When Staying Connected Means Staying Stressed

People are more connected than ever, but is that a good thing? Psychologists must be prepared to deal with higher levels of stress from patients who are always checking their inboxes, looking for social media updates, playing computer games or watching for new text messages. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association finds that stress levels for “constant checkers” are higher than those who are more willing to put their devices away. Nearly a quarter of Americans say technology use is a source of stress.

Why Do Devices Make Patients So Stressed?

There are two reasons patients are stressed by their electronic devices and game consoles. First, people feel like they are tethered to their devices and must check them as frequently as possible — both for personal use and for work. Second, social media might make people feel worse about themselves.

Addiction is when someone engages in compulsive, rewarding behavior that is difficult to control. While it’s typically associated with drugs, tobacco and alcohol, it’s easy to see how addiction may include a patient’s relationship with a phone, tablet, computer or console. The risks go beyond simply not being able to put down the iPhone or turn off the Xbox — researchers have shown that Internet addiction can have neuropsychological implications that are consistent with other types of addiction, such as substance dependency and compulsive gambling.

According to the study, signs of addiction may include:

  • Preoccupation with devices and social media apps
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Irritability, anxiety or sadness when not using devices
  • Loss of interest in other activities
  • Lying to others about the amount of time spent online

Social media, in particular, can be a significant source of stress. Social comparison theory tells us that patients can be depressed when they constantly measure themselves to the status, successes and situations experienced by others on social media. This kind of evaluation can lead to the patient doubting his or her looks, intelligence and success. Millennials are especially sensitive to social comparison issues, as they have been using technology all their lives to grade themselves relative to their peers.

One way social comparison issues can manifest is when it comes to body image. A 2016 study of American women found that pictures on Pinterest can lead to engagement in extreme weight-loss behaviors.

How to Help Patients Unplug

Everybody is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping patients lower stress from device usage. In some cases, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very helpful. CBT works by helping the patients reframe negative thought patterns and understand the relationships between their thoughts and actions. These exercises help people perceive events and stressors differently, helping them see fewer dead ends and more opportunities.

Mindfulness can also help patients experience less stress. Therapeutic mindfulness exercises help patients focus on their wellbeing in the present, pushing aside wandering thoughts. Mindfulness works best when practiced on a daily basis.

Psychologists can also help patients create technology usage management guidelines to help patients set boundaries on when they can use their devices. Common boundaries include:

  • No devices at the dinner table
  • No devices during family time
  • Periodic “digital detox” days
  • No devices when with friends
  • Turning off social media notifications

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