Don’t Look Away From The Pain: Mindfulness for the Internet Age

Rina Kravets
Jan 30 · 7 min read

Distracting yourself with the vastness of the internet seems like a great way to deal with negative emotions, but it is not a long term coping mechanism. Here’s what is.

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Social media plays a considerable part in the quality of life of many people. Our modern societies lack many traditional safety nets, and our personalised informational flows break down of community life into a fragmented world. Social media devises an extra layer of companionship and support for many people, even while they are otherwise isolated from the world.

Smartphones have been compared to adult pacifiers in that they bestow a psychological comfort and stress relief in a convenient, pleasantly designed edgeless form. We experience a particular kind of safety in the arms of our mobile device. It’s entirely personal to us, goes with us everywhere, and feels secure, privacy concerns and breaches be damned.

There is, however, a downside to the reliance on the technology for mental well-being. Though virtual networks enhance self-esteem in users who focus on contacts with close friends, this momentary increase in self-esteem reduces self-control. Similarly to the effect substances have on individuals: though alcohol is a taste of invincibility for many, it may lead to many impulsive behaviours such as aggression and poor self-control.

For those of us who were not born into an ideal life, self-control is one primary tool for building a better reality for ourselves. Everything we do, from starting a career to maintaining healthy body weight, hinders on being able to control desires and impulses long enough to pursue an end goal.

Along with the actual behaviour that is the result of self-control, the essential ingredients for a tidy mind are emotional regulation and thought regulation. To maintain discipline (also known as the ever-coveted grind), a person needs to have a bird’s eye view of their life. They must be aware of the goals they are working towards to make the right decisions.

Why Be Mindful When You Can Be Entertained?

Mindfulness is primarily a tool. To be mindful is to be aware of what is happening, to have control of processes going on in one’s mind. You become a passenger instead of being a helpless drifter, thrown hither and dither by the whims of thought and emotion. Though it is not a magic wand, it’s akin to a booster in battling negative emotions.

The ability to be mindful hinders on one’s focus on the present moment while allowing yourself to see the bigger picture of one’s life. Yet studies have shown “when people are addicted to social media, their ability to be mindful to what they are doing in the present tends to be impaired because of the distraction caused by the urge to access social media.”

Some decry with absolute certainty that Google is the enemy of concentration. Whether or not the absolutist claim is correct, there are many facets to the distracting nature of our digital discourse. From push notifications to pop-up instant messages, too sickeningly catchy graphics, and clickbait — the jargon of the web. Everything about the way our experience on the internet is designed promotes distraction, along with an irresistible enticing quality. Even if we know the content will probably end up not meriting our attention at all, we still click on it.

It’s a series of microscopic attacks on our attention, and those amongst us that don’t indulge in reading alarmist articles about the internet don’t know to what extent it’s happening.

Though people have an inkling that they spend too much time on their phones, they aren’t confronting the extent of the problem. Just try googling ‘shock’ and ‘screen time’, the app most commonly used to track mobile phone use. Even people who are aware they have a problem with smartphone usage are still surprised when they see the actual numbers.

Should the content be less than garishly distracting, there are other traps available to undermine thought. Promotional materials are disguised as ‘consumer advice’ and useful features. Companies can pose as genuine customers thanks to the anonymity afforded by the web and pass off advertising as reviews. They promise a means to always stay on top of what’s new and exciting in the form of newsletters, then give the same regurgitated information each week with new advertising tucked on. They promote tools to manage our time and experience better and instead give counters to keep track of the fact you’ve lost track of your time.

It’s not just about beating the drums of war and complaining that continually checking your phone is rude and petty. It’s about the immediate, tangible quality of life deterioration you experience as a result of the faulty design of these products. Ask yourself — to what extent am I enjoying an outing with friends if I’m on my phone and missing spontaneous moments? Am I enjoying my time reading articles if half of them are full of filler I’ve already read before? Do I appreciate what the algorithms are suggesting me, or am I riding the coattail of the high I got reading stellar writing ages ago?

What Do You Think About When You Think About Thinking

Much is made online of ‘being your best self’ and ‘living your best life’. Though there are discussions of the insipidness of self-care culture and whether it genuinely does any good, it’s indisputable that striving to better your person is noble.

The question is whether it’s possible to use jumbled and chaotic tidbits picked off of platforms with varying degrees of rigour and content monitoring to better one’s self. Following a model constructed by researchers Fritz Strack and Roland Deutsch, two systems contribute to decision making. A reflective system, one that uses facts and values to make intentional decisions. And an impulsive system, that acts spontaneously without consideration for broader consequences, sometimes contrary to a person’s intentions or goals.

Using the reflective system takes mental time and effort. Distraction and heightened or depressive mental states will not allow you to take full advantage of it. In contrast, the impulsive system can run on autopilot while using up little mental energy. It may control behaviour under stress or obstruction. And so the reflective system is fragile, while the impulsive is resilient.

To deprive yourself of time for reflection mean tilting the balance to impulsiveness. Are you putting forth your best self if you’re following a wellness trend as a knee-jerk reaction, instead of contemplating what’s best for you?

Can You Regulate Emotions With An Uncontrollable Flow of Information?

In times of stress, the distractions you find instantly on your phone is a refuge. It can take one’s mind off things, deploying a strategy called “attentional deployment”.

The coping mechanism boils down to distracting yourself away from the source of the pain, mentally shifting yourself into a different gear. Though there’s no denying its effectiveness in the short term, studies show that this strategy doesn’t resolve the mental health issue fully. What you’re doing is temporarily avoiding your problems, instead of addressing and solving them.

The distractions you encounter are also, to a large extent, out of your control. Though significant efforts are made to include trigger warnings, there’s no guarantee you won’t stumble unto content that will worsen your mental state. This is why patients in treatment with severe psychiatric conditions, such as eating disorders and substance abuse issues, are barred access to the internet and social media altogether. It is done not to isolate them, but to facilitate the recovery process.

It can be tempting to think that as long as the emotion isn’t actively weighing heavily on your mind, it has disappeared. But human nature is such that feelings can resurface days, weeks, and months after you thought you’ve successfully distracted yourself away. Think of the time some obscure adolescent slight suddenly resurfaced in your mind to ruin your day a little bit: like that, only worse.

A provably effective strategy is cognitive reappraisal, of which shifting your attention is a part. However, reappraisal goes beyond that. It means an entire rework of yourself, a conscious decision to take your problem head-on but approach it in novel ways that don’t cause as much distress.

One particular way to reappraise difficult situations is through mindful deliberation leading to decentering — a shifting of thought patterns away from your dominant beliefs. Decentering allows one to consider multiple aspects of a situation, rather than the one that currently dominates the internal conversation. The plurality of views enables alternative appraisals of life events.

Successful reappraisal is compelling in that it is prevention for negative, out of control behaviour, not a way to deal with issues once they are already painfully destructive. If you successfully take control of your distressing emotions while they are unfolding, you can choose to what extent they dictate your life. You don’t have to fall into a cycle of depression and anxiety if you can stop the descent from the start. Think of it as treating the cause of your sorrows, not the symptom.

Being Mindful is Not Suppressing Your Emotions

It’s tempting to say that a model hinged on self-control is striving for simple behavioural modification. In other words, ‘control the flow of your emotions through mindfulness’ can be seen as a variation on the age-old ‘get a stiff upper lip and white knuckle yourself through the pain.’ But the stiff upper lip method talks about dealing with the bodily manifestations of hurt. However, mindfulness aims at stopping inner feelings from festering and remaining unresolved until they reach a breaking point.

Mindfulness is also a strategy for making the most of your mental energy: if you’re spending effort suppressing your behaviour, that is effort that cannot be spent on constructive thoughts, spontaneous interactions, and genuine experiences. The discrepancy between pretending to feel well and being hollowed out and tired can leave you feeling inauthentic, negative about yourself, anxious and avoidant towards others. You’re so busy trying to keep yourself from falling apart; there’s nothing left for growth and development.

Mindfulness does not have to be antithetical to the online age. It is an age-old tool in our collective mental arsenal. It is the practice of looking at the glass half full — but utilised to its full potential. Just because the companies in charge did not build our new, shiny technologies to facilitate mindfulness, doesn’t mean we have to give up effective practices.

Do not avoid distractions because some scary internet article told you. Do it because you’ve asked yourself what you want your technology to do: distract you, or help you?

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Rina Kravets

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I am a freelance journalist and content writer focused on bringing insight into the psychology of personal finance and pop culture in the age of social media.

The Startup

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