Anxious and Unaware

Today I want to continue discussing practical ways to turn away from devices and toward people. If you missed the intro to this series this is only the 2nd entry so it’s fairly easy to get up to speed.

There’s a lot of discussion these days about whether or not games are addictive, what constitutes a “problem with technology” and how much is too much when it comes to spending time on our devices. To get an idea of what might be drawing us to screens again and again, consider Jaak Panksepp and his work regarding internet addiction. While I encourage you to evaluate the article for yourself, in summary it says that problematic internet use is most strongly associated with fear and sadness while it less likely in those who measure high in playfulness and seeking behavior.

Fear, in this study, is defined as “having feelings of anxiety, feeling tense, worrying, struggling with decisions, ruminating about past decisions and statements, losing sleep, and not typically being courageous” which certainly fits me at my worst. I have a bad habit of worrying about how I spend my time even when it’s something important. Fear, especially anxiety is what I want to focus on today.

I remember the first counselor I ever went to. We must have been on session 2 when she starts trying to hand me worksheets about progressive relaxation, breathing techniques and other ways of removing stress. At the time I was thinking that therapy primarily was going to consist of someone asking me how I felt and generally giving me space to share about my day. From there I would just leave and go about my day. I didn’t want to take home a literal folder full of exercises and I wasn’t going to use them.

You see, I had a serious misconception when I was first introduced to these techniques which was that I would become dependent on them. That every time I had to make a phone call to anyone I didn’t know personally — an anxiety evoking prospect at the time — I was going to have to spent 10 minute deep breathing for the rest of my life! No thank you. I think I’ll just be anxious.

At the time I worked for a network security company for whom I was on call at all times. If a server went down, if service was degraded, I was the first person to know about it and the first person to take care of things. Needless to say that getting woken up in the middle of the night and having to recall how to set up a reverse ssh tunnel which will allow you to route around a bad NAT configuration on your network switch does not encourage sweet dreams.

I woke up every morning tired and I spent every night laying awake. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I was spending plenty of time playing video games in the evenings.

Sensation is an interesting thing. It’s happening all the time but we each learn, some better than others, to direct our attention toward it or away from it. We are frequently feeling things in our bodies but we only engage with those sensations as much as we chose to. Screens can be a powerful distraction from such bodily experiences. Working in a virtual world doesn’t require that you be aware of your body in the same way that playing a sport or being active outdoors does. It’s safe to tune out everything happening to you and just associate with that screen.

For me, anxiety was the background noise of life. It was the water to the fish of my existence. I drowned it out with programming projects, video games and movies. If you were to ask me I wouldn’t have even been aware of it at first. I didn’t know it was there until I started loosing sleep and yet it was running me. It controlled so much of what I did and didn’t do not just in spite of my avoidance but because of it.

Eventually I left that counselor. I decided it wasn’t a good fit and that I was going to find someone else who better understood what I wanted to get out of counseling. I was a little ignorant, a little arrogant, a little right, and very tired.

I launched a full scale scientific investigation of my sleep patterns complete with recording devices and sleep tracking software. I was going to get to the bottom of this. I made some improvements to my sleep hygiene but, for the most part, my sleep didn’t improve dramatically until I starting being able to rest.

When, 6 years later, I would graduate from a counseling program myself I realized just how helpful those exercises, that I received at the start of my journey, really were. I had anxiety about so many things and I’m told that it runs in my family. I had learned to stress about every misstep, every missed opportunity and each failing in my routine. Every social interaction and conversation had carried with it some lingering sense of having not done something right and facing these feelings was the beginning of healing.

I started practicing meditation and deep breathing. When I encountered situations which provoked anxiety I saw it as an opportunity to teach my body to remain calm and to maintain a level head. Things like interacting with the cashier in the checkout line, joking with a waitress, asking for a spot at the gym, which had previously filled me with dread, slowly lost their power as I began to dismantle the anxious ball I had become.

Becoming aware of what you are feeling is the only way you’ll move toward greater acceptance and understanding of what’s happening inside of you. Without a connection to these responses your body and its reaction will remain alien and, consequently, it won’t be a very fun thing to live inside of. Thankfully learning to recognize emotions and calm the fear inside of yourself is relatively simple.

For those who have difficulty recognizing whether or not they are anxious, or what they are feeling at all, I recommend that you practice, with a therapist, identifying your emotional responses and gradually getting better at naming your bodily experiences. For those who are able to identify their anxiety, breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are incredibly useful for keeping fear and worry in check.

Remember how I mentioned that misconception, that I would be doing exercises forever? Well it turns out that when you practice relaxing in previously anxiety-provoking situations you teach your body that there isn’t anything to be afraid of. That there isn’t any immediate harm and that the alarm system can stand down in this scenario and, here’s the important part: it remembers. With enough repeated exposures to remaining calm in a given scenario your body gets the message: anxiety is not needed here, I can breath normally. Far from having to depend on these things the rest of your life, you can significantly reduce situation-specific anxiety in a matter of weeks.

Lest you forget why it is were are talking about anxiety in the first place, anxiety is a major risk factor for problematic internet use. Your ability to regulate anxiety has a major impact on whether or not you’ll be able to step away from your device and start having face-to-face connection.

How much anxiety do you carry around and what are you going to do about it? It might be more than some breathing exercises, maybe your sugar intake has to change or it could be time to start seeing a therapist. Whatever you decide to do, remember that anxiety does not live in a vacuum. It subtly effects how we spend our time and, if we’re not careful, it will push us right into our screens.

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