The Unanticipated: Digital Stress
Could This Be Our Modern Achilles’ Heel?
by Cheryl Hann and Moira Theede
The rapid rise of technological advancements in the last few decades has propelled researchers to delve deeper into understanding stress in the 21st century. Researchers from many different fields better understand the critical impact of negative stress on the whole body and how it can disrupt the healthy patterns essential for our biological balance (homeostasis). Technology plays an important role in scientific advancement, but it is also creating a domino effect of unanticipated consequences.
The advancing speed of technology is nothing short of astounding, affecting our lives in ways previously inconceivable. The demands of revolving-door information processing, storage and retrieval, and electronic interactions can lead to “digital stress” and can be associated with anxiety, overwhelm, depression, and isolation. “Digital toxicity is simply the daily tsunami of information overload created by the endless cable channels, unlimited varieties of entertainment options, and countless ways to communicate” (Seaward 2015). Studies show our attention and attending skills are being compromised, eroded by endless distractions, which are often 24/7. The consequences have far-reaching implications.
Technologies have never been just add-on activities. They have changed our language, our way of relating to one another, how we share, and our expectations of ourselves and our relationships. We now have the capability to connect with almost anyone in the world, wherever they are, and whenever we desire. “So what? Everything changes,” you might say. And, indeed, it does. Who wouldn’t want instant answers to questions, niggling or profound? Who wouldn’t want to communicate with someone on the other side of the world? Many of us have work environments now almost completely dependent on the use of technology and most of us have at least one personal device with which it would be difficult to part. Although we may enjoy the newest and latest technology, science is discovering we need to be more discerning about our use of “high speed, high tech” mediums. MIT professor, Sherry Turkle (2015), warns we are looking at the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” when interacting solely on our devices. She suggests we should spend more of our time being physically present in “real” conversations to reclaim both depth and attention in our relationships.
Although technology allows us to connect with others, it is not the same as interpersonal connection. High tech communication devices activate our curiosity and pleasure-seeking neurocircuits. These electronic connections fuel the release of dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter released by dopaminergic neurons in the brain. Although being electronically connected might increase the quantity of our interactions, it misses out on what is biologically needed for increasing the quality of relationships. By the nature of our mammalian neurophysiology and how we evolved as human beings, social connection is vital to well-being. Physical presence versus screen presence is an important part of interpersonal connectedness. Face to face, eye to eye “presence” stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin (Carter, Harris, Porges, 2009). When oxytocin is released, it enhances our sense of compassion, empathy, and caring.
At the same time, that electronic connection provides repeated dopamine surges, we are being diverted by “attention snatchers” (Palladino, 2015), those appealing colours that flash across the screen, changing images and novel sounds. We may feel we are being entertained, but at a deeper level our bodybrain responds to the continual stimuli as ongoing, low-grade threats, keeping our nervous systems activated (think pings and phantom rings). Attention snatchers can sabotage our ability to fully relax and rest. They also feed into the “fear of missing out” referred to as FOMO which is one rationale explaining screen addictions.
In addition, on-screen devices disrupt our biological clocks, which compounds the above problems. Self-luminous screens can suppress the release of melatonin, the hormone that influences quality sleep. Fragmented sleep and sleep debt can further depress the immune system, increase irritability, slow thinking, increase error and accident rates, and decrease work productivity. Current sleep researchers are using the term sleep robbers to describe distractions specific to the bedroom that interfere with quality sleep. And yes, tech devices are on the list.
Every living moment, our nervous system takes in thousands of bits of information simultaneously from our internal body systems and from our external environment, including the digital world. Neuromarketing companies are utilizing sophisticated neuroscience research and technology such as MRIs and EEGs to discover consumers’ “digital bliss points” (Palladino, 2015). The ability to target and tailor advertising to consumer’s neurochemicals adds a whole new level of power for marketing and sales. The developing brains of children and adolescents may be particularly vulnerable.
Although our lives have become more automated, our overall stress load has not decreased. We are faced with new and insidious stressors to which we can be unknowingly vulnerable. At the same time we can access one of the greatest regulators for homeostasis by just stepping outside into the wonders of nature. Add interpersonal connectedness with another and we have a non-tech remedy. Fascination with technology may also be our modern Achilles’ heel!
How we use technologies is personal and engenders personal responsibility. How we use it influences who we become and what we care about. Knowing how we are continually under the influence of the “medium” can help us steer through the plethora of choice. Self-awareness and healthy boundaries can make a tremendous difference to our health and wellness. Choose well and travel safely.
Cheryl Hann, RN, HN-BC, SEP, maintains a wellness-focused private practice in Kelowna, BC, helping her clients develop wellness strategies, mind-body awareness, and to utilize tools/techniques that foster self-empowerment. She is a founding member of the Weaving Wellness Co-operative in Kelowna.
Moira Theede, BScN, MSc, of Saskatoon, has a keen interest in brain plasticity, IPNB, and neuroscience. She has training in The Polyvagal Theory with Dr. S. Porges—a platform that provides a converging link between all approaches to wellness.
Cheryl and Moira enjoy bringing workshops and collaborative projects related to stress management, sleep, and the Polyvagal Theory to their home communities of Kelowna and Saskatoon. To contact either one, email: email@example.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.