COVID-19 has upended our normal routines, relationships, and support networks. Technology has enabled (many of) us to continue work, connect with friends and family, and tap into mental health resources from the safety of our homes.
As a result, we’ve become more and more dependent on technology to help us navigate these unprecedented times. Yet this new normal of ever-connectedness can pose challenges to mental health and well being. Many people now face an impending sense of anxiety every time they open their phones. Push notifications bombard us with constantly changing and wildly inconsistent “updates” about global health and economic catastrophes. News sites confront us with the topic of mortality on a daily basis. Social media transformed into a default news feed—with judgment, bread baking, and pushups thrown in for good measure.
First, we need to acknowledge that it’s ok to be anxious and feel panicked by these conditions. This is not anyone’s normal. Second, there is a real push and pull that comes with technology. We need technology to stay connected—but it does not need to dictate every aspect of our day, and it does not need to be the arbiter of our psyche. Because of this tension, we each need to figure out a balance between connectedness and personal wellbeing.
That balance will look different to everyone. The goal is to recognize that digital resources are tools that should enrich our lives, not forces out of our control that invade all elements of that life. Let’s talk about how we can ease those feelings of anxiety, and readjust our relationship to the technologies we’ve become more dependent on.
They’re Linked! Technology and Psychological Stress
If you think you’re feeling more stressed than normal, here’s a reality check: You are. It’s too recent for data or research to be out on the impact of COVID-19 and technology usage. However, we know from prior research that technology has a direct (and oftentimes harmful) impact on mental health. The combined uncertainty of a pandemic and our recently increased technology usage most likely exacerbates these effects.
Even during the best of times we’re dependent on technology, and in particular on our phones. Social media makes us feel connected to people. It’s designed to tap into our brain’s reward system so that we keep coming back to it to that stimulus that makes us feel good. That buzz that you get from “likes” isn’t in your imagination. It’s an effect of dopamine.
Unfortunately, this brain-technology circuit leads to some not-so-ideal effects. Social media usage has been linked with increases in incidences of depression, mental distress, and suicidal thoughts. Increased screen time has been connected to decreased overall happiness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction—and is making us more anxious as a result.
Even more pertinent to our current conditions: There’s a direct link between stress levels and digital news consumption. The APA’s Stress in America Poll highlighted that two-thirds of the country view “the future of the nation” as “a very or somewhat significant source of stress.” Yet, that stress was not eased by access to news feeds or more information. Researchers found an explicit tension between feeling responsible to stay informed, and being stressed out by that information: “While most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress.”
COVID-19 poses a direct threat to our physical well being, but it’s also setting the stage for a mental health crisis.
Turned Up to 100: The Pandemic Amplified These Effects
We find ourselves in the 24-hour-news-cycle of a global pandemic. Our social relationships migrated onto online platforms. Of course we feel stressed. Of course there’s a new, unprecedented sense of anxiety or helplessness. The causal links between technology and mental health already existed—and the current crisis has amplified them immeasurably and seemingly overnight.
How do we not feel paralyzed when faced with these conditions? How do we mitigate these negative effects? Wasn’t the technology deck already stacked against our mental health?
It’s easy to feel defeated when confronting these questions. Yet, we shouldn’t feel hopeless in the face of news we cannot alter—nor should we feel locked into systems or habits engendered by the technology that we must use to stay connected. What we need is to reorient our relationship to those digital channels.
Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out
Hopefully the ex-hippies will forgive the co-opting of this phrase, but it has legs for our current situation. In terms of technology usage, quelling feelings of anxiety, and maintaining our mental health, it’s all about introspection, evaluation, and choices.
For the vast majority of us, simply abandoning technology is not the answer. We’d be out of work and isolated from human contact for an indeterminate amount of time. (A “solution” which poses its own mental health challenges.) Instead, we each need to figure out what balance looks like for ourselves.
Step One: Turn On
Are you overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of all news and updates? Or is the anxiety topically specific? Maybe it’s not even the news itself, but the way it’s presented? Take stock of what triggers exist in your digital world. Similarly, ask yourself: What channels, forums, or people provide comfort?
Pinpoint precisely where your anxiety (or sense of calm) originates from. What topics give you that impending sense of panic? If the volatile swings of the economy get your heart racing, then maybe now is the time to (temporarily) stop checking the stock market.
Does the fear of not knowing some piece of valuable information leave you perpetually scrolling? Do you then feel compelled to try and read everything...which in turn makes you feel overwhelmed and out of control when faced with conditions you can’t alter? Determine the type of information you’re actually seeking, and keep in mind that no one is responsible for knowing everything, everywhere, from everyone.
Take time to examine the mediums through which you receive information. Anxiety can be triggered by the way in which you receive your information just as much as the content. When you scroll through news feeds and stories you give up a large amount of control in what information you’re confronted with, and how you can prepare yourself to digest it. Also, keep in mind that article headlines are written to get the most clicks and readers, meaning they have a built-in incentive to sensationalize. Think: Does listening to the news have the same impact on you as reading it?
Step Two: Tune In
Once you’ve done this informational audit, take time to figure out how to access what you want, and dampen those sources that cause undue anxiety.
What type of information do you find the most constructive and empowering? Is it the informative and global, or the action-based and local? Non-US news sites can provide a perspective that’s often absent from the partisanship of domestic journalism. Try seeking out in-depth, longform pieces. You’ll gain depth of understanding and context, minus the reactionary tone that pervades the 24-hour, uncertainty cycle of news.
Alternatively, hyper-local sources can provide the type of community-based information that will anchor you. Don’t discount local news either in TV or radio form. Audible media has the added benefit of giving you information, without having to scroll pages and pages of overwhelming headlines. You’ll be informed, but the delivery will lack visceral shock and sensationalism.
Simply sick of all spin, regardless of the source and perspective? If you just crave facts, then go straight to the source. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation is a treasure trove of statistics and predictive models. The CDC and state health department’s websites will provide clear and relevant, action-based information.
Step Three: Drop Out (If You Need To)
Even after this audit, you might still feel overwhelmed. A full-on break from technology might be required to shore up your own mental well being. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just like the questions and solutions above, a digital diet or technology break is not a one-size-fits-all model.
Your “break” might be very limited in scope—and exacting. Is it really your entire newsfeed on facebook that sparks an impending sense of dread...or is it specifically your second cousin’s conspiratorial posts? Mute conversations or (temporarily block) people who are not providing healthy support or perspective.
If that’s too limited, then restructure your day in terms of news and social media access. A “tech vacay” can be incredibly restorative. It’s also not an all-or-nothing proposition. Give yourself a schedule or a daily allotment. Figure out the time of day that you feel most able to constructively process information, and orient your routine from there.
Are you a morning person? Block out an hour before work to read the news, browse social media feeds, and catch up with friends and family. And then put those channels on hold for the remainder of the day. You’ll feel connected, informed, and productive. On the flipside, maybe having your morning alarm set to blare news about a pandemic is the wrong foot for you to start your day on...so switch it up.
Try rationing your informational deep dives to 2-3 times a week, and avoid news in the evening. You don’t want to set yourself up to think about disasters right before you head to sleep. Or make a deal with yourself: For every article, you have to read a poem or a chapter of fiction or listen to music.
If these daily reprieves are insufficient, then implement a one-day-no-phone break every week. Or try deleting your social media apps from your phone. When all else fails, allow yourself to take a hiatus from news and technology fullstop. Take that energy and direct it into being present with family, work, and your immediate community.
The healthiest thing you can do for yourself is recognize that we’re in uncharted territory. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed, and it’s ok that you don’t have immediate solutions. Bottom line: Experiment with different ways to engage with technology in your daily life. Some solutions will work, others might not. Find the routine that best supports your mental health and the well being of those around you.
If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at [email protected] or by phone at (415) 202-5159.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.