Who doesn’t look at their phone to calm down?

Whether you’re “zoning out” or “zoning in,” there isn’t a faster or easier way to distract yourself from mental discomfort than to dive into your screen. In an instant, your thoughts are redirected toward a tiny, pleasing and controllable world.

I’m the first to admit that my screens have a sensational numbing effect when I need to get mind my off of something that’s bothering me.

The screen becomes whatever I need it to be in that moment. I can avoid responsibility or catch up on responsibilities. I can connect with a friend or totally disconnect from everyone. I can find evidence of any medical condition that my anxiety leads me to, or I can find evidence that contradicts what I fear to be true.

Doesn’t it often feel like you can message, research and hunt online all day long? The motivation to pull away from your screens can be hard to find, especially when you’re in avoidance mode.

CALMING DOWN AND UP

I’d like to suggest that, as adults, we need to start by taking responsibility for how our digital lifestyle of constant screen use affects us, including the more subtle impact it has on everyday life.

Since no one is jumping at the chance to make drastic changes in their screen consumption, it’s more plausible to make smaller and more digestible changes.

A great starting point for developing healthier screen habits is to shine a light on how much you use your screens to calm down, especially your phone.

Why start here? One, screens are such an integral part of modern life that a screen-calming habit is easy to spot. Two, because it’s unhealthy to rely on avoidance-promoting, artificial devices that really don’t achieve calm and peace.

The Observing Self

If you’re a screen lover like I am, it’s crucial to develop an observing self who takes inventory of how often you look at your screens and why you’re looking in a given moment.

Conduct an informal self-study of how many overwhelming moments of your day are met with a screen to calm you down. Is it some of the time or most of the time?

Is there anything you do without a screen present?

How often do you mindlessly check your screens with no real purpose at all?

These questions will help you to be hyperaware of your screen habits as we take it a step further into the world of digital overstimulation.

Your World of Digital Overstimulation

This blog post is centered on the commonly overlooked idea that we all have a limit, a mental edge in our digital world beyond which our mind and body begin to suffer.

Why take the time to learn your digital limit? Because reality is so much harder to manage when you don’t respect this limit and make minor adjustments when your mind and body send signals.

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, the digital limit is even more important to embrace because you’re likely to be worsening your suffering when screens are your solution for escaping mental discomfort.

The need to know and respond to your limit is also important for people who sit in front of a computer all day for work or school. These screen users usually have a higher tolerance for sustained digital engagement without reaching their edge. The limit is harder to spot when the signs of overstimulation are less pronounced and more infrequent.

ADVANCED SCREENING FOR SCREEN OVERDOSE

The ultimate goal of building the observing self I mentioned above is to recognize when you’ve taken in too much digital stimulation. I’m referring to that point in your screen time when you come up for a breath and realize that your mind and body are screaming at you that you’ve overdone it.

This self-awareness is the key to transforming your personal digital world into a techealthier place because it opens the door for a temporary reduction in digital stimulation.

A state of overstimulation might envelope you after 30 texts in a row, or after a full day of digital multitasking and non-stop scrolling, or during the fourth consecutive episode of Game of Thrones.

Identifying your digital breaking point is about knowing how your thoughts suffer and how your body reacts. The challenge is that it often requires picking your head up from the screen to realize the mental state you’re in.

In my digital world, I know that I’ve overindulged when my vision starts to get blurry. Sometimes I even feel mildly disoriented after I’ve had my face in my phone for too long. Another reliable signal that I’ve overdone it is when I start to feel mildly anxious or guilty about neglecting my responsibilities or my family or friends around me.

Think of this mentally uncomfortable moment as the point of “sudden screen overload,” or the more extreme label…”momentary screen insanity.” Not the type of insanity that implies a break from reality, but the sense that you’ve just crossed into of world of overstimulation, visual distortion and racing thoughts.

(Challenge: Pay close attention to what comes up for you when the topic of imposing limits on your digital consumption is discussed. We all resist when we’re addicted to something so rewarding. There’s valuable information in your reaction that can help you strive toward the techealthiest lifestyle.)

KNOW THYSELF WITH A SCREEN

Stop at various points in the day and check in with yourself, especially when you know you’ve been in screenland for a long time. Look for sudden shifts in your mood that you’re pretty sure don’t involve hunger, overcaffeination, or upsetting news.

If you’re jumping back and forth between screens, pay attention to what this does to your thoughts, your concentration, and your productivity.

What is your body telling you? Are your eyes killing you? Is your back breaking from hunching over the screen all morning? Remember, your digital breaking point might be reached by lunchtime if your eyes were glued to your screen all morning, or after 100 alternations between your phone and your laptop.

Again, what I’m promoting here is a heightened state of self-monitoring.

It might sound hard to achieve such mind-body awareness, but if you just check in with your body periodically during segments of heavy screen use, you will learn what your limit is.

The threshold for digital overstimulation varies from person to person. Your friend might be able to keep texting back and forth all day, but does that mean you have to keep up with their pace or frequency?

The good (and bad) news is that we’ve developed an extremely high tolerance for the physical and mental discomfort associated with constant screen use. We’re willing to keep looking at the screen even if it’s contributing to our suffering. Just know that all it usually takes to reset your digital world is a brief pause. Yes, that’s often all you need to stay healthy with your screens. Of course, it’s also healthy to have sustained periods of time without any screen (i.e., hours or days), but that’s not practical for most people who’ve built their existence around their gadgets.

If you had a better understanding of your limit, would you at least consider making subtle changes to avoid the negative consequences of digital overstimulation when your limit is reached?

I’m talking about inserting choice into an unconscious process…taking control of your digital world so that your stress doesn’t spike unnecessarily.

MORE SIGNS OF SCREEN OVERLOAD

Let’s take a closer look at the common signs of screen overload so that you can recognize when you need to take action to bring relief to your mind and body.

  • A sudden but temporary wave of depression and hopelessness when you disengage from prolonged use of a screen
  • Racing thoughts and mild disorientation after a long time spent jumping from one website to another
  • Heightened anxiety when transitioning back to one task following (mutli-screen) multitasking
  • The appearance of flashing lights or blurred vision after staring at a screen for an extended time or scrolling down on a page for too long
  • Intense irritability associated with feeling like you can’t disengage from your screen despite knowing that you have to.

This emotional cliff is easier to reach if you’re already stressed or anxious for other reasons.

Our lack of respect for the power of our screens to negatively impact our thoughts and feelings is harming us more than most of us care to admit.

The good news is that if we are willing to acknowledge the power of prolonged screen use to hurt us, then we can begin to promote a life of less stress and anxiety when we begin to make minor corrections in our digital habits. These changes can fend off opportunities to reach the point of momentary digital insanity.

Please note that the mental disruptions I’m referring to do not require that you throw your phone in the river. All it takes is the ability to disengage for a short period of time in order to “reset.”

What the reset looks like depends on you. Do you need to walk away from your computer and splash water on your face? Should you just turn your phone off for 10 minutes and do something else? Or do you require a more dramatic stoppage in which you limit your exposure to screens for the rest of the day?

That depends on you. Take time to learn your digital limit to reduce anxiety and avoid living a perpetually overstimulated lifestyle.

For more on this topic, take a look at my list of concrete suggestions for avoiding digital overstimulation.