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Digital Detox

Ever find yourself sheepishly wondering if you are the owner of a smartphone, or it's the smartphone who owns you? Friend, you are not alone.

It's been pretty clearly established that Apple and other digital giants studied such 'noble' disciplines as the gambling industry in designing their phones and tablets and their operating systems. It is apparently not enough to design and market a truly appealing product. Many of our devices have been designed to make them literally addictive and nearly irresistible. The impacts are getting really, well, viral. Do any of us know anyone who doesn't acknowledge having trouble managing their relationship to their shiny little genie?

Commentators from wellness gurus to public health experts are naming digital devices as the source of a new wave of health problems. Some of the negative side effects of overuse include:

-loss of attention span and concentration

-reduction of functional problem-solving

-time wasted following threads online

-accidents, including tripping and motor vehicle collisions

-anxiety and/or depression when unable to access one's device or get online

-loss of social skills and connection to other people

-a sense of not being present, not able to absorb important events, leading to loss of quality of life

-the disturbing feeling of being addicted, including loss of choice and control

-sleep disturbance due to over-stimulation of the brain

-stooped posture, damaged spinal vertebrae, and other muscle tension/posture issues

For some, the pattern can become so pronounced that one's own efforts to reduce use of the device are ineffective. Many of us find our devices all too similar to the proverbial open bag of potato chips. Try as we might, we just can't stop.

A number of researchers are finding results that indicate mindfulness can be an antidote for addiction, including the digital variety. For example, Judson Brewer, MD, author of the recent book, The Craving Mind, presents a compelling discussion of how the brain is naturally vulnerable to forming habits, or “conditioning”. But the good news is the same is true for new habits like mindfulness, and intentionally creating electronic-free time.

Think of mindfulness as training for the mind. It's a like a mental muscle, and we can strengthen it.

As it grows stronger, we can more skillfully choose our responses to cravings and habits.

Mindfulness also develops the ability to slow down and observe our relationship patterns, including with our beloved/hated devices. Mindfulness is intended to strengthen the ability to observe a desire (for example, to check one's email) without automatically acting on it. It trains us in the under-valued skill of non-reactivity, and how to use it to manage, you guessed it, reactions.

Where our devices tend to distract and scatter our attention, mindfulness helps focus and settle it.

It helps us be more present for the things that we most value- like nature, our children, partner, friends, and the actual moments of life- that devices can distract us from.

One of the most impactful ways to re-make mental habits and change one's relationship to electronics is getting off the e-grid for a few days. Although it can be uncomfortable, a retreat without (or with minimal) electronic device time, is perhaps the best way to strengthen the new habits you want, and be more mindful, or simply more “choiceful”, about your digital life. Such a retreat could be a camping weekend with your phone turned off and left in your glove compartment. Or a weekend on which you post a vacation responder on email and turn off your phone. (A ziplock bag and your freezer is not a crazy thought, in my opinion.) A personal retreat with mindfulness instruction, time outdoors, and planning post-retreat digital management is another option.

It might sound harsh, but in some ways the choice is stark: Our mind will either belong to us, or our device. We have to choose.

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