How Taking Charge of Your Phone Can Improve Your Mental Health

When you wake in the morning, is your phone the first thing you reach for?

How about when you’re on your own, waiting for someone or in a line, do you automatically check your phone?

Do you feel naked or on edge without your phone within reaching distance?

What about when you’ve misplaced your phone? How did that make you feel?

Do you ever find yourself carry your phone with you around the house (maybe even to the toilet!)?

Do you sometimes feel like your phone controls you, rather than the other way around?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, particularly the last one, your brain is probably screaming out for a digital cleanse. Or if not a full cleanse, maybe a reboot. This blog post will give you some food for thought for improving your relationship with your phone (that’s right, we now have relationships with our phones!). With a few small tweaks, you can turn things around and start to feel like you’re the one driving what you do, not your phone.

Why are we so tied to our phones?

Because many of us are essentially addicted. We’re addicted to the squirt of dopamine that happens in our brain each time we pick up our phone and see a message from a friend, a “like” or something else that gives us a buzz from a social perspective.

Dopamine is a “feel good” chemical that plays a central role in motivating our behaviour. When you eat something that tastes great, have sex or buy something you like dopamine is released in your brain increasing the chance that you will do that behaviour again. Now every time you pick up your phone you might not necessarily experience a dopamine squirt, because perhaps there are no likes or nothing that “feels good” during that particular scroll session, but our brains get hooked on the buzz that can happen which keeps us going back for more.

But it doesn’t always feel good

Sometimes checking your phone doesn’t feel good though, right? Say for example, if you’re checking your work email after-hours. More often than not this type of checking just makes you feel stressed. Or when you’re already feeling like you’re having a difficult day and then you jump on Facebook and start comparing yourself to people who seem to be happier than you.

But we’ve got so used to keeping busy with our phones, that we sometimes choose the stress of taking a look at our work email or comparing ourselves to others over spending time in stillness or doing nothing. Sometimes we feel scared of boredom and unsure of how to just sit with ourselves without something to “do”.

Reducing an addictive behaviour can be challenging because sometimes you need to feel worse before you can feel better. Changing our habits with our phone means we get less dopamine, feel-good  kicks and more uncomfy, squirmy, “I just want to check my phone” feelings.

If you think it’s a bit dramatic to suggest that phones are addictive, take a look at the ways in which phone, email and social media usage maps onto some of the symptoms of addiction.

How our phone use can map onto the symptoms of addiction

We use our phone to get rid of uncomfy emotions.

When we’re bored, lonely, anxious or need to numb out we pick up our phones and escape into them. This creates a neural pathway in our brain whereby when we feel these emotions we automatically reach for our phone to fix this feeling. Riding these feelings out without our phones can feel really uncomfortable, or sometimes near impossible. Our phones become a crux.

We use our phones without conscious awareness.

Do you ever find yourself on your phone without any recollection of why you picked it up in the first place? Huge amounts of time can pass before we even notice that we’ve been scrolling Instagram or we’ve been sifting around in our inbox for fifteen minutes. Our phone can bring out a really mindless part of us that operates on auto-pilot.

Large parts of our day are taken up using our phone.

In a US study with more than 100,000 participants on average people spent 2.42 hours each day on their phones, with heavy users spending 3.75 hours. People touched their phones an average of 2617 times throughout the day!

It feels almost impossible to give up our phones.

When we try, we find ourselves lapsing. We feel guilty and tell ourselves we’ll start again tomorrow.

We choose the digital world over the real world.

When you’re with friends and family do you find yourself reaching for your phone? Or maybe you’re taking pictures to put up on social media? Sometimes you might even look around and everyone is doing the same – heads down, sitting side by side srolling.

We feel irritable and distracted if we can’t get our fix.

And relieved (in the short term) when we finally do.

All of the italicised words above are symptoms of addiction.

It’s important not to get too judgy with ourselves about any of this. If you’re pretty content with your phone habits, then there’s probably no need to worry (although the devil’s advocate would ask, what drew you to this post then?). Creating a new habit doesn’t have to be an all or nothing thing either. Try instead to make small and gradual changes, that work better for you and align more with your values (to read more about what we mean by values click here). Above all, this is about creating a more conscious relationship with your phone.

Here are some steps that you can start taking today to minimise your reliance on your phone:

  • Get your hands on a radio clock and use this as an alarm instead of your phone. Old school hey? A brilliant way to break the habit of reaching for your phone as soon as you open your eyes though.
  • Leave your phone out of the bedroom altogether. This might feel unnerving at first. Think about what you can do instead though. Read, enjoy your sex life, meditate, actually sleep!
  • Turn off notifications on your phone. This just reminds you that your phone is there and most of us don’t need the extra reminder!
  • When you’re walking, driving or commuting somewhere try doing just that. Instead of tuning out by texting or scrolling through your phone, give your brain a rest and do just one thing at a time.
  • Where are some other places you automatically pick up your phone? In line, on the loo, when you’re waiting for someone to arrive? Try to catch yourself as you reach for your phone and see if you can delay actually picking it up. Notice what it’s like to sit in the stillness.
  • When are you not on your phone? While you sleep. While you cook. When you shower. Are there any other times? Think about ways that you could expand the activities you do in your day without your phone.
  • Think of replacement behaviours. This often helps with something that feels addictive. For example, when you’re on public transport read a book instead, or when you’re in a line, have a chat with the person next to you or when you’re going to sleep at night listen to music instead (although often this involves our phone too!).

Emails

  • Log out of email on your phone. Instead check it at a dedicated time when you are sitting down at your computer.
  • If you are feeling brave, and depending on whether you use emails for work (and the type of work you do), decide ahead of time when you will check your emails. For example, 11am and 3pm. Outside of these times try no peaking!

Social media

  • Log out of social media on your phone. Go one step further and set things up so that you have to manually enter your username and password. Adding these extra steps makes you more conscious of your behaviour, and who knows, maybe you’ll decide in that moment not to log in after all?
  • Like emails, choose a dedicated time when you’ll log in and give yourself a maximum time for scrolling.
  • Scroll with a purpose. This one is a bit philosophical, but what is that you’re actually wanting to get out of scrolling through social media? Do you feel lighter or heavier after you do this? Do you find yourself comparing yourself unfairly to other people?

It’ll take time (and patience) to change your relationship with your phone

Because our phones are all about quick fix, instant feel goods, it can take some time for the benefits of your habit changes to reveal themselves. Living in a way that’s more aligned with your values might not give you that instant buzz, but over time you’ll likely notice a sense of feeling more connected to your actual life, more fulfilled by the present moment and more motivated to do things that make you feel satisfied and alive in the long run.

As you try to make these changes, notice how often you reach back to old habits. Taking a sneak peak at Instagram because you’re bored. Convincing yourself you need to check your email for something you’re waiting on. It’s not a big deal when this happens, it’s just something to notice and to try, if you can, to gradually challenge yourself with.

Transforming our relationship with our phone is a tough gig. All around us people are wandering about with their heads down, glued to their phones. Lifting your head up and taking in the world might feel really unnerving at first, but over time you’ll likely find yourself feeling freed from the chains of your phone.

For most of us, phones are an inevitable reality of the modern world. We need them to function in society. But surely not the extent we’ve currently reached? By becoming more conscious of the way we use our phones we can empower ourselves. We take the reins back and decide for ourselves how much of an impact our phone has on our life.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom ~ Viktor E Frankl

This beautiful image captured by @sixteenmilesout via Unsplash.