Depression, Creativity and the Dangers of Being Constantly Plugged In

I listened to a podcast recently—an episode of On Being—where Krista Tippet interviews the great poet Mary Oliver. If you have read any of Mary Oliver’s poetry, you know she is brilliant and profound. Her words are shaping the world. And when Krista asked Mary what has helped her to become such a prolific writer, she said something I wasn’t expecting to hear.

She said it’s because she spends an inordinate amount of time in the woods.

plugged-in

Literally. She avoids buildings and crowds and smart phones and anything else that crowds out the voice of poetry in her life, because poetry has been one of the only things that has helped her find healing.

Mostly this caught my attention because recently I have started to to notice what a negative impact being constantly “plugged in” is having on me—on my creative spirit, on my relationships, on my health. The constant dinging and ringing and notifications and NOISE is crowding out the things I love most about myself and my life.

I know I’m not alone in this. 44{9ac618bfda39dd0c8c9a0232963cb9a2adfe54a7367c2d4954ad9e847b2e5305} of American say they couldn’t go a day without their mobile devices and yet deep down we know our phones are invading our bedrooms our relationships and our meals and pretty much every other aspect of our lives.

While most Americans say devices like smartphones, cellphones and personal computers have made their lives better and their jobs easier, some say they have been intrusive, increased their levels of stress and made it difficult to concentrate, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Younger people are particularly affected: almost 30 percent of those under 45 said the use of these devices made it harder to focus.

Marjorie Connelly, New York Times

I can’t help but wonder if there is, somehow, a better way.

Are you addicted?

A few months ago I went away for a week-long retreat, away from the Internet. No phone, no computer, no blogs, no email, no snapchat, no Instagram, no Twitter, no Facebook. And there were a few things I noticed about myself during my first few days without my phone.

First of all, I noticed my almost unconscious impulse to reach for the phone anytime I felt uncomfortable or bored. Anytime there was a lag in the conversation, anytime I had a few minutes before I was supposed to be somewhere, anytime I started worrying about something or wondering about someone, my first instinct was to reach for my phone.

The only thing was I would reach for the phone—and it wasn’t there.

Cue: mild panic.

What do I do with my hands without my phone? What do I do with those tiny little moments of free time, the transition from one activity to another? What do I do with those raging and swirling thoughts I find in my head during those tiny moments of down time? And what do I do with the fact that I’m realizing being “plugged in” may be stealing the best of myself from me?

It turns out there is a great explanation for why I felt this way.

When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline, says [technology journalist Matt Ritchell] Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re conditioned by a neurological response: Check me check me check me check meDigital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets, from NPR’s Fresh Air

Sound like an addiction to me.

That first time feeling.

Do you remember getting your first smart phone?

I remember the actual day I got mine. It was fall and I was living in Portland, OR. I was right in the middle of my graduate studies at George Fox University and although I had carried my own cell phone plan since college, my dad mentioned that if I wanted to join the “family plan”, I could get the new iPhone. The iPhone.

There was such a reverence about it back then.

There is still a sort of reverence about it, I suppose, although it’s morphed a bit from a realization of all the things this phone could make possible to a world where life literally doesn’t feel possible without it. But at the time I was working nearly full-time at a restaurant and taking graduate level classes at night and working on my thesis and barely maintaining some semblance of a social life.

I was commuting to and from work on school on my bike and the MAX train—a very typical way but also time-consuming way to get around in the city—so the thought of being able to SEND EMAILS from MY PHONE on THE TRAIN was like a magic trick I couldn’t possibly imagine.

I had decided the iPhone was going to completely change my life.

I was not wrong about that.

How the iPhone is changing us.

As I started thinking about this and doing some research, I was not surprised to find I’m not alone in wondering if the iPhone—or more accurately this ability to be constantly plugged in—has created more negative change than it has positive change. I was surprised to find, however, how much tangible research there is showing how dangerous this tendency can be for our brains and hearts.

One article from the New York Times, for example, talks about how technology might be actually altering our personalities.

Yes, you read that right. Altering our personalities. Check this out:

Technology may be slowly reshaping your personality. Some experts believe excessive use of the Internet, cellphones and other technologies can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic.

The author goes on to say…

Typically, the concern about our dependence on technology is that it detracts from our time with family and friends in the real world. But psychologists have become intrigued by a more subtle and insidious effect of our online interactions. It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room change the core of who we are…

Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times

I have to say my experience validates this claim. Being away from my phone for a week, I started to feel more in touch with that “inner voice” people so often talk about, the one that is slowly guiding us to the next right thing. I started to hear that voice much more clearly than I had been hearing it before, since it had been crowded out by all the noise.

I started to feel more settled with myself. Those “phantom limb” moments—the ones where I would reach for a phone which wasn’t there—became fewer and further between. Eventually I began to feel like I didn’t really miss the thing.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

That this thing which was supposed to help us be so much more connected, so much more efficient, might be preventing us from being connected to the person we must be connected to if we’re ever going to connect with anybody else: ourselves.

Is it making you overwhelmed?

As far as efficiency and productivity are concerned, I have to admit, I do doubt my ability to make it through a day of my regular life without my iPhone. Still, all the dinging and ringing and constant buzzing—even just knowing it is in my purse waiting for me when I’m done with a meeting or a writing session—makes me feel a tiny bit on edge.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in feeling that “on edge” feeling.

This is actually how our brains were designed to work:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

Here’s Why It’s Important to Unplug


So as far as what Mary Oliver said about spending a lot of time in the woods, she might be onto something that would help all of us to nurture our creative minds, which are the most valuable resource we have—our only hope for solving difficult problems, creating beautiful things and imagining a better world.

Disconnecting from “task positive” so that “task negative” has a chance to work.

Constant connectivity makes it hard to sustain attention on one task at a time. It can make us get all willy-nilly with our focus, giving our attention to whatever is right in front of us, without thinking about whether or not what is in front of us is truly worth our time. As a result, it’s harder to engage in deep thought, critical thought, and creativity.

Daniel J. Levitin, New York Times

I have to wonder, is being constantly plugged in worth the trade we’re making?

Is it making you depressed?

This is not just something we say to each other in passing—like, “Man, Facebook makes me depressed” or “every time I get on Instagram I start comparing myself to other people.” Research is beginning to show what a profound impact being dialed in to technology is having on our emotion health.

Check out the findings of this study:

The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time… On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.

—Ethan Kross

If the being constantly plugged into the internet is making us so miserable, why do we keep going back to it?

Life with technology

I was having a really hard day a few weeks ago—one of those days where it feels like everything is falling apart and none of your hard work matters and you should just throw your hands up and quit. So I did what Mary Oliver suggested and I went to the woods. I got in my car and drove 30 minutes from my house, and on the way, I plugged my ear phones and called my dad, one of the many people I know I can always call when I’m feeling down.

I spent the next hour walking through the woods, talking and crying to my dad on my iPhone, headphones plugged in, feeling like he was right next to me, despite the fact that he is a few thousand miles away.

We have to admit, for all that technology steals from us, it is also pretty incredible.

“Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too—in the 21st century and the modern age—we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential,” … ”And yet… after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts.”

Digital Overload, from NPR’s Fresh Air

What does it look like to have a more positive relationship with technology in our lives?

Life without technology?

I’ll turn this question to you: what does it look like to have a good relationship with your technology? I don’t have a clear-cut answer to this question and I don’t suspect you do, either, but I’m learning, slowly, and trying to take steps in the right direction.

There are really two things I’m doing.

First, I’m paying attention.

I’m paying attention to the ways I depend on my technology, to my fear of being without it, to my tendency to use it as a way to numb and distract and disengage and to get those little “dopamine hits” I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Then, when I notice myself doing those things, I just sort of smile and try to have grace for the struggling human that I am in this world where technology plays such a big part in our existence.

This—paying attention, becoming aware, having grace, surrendering the need to “fix” or “change” myself—is, always and ironically the first and most crucial step to changing anything, especially an addiction.

Second, I’m learning to disconnect.

This is something that, if I’m honest, causes me a considerable amount of anxiety, but that I know is good for me because every time I do it, I come back feeling more like myself. I’m making it a point to step away from my devices for a few days, or hours, or even just minutes at a time. One day each week. One hour each day. One week each year.

I’m trying to be specific and intentional about this. And again, having grace for myself when it doesn’t go exactly how I plan.

The Internet will survive without you.

There is this strange and embarrassing sense the internet will not survive without us, don’t you think? What will people think when we don’t respond to their text messages, emails and Tweets? It’s ridiculous. And yet it is also the natural product of the world we live in—where it’s very easy for us to feel like we’re the center of our own little ringing and dinging universe.

So I just remind myself that I am, of course, not in charge of the online world or any world at all for that matter, thank goodness, that the Earth will keep on spinning around the sun without my assistance. I can let go and just be.

In fact, that is all I need to do: just be.

This surrender, like most surrenders, feels agonizing—until I do it. Then it feels pretty darn miraculous.

I am feeling like myself again.

Extra Resources:

7 comments on “Depression, Creativity and the Dangers of Being Constantly Plugged In

  1. Thank you Ally,
    I haven’t felt like myself in a long time. Sometimes I feel like I live in another dimension, on-line, and the real world seems false.
    I am glad you are feeling like yourself again. Your dad sounds like a wonderful, kind man. My dad died on March 17th, eighteen years ago. I miss his voice.
    Sending you hugs. Sunbeams, and trees.

    xo
    Pamela

  2. Such a timely article. Lately, I’ve been thinking about taking a Facebook sabbatical. I’m finding that it sucks up too much of my time, and I can’t even put my finger on what it is I’m on there for after I’ve been scrolling through my feed for a while. I’ve been wondering what my life would look like if I cut out social media beyond just professional use. I have this sinking feeling that I’d find out I’ve been wasting a whole lot of time. I loved your idea about spending time in the woods. I think that is probably the perfect solution!

    • Jessica, I dropped out of Facebook this past June, thinking i’d take a month off. I found that after checking it and then getting lost in the threads, I was becoming anxious and overwhelmed. Now it is November 2nd and I haven’t been back on it once. I did send my friends a final post saying that I was leaving Facebook so they knew I wasn’t ignoring them. And I asked that if anyone needed to contact me, to please call me! And they have! I’ll never go back to FB again. My life is much simpler, less anxious and my time is better spent. Good luck to you!

  3. The irony is not lost on me that I read your post on my smartphone. Which I used to check my email. When I was bored. And got a little jolt of ‘Ah, ha!’ when I saw I had an email from Allison. Then I read the post. Talk about a buzz kill….

  4. I remember when you got that first iPhone you jokingly called it your “Jesus” phone because it was “everything you need.” I’m fairly certain that Moses didn’t envision the iPhone when God gave him the first two commandments but I’ve often wondered what it must look like to God as we “literally” bow our heads before our phones & tablets looking for wisdom (from google) and relationship(from Facebook) while ignoring the One who so willingly longs to offer us both. True to form, humanity is prone to worship the creature rather than the creator, and I’m sure I am among its worst offenders.

    Thanks for the reminder and the perspective. As always, your gift for effectively relaying lessons learned puts you in a category of teachers only a relative few have attained.

    Drive safe 😉

  5. Thank goodness I don’t own an iphone, I do however own a smart cell phone!! But I no longer use it for emails or instant messaging!! I do use it for Pictures and phone calls from my family and friends, when I am in my 2012 Volkswagen Passat SEL!!

    I do Love too take Pictures of Nature my cat and more!!

    God Bless All my Sisters and Brothers in Christ Jesus ( Yeshua ) and Your Families and Friends!!

    Love Always and Shalom Everyone,

    Kristi Ann

  6. “This—paying attention, becoming aware, having grace, surrendering the need to “fix” or “change” myself—is, always and ironically the first and most crucial step to changing anything, especially an addiction.”

    I think this is the key to it all. Anything can be used as a distraction from reality, smartphones are just the most popular tool for distraction right now. What you are suggesting above is what I gained from a regular mindfulness meditation practice. It helped me to calm the commotion in my head often referred to as monkey mind. This made me more aware of my habits, thoughts, and issues. It also made me realize that I can accept that I have anxieties as well as the power to face them and not let them control me.

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