Why We Need to Unplug in 2019

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Our Reliance on Technology

One of the biggest things that I have observed in the last year from people in my life and from my patients, is our reliance on technology, and specifically, our love of social media. I know that there has been a lot out there about the nefarious beginnings of platforms like facebook and the information that companies like google collect. And for many of us, this is the way we stay connected with the people in our lives. But, I have noticed that there is a growing sense of anxiety and depression in the population as a whole and I believe that this is because even though it may seem that through these social media platforms that we are all MORE connected, sharing every moment of our lives as they happen, we are in fact way LESS connected on a real, human level.

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The Dopamine Connection

What a lot of the general public doesn’t know, but what the creators of many of the social media platforms that we use certainly DO know, is what dopamine is and how it drives our behaviour. So what is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical responsible for sending signals between neurons in your brain. Without getting too deep into the subject – which would be so easy and so fascinating – one of dopamine’s responsibilities in the body is reward and reinforcement. A shot of dopamine causes us to be flooded with “feel good” chemicals. In evolutionary terms, this was designed to help us understand that when we found something that was good for us, like food or water, that those feel good chemicals would help us to continue to seek out those things as we needed them to survive. In our present society however, dopamine and its feel good effects in our bodies have been used in ways that are no longer good for our health and wellbeing (in my opinion), and have caused an entire generation to be addicted to dopamine’s effects.

 

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Dopamine and its powerful effects to make us feel good were well understood by the creators of many of the social media platforms that many of us enjoy, like facebook, twitter and instagram. Instead of our brains releasing dopamine is response to finding food or water, it is released when we get a like, a new follower or receive a chat from someone we like and admire. Many of us, and especially young people with brains that are still developing, have become so addicted to this dopamine hit that they are glued to their cell phones twenty four hours a day, waiting for the next dopamine hit to flood their systems. Always wanting more. High levels of dopamine make us feel good, while lowered levels cause us to lose pleasure and live in a joyless state. In my experience with patients, this state is becoming more and more common in people of all ages, and I have seen rising numbers of people suffering with varying degrees of depression and anxiety, with many feeling isolated, sad and disconnected from the world and themselves. Were these not the feelings that social media was supposed to help us improve? It seems that their creation and implementation had slightly more sinister motivations than many of us realized.

Dopamine also, is connected to addiction. The feel good sensation that dopamine causes courses through our bodies when the alcoholic takes a drink, the smoker lights up and the gambler wins at the casino. The good feelings that surge through us when we get a spike of dopamine is highly addictive, and this is why so many people are addicted to social media, and losing touch with real people in their lives.

Social Animals

Humans are highly social animals, and our connections to other people are an important part of our mental, emotional as well as physical health. As human beings, we need human interaction. That is, interactions with other people, in real life. Not chatting via text, or face time. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would go out at least a few times a week for coffee. We would go to a variety of places we liked, get a coffee/tea and just talk. And we had a rock solid friendship that weathered many years and hard times, and now that I look at it, I realize that it was because of these seemingly small things, that we made the time to spend time together and stay connected no matter what was happening in our lives. We were connected in a real sense, and I am so thankful for it.

Now, when I think about my own children – who are still very little – I wonder what their world and relationships will be like. One of the reasons we moved to Costa Rica is that things like family are very important here. People don’t have a lot, but they value what they do have, and that is the people in their families and communities. There are constantly family dinners, birthday parties, baby showers and other gatherings going on, and this is how Costa Rican people spend their time, energy and money. They invest in each other. There is a huge social component to this culture, and that is one of the things that I really love about it, and I hope I can impart to my children so it will become important to them too. Because we are alone here, we do talk to grandparents on the computer to stay connected, but it is important to me that my children have real relationships with other children, and that they have the tools that they need to build and keep those relationships healthy throughout their lives. In this social climate this is becoming more difficult, but to me, it is worth the effort and will be an investment in their psychological, emotional and physical health for the rest of their lives.

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The Disconnect

Social media is touted as the perfect way for us all to be connected. We are able to transmit everything that is happening in our lives, minute to minute to people all over the planet. It really is a technological miracle. The problem is, that in an attempt to connect us, technology has caused the population to be suffering from unprecedented numbers of anxiety and depression and perhaps most of all, loneliness. How could this be, if we are connected in a way that we never have been before in all of human history?

I think that one important reason is that social media allows us to put filters on things. Each of us is now able to show only specific things you want people/your friends to see. We are able, through the wonders of technology, to take photos wherever we are, take video of whatever is happening at every moment, and perhaps most importantly, cherry pick the experiences, images, videos, etc… that make our lives look enviable and extraordinary. To our friends, followers and fans, our lives can look as wonderful, fun and fulfilling as we purposefully “design” them to be. We are essentially creating our lives as we wish them to look to all the people we are connected to through our social media networks. And to the people who are connected to us, it may seem like we are living these amazing lives they they could only wish to live, and these are the things that contribute to a lot of depression and anxiety in the population as a whole. Many of the images we see remind us that things with us aren’t always so awesome, and why do others seem to be doing so much better?

Another disconnect is that because many young people are being raised in the age of social media, there is a disturbing trend that is beginning to emerge. Young people are having a harder time creating deep, meaningful relationships with other people. So many of their relationships are online, that they no longer know how to interact with people when they are right in front of them, and many report having many “friends” on social media platforms like facebook, but not having many “true” friends that they feel they know well and trust. Like most things, the tools we all need to do things like create meaningful, lasting relationships are learned in practice. And we are practicing less and less.

Connecting to Nature, and Each Other

There is nothing better for your body, mind and spirit than taking a walk outside in nature. It reminds us who we are and where we came from and gives us something that living in this technological age often doesn’t – time to think. Time for our brains to relax and wander. And time to be in the moment. We live in an age of instant gratification. If you live in many places, you can go on Amazon, pick whatever your heart desires and it will be at your doorstep in 2 days! We can also binge watch any tv show or movie thanks to Netflix and other providers of media awesomeness. Back in the day, you had to wait an entire week for the next episode of your favourite show to air, but now you can binge watch every season, in a few days day if you are feeling adventurous (and don’t have to work). Even things like dating, that often awkward process filled with intense emotions ranging from terror to intense twitterpation, has been reduced to an app. If you like someone, you can just write them a note, give them a like or rate their profile. Instant gratification. The thing is that, at least in my experience, the things that are worth having in life – like good friends, doing something that you love, kind, compassionate children, a beautifully prepared meal, a piece of art or anything that has deep meaning in your life takes work, and that takes TIME. It is an investment, and it is sososo worth it.

 

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

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Beautiful featured image photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash