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Social Media and News Cause Stress — 5 Tips to Improve Your Relationship With Your Phone

Learn to engage more fully in the daily activities that bring you balance and true joy.


You’re looking forward to unwinding and soaking up the last of the warm weather before fall truly sets in. But every time you try to step away, your phone is your shadow. Between texts, social media, news alerts, and email notifications, it’s hard to ignore the seemingly incessant and stress-inducing “pings” — and research shows you’re not alone. A recent survey reveals that the average American checks her device every 12 minutes — this constant vigilance puts our nervous system on “high alert,” sending our anxiety soaring.

“The nonstop distraction from our devices quickly becomes background noise, leading to ‘ambient agitation,’ the feeling that we’re always on-edge,” observes Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PhD, author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. “We start to worry that stepping away, even for little while, will leave us disconnected, or that we’ll miss out on something.” To counteract that feeling, we often dive in even more, but researchers have found that spending even 30 minutes on social media can heighten stress levels and trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety.

With our work and family lives intertwined with technology, it can be hard to do a “digital detox” and put our devices away. The good news is there’s no need to ditch your phone for good — simply taking a short break from it each day is shown to boost spirits and dial down tension. Read on for easy ways to take back control over your tech, so you can feel the bliss of uninterrupted relaxation.

Lonely? Send a loving snail mail message.

You love keeping up with friends on Facebook, but after you log off, you often feel more isolated. Research shows 45 minutes of online communication each day can lead to loneliness.

One reason is that social media primes our brain to seek validation from the outside world, reveals Erik Peper, PhD, author of Tech Stress. “This can weaken our ability to generate our own positive emotions.”

To foster deeper connections, try reaching out to loved ones in lowtech ways. “Just replace one text with an old-fashioned phone call,” suggests Dodgen-Magee. Also, consider sending a friend or loved one a “thinking of you” missive, like a postcard or greeting card. Not only does expressing yourself boost feel-good creativity, simply writing in your own hand is shown to dial down loneliness by enhancing your sense of self. After all, there are few things more “you” than your own handwriting and signature. And the person receiving your message will also get a joy boost, knowing that you’ve taken the time to slow down and write a heartfelt note.

Overwhelmed? Relax into the present moment.

You’re the consummate professional, which means answering work emails is a top priority — but this nonstop pressure sends your anxiety soaring. Explains Peper, “Alerts from our devices stimulate our brain to ask, ‘What’s going on now?’ leading to more multitasking and less relaxing.”

Create instant calm by shutting off notifications and taking one minute to do a “five senses” assessment. “Simply name something you can hear, taste, touch, see and smell,” encourages Dodgen-Magee. For example, you might listen to birds chirping or gaze at a photo of a beloved family member. Sprinkling these mini tech-breaks throughout your day grounds you in the moment, and these quick respites are like taking a sip of water during a workout because they train your brain to pause and focus on your well-being, notes Dodgen-Magee.

Envious? Replace FOMO with JOMO.

Seeing photos of your friend’s island getaway on Facebook leaves you with a twinge of envy. Of course you’re happy for her, but at the same time, you feel an acute sense of jealousy and fear of missing out (FOMO). FOMO can extend to the fear that we are not having the experiences we should be, says psychotherapist Brittany Morris. “The unrealistic, idealized photos on social media make us believe that if our lives aren’t as exciting, we must be doing something wrong.”

Discover more happiness every day by swapping FOMO for JOMO (joy of missing out). “JOMO is the ability to remain content in the present,” says Morris. “It’s a choice that puts self-love front and center.” To reap the rewards of this positive mindset, look back on a few things you were grateful for missing out on — like skipping a crowded party — and spend the day doing something you love, like reading or gardening. Taking the time to get to know yourself better tamps down envy by helping you refocus on your own dreams, as well as the passions that will leave you fulfilled.

Fearful? Set ‘contained’ time limits.

After a long night, you’re ready to head to bed, but you decide to check the news on your phone one last time. Suddenly, all you see are sad stories that make your heart sink. You know taking in too much bad news isn’t good for you, but you can’t stop “doomscrolling,” and it’s dialing up your fears and making you feel on-edge.

To defuse your sense of dread, let your environment curb news overload. Waiting in line at the grocery store, for example, gives you an external limitation — in other words, you can only check your phone for a few minutes while you stand there. This prevents you from going down the rabbit hole of news sites, without you needing to exert any so-called “willpower.”

Indeed, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are in control of our devices, not the other way around, says Ama Marston, coauthor of Type R, Transformative Resilience for Thriving in a Turbulent World. “When we limit our use of technology, we engage more fully in the daily activities that bring us balance and true joy.”

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First for Women.

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