial information, which can lead to depression and anxiety – not to mention a sense of being out of control. The information overload can be so great that it prevents restorative sleep, or even rest – that feeling of being unable to “turn off” your brain.
You can be connected to thousands of people via social networks and not have one real-world friend who’s available for sharing a cup of coffee. You can be so consumed by your cyber-addiction that you no longer engage with your community, or even your family. Technology, in excess, can diminish us as human beings, according to Julie Haber, Director of Spiritual Programs in Tucson. “From a spiritual perspective, it is really important to unplug more from technology. In some ways it’s amazing how it has connected us all, but in another way we feel more isolated than ever from one another, and more lonely.” While there are apps that can help you to breathe, pray, or practice gratitude, Julie says, “there is no app that’s better than connecting with nature and other people.”
Scales of meaningfulness
A red-flag warning (and a depressingly common sight these days): the person passing you by on the street with his entire attention focused on a cell phone.
“By not making eye contact with you, that person is devaluing your humanity,” Ann says. “By ignoring your presence, he is diminishing the importance of you and everyone else around him.”
How do you know when enough becomes too much, and you need to unplug? It’s one thing to let go of the phone while on vacation (even that’s a challenge for some) – but what about when it’s time to return to the daily demands of parents, children, spouses and work? Ann suggests a simple solution: Create a sliding scale with values representing the degree of “meaningfulness” of each device you own.
“Take your phone, laptop, iPad, e-reader or whatever it is, and think carefully about each item. Does it enhance your life? Is it meaningful, does it add value to your life? Rate each on a scale of 1 to 10.”
You may find that the values are not permanent; they may change depending on the day, or the circumstances of your life at a given time. For example: A parent or child is hospitalized, so your communication needs ramp up temporarily. There’s no question that you’ll be “on call” for the time being.
Now, examine each score. If your laptop rates a 3 in terms of its true meaningfulness, ask yourself why it occupies 80 percent of your time and attention when you’re at home. If your smartphone rates an 8, maybe a lot of that meaningfulness is due to its GPS component (because you’re hopeless at directions) – but do you really need to obsessively check every text message, call and email that comes your way? Probably not.
Maintaining the balance
As you acquire the habit of monitoring the essential importance of each device, it will become easier to recognize when things fall out of balance and you’ll get better at knowing when to unplug.
Ultimately, Ann says, the question boils down to this: “Do you hold the power over the device, or does it hold the power over you? Technology gives us tools to enhance our lives; it is not meant to control us. When that happens, it’s no longer your life – it’s a bad sci-fi movie.”
When Technology Can Help
In March 2013 a panel of experts at the Harvard Forum for Public Health discussion “Managing Stress: Protecting Your Health” rallied around the idea that technology – so often blamed for our high levels of stress – could actually be used to foster mindfulness and reduce anxiety.
Here are three ways technology can help to lower stress:
1. Stress reduction – Some technologies, including online audio and video content designed to slow your brain waves with the goal of relaxation, can help to pull you away from a high level of anxiety into a state of calm and mindfulness.
2. Monitoring symptoms – Gadgets and smartphone apps use sensors to keep track of blood pressure and other physical symptoms of stress, gently reminding you to change course when anxiety levels begin to escalate.
3. Making meaningful connections – Strong social networks can actually improve mental health. Communicating through social networks has strengthened family bonds, maintained or renewed long-distance friendships and forged communities of like-minded individuals. The caveat: Moderation is key.
APPS FOR DE-STRESSING
Use your smartphone or tablet as a tool to help bring your life into a better balance. With these apps, you can turn your phone into an indispensable meditation guide, yoga teacher, sleep aid and wellness coach.