Mindfulness, Psychology

Escape The Prison Of Hopelessness With The Power Of Choice

Feeling hopeless.
Choices alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

One summer’s evening in Budapest, I shared my battle with depression and anxiety with a close friend. “There’s always a choice,” he responded, his matter-of-fact assurance a thin veil covering his brotherly concern. These words stuck with me, enough for me to recollect seven years later, not least because I respect his guidance.

Truth is, it was only recently I came to appreciate the resonance of this phrase. There’s always a choice, yet depression deceives us. It makes us believe there are no choices, no escape from suffering, and leads to feeling hopeless. Hopelessness is one of the most damaging aspects of depression, with the potential to move us towards a dark destination — suicide.

I shiver recollecting this destructive feeling. Weighed down by suffering, I’ve contemplated suicide as a futile and self-destructive attempt to find a solution. I’m a firm believer those who contemplate, or unfortunately act upon, ending their own lives don’t want their life to end. They want an escape from pain, and suicide appears the only choice.

There’s always a choice. Yet when our rational minds do what they do best, and search for an explanation or and answer and come up short, our synapses can be diverted to the extreme. It can feel like we have no choices left to us. We feel powerless. We feel we’ll never experience happiness again. Worse still, we feel we’ll never experience any feeling other than the void of nothingness.

Here’s the thing — hopelessness is a symptom of depression. It isn’t truth.

An inability to imagine a worthwhile future when feeling hopeless

You could view feeling hopeless as failing to imagine a future where suffering has ended, and peace or contentment has taken its place. But the future is imagination, it’s not real. And mental projections are filtered by our current state. When filtered through a depressed state, future projections are grim. It’s an illusion mistaken as reality.

I was inspired to cover this topic when an impending life decision triggered suicidal thoughts. You may be alarmed reading this, but to reassure you — this is familiar terrain. Meditation has helped me cultivate distance from such thoughts, and spiritual practice and self-awareness allow me to accept the transient nature of their presence.

Essentially, I now have the resources to experience such thoughts without fearful resistance, undue attention, or allowing them lead to feeling hopeless.

The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.

Regardless, I’m faced with major upheaval, as returning to the UK has become a possibility. I was struggling to discern my options when contemplating this big life decision. Strangely, I relate to Nietzche’s words: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” My egoic mind has romanticised suicide as some maladjusted attempt to solve problems.

“Hey, Ricky mate, looks like you’re out of options. Ah well, you could always kill yourself.” Such is the puzzling nature of despair, imagine this inner-dialogue presented in a jovial tone, in clear defiance of the seriousness of its implication. I’m certainly not alone in suicidal ideation — a staggering 10 million Americans seriously contemplated suicide in 2015.

A cessation to suicidal thoughts by adding options

Before we go on, I want to distinguish fleeting thoughts from other “levels” of suicidal tendencies. A 2008 study defined suicidal behaviours into three definitions:

  • Suicidal ideation: thoughts of engaging in activity to end one’s life.
  • Suicide plan: the formulation of a method through which one intends to die.
  • Suicide attempt: engaging in behaviour leading to self-injury with some intent to die.

The scope of this article isn’t to hypothosize when the leap from Nietzche-esque macabre escapism turns into something more life threatening. Either way, I’ve noticed a very clear correlation to the times when I feel hopeless and suicidal thoughts popping into my conscious mind.

This time, something very interesting occurred, causing me to meditate deeply on the source of such thoughts: when I opened myself up to the option of leaving Berlin, and returning home to Bristol, the suicidal thoughts disappeared. It’s as if having another conscious option created a path for the problem solving brain to arrive at a healthier destination.

Do we deny challenging options from our conscious mind?

I regret it when I suppress my feelings too long and they burst forth in ways that are distorted or attacking or hurtful.” — Carl Rogers

What’s going on here? I speculate this process is linked to the unconscious. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a key psychological defence mechanism. Was I denying the possibility of leaving Berlin from my consciousness because I was afraid of the significance of change involved? Did this suppression lead to suicide ideation as a bizarre and maladjusted attempt at problem solving, like a neurological short circuit?

Applying this theory to another example, let’s say your relationship is going through a challenging period. It’s fraught with pain and heartbreak. After an argument, you notice suicidal thoughts appear. Could this be a result of one possibility — the very real possibility of breaking up — being denied from existence?

There are numerous reasons why, in this example, someone may be inclined to deny a breakup is imminent. Believing in the myth of romantic love, a fear you won’t cope alone, framing the breakdown of a relationship as failure. Oh, I’ve fallen for all of these!

Our choices can be internal or external

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus

What about suicidal thoughts arising in times of emotional distress without an obvious cause? Initially I defined choice as existing in the external; choice is quitting my job, going on holiday, dumping my girlfriend, getting a new girlfriend. My choice was changing something external to change the way I felt.

I’ve since learned choices come in many forms. For example, we don’t choose which thoughts enter our minds, but we can choose how to respond to them. We can choose to change our perspective. We can choose to take action. Deciding to find an answer to “what is causing me this much pain” is a choice. Sometimes, staying alive is a choice.

Remember, there’s always a choice.

Opening up to choice, allowing space for faith

Once open to the richness of choice, we need to discern which choices serve our wellbeing and create positive possibilities. Getting shitfaced and sniffing multiple lines of coke is a choice. Having an affair in an attempt to find intimacy during a dry spell in a relationship is a choice. But such choices lead us to extra suffering, exacerbating hopelessness.

This is a theory I’m going to continue to meditate on, but intuitively, it explains experiences I’ve had. One of the biggest preventions of suicide is normalising suicidal thoughts, not from a place of detachment, but from a place of curiosity and acceptance. The more we understand the mechanics of suicidal thinking, the more we can offer solutions, provide space for people to discuss their experiences without fear of judgement.

To conclude, a word on faith. There will be periods when choices aren’t obvious. This doesn’t mean there are no choices — there’s always a choice. You just haven’t discovered them yet. And this is the time to choose faith. Faith these choices will soon arise, which they will. Faith that opening up to new possibilities sets the framework for them to present themselves, which they will.

This is the time to choose patience.


Psychology, Social Media

How To Wake Up Motivated, Even When You Feel You Can’t Get Out Of Bed

how to wake up motivated
How to wake up motivated.

Lying in bed, left cheek on pillow, I’m perfectly positioned to see the tree outside my window. Each morning I admire its leaves dancing in the wind, their varying colours indicative of changing seasons. It’s a pleasant start to my day, a moment of stillness and appreciation before I’m vertical.

Yet, sometimes, morning admiration dissolves into apathy. The tree’s leaves blur into a multicoloured canvas for my wandering mind. Attentiveness gives way to a distant gaze as I become occupied by the land of thoughts; I’m reliving social interactions, ordering mental to-do lists, fantasizing about perfect futures. I’m daydreaming before the day’s begun.

Before I know it, an hour’s passed and I’m still in bed. Then comes the guilt.

It’s possible to learn how to wake up motivated

At this stage of my life this happens rarely. Mostly I spring out of bed before my alarm, ready to brew coffee, eat my porridge and carpe diem the hell out of my day. But when this does happen, it’s a reminder of how difficult it was to get out of bed when in the midst of depression and anxiety.

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with loved ones who experience this frequently. It motivated me to write this article and explore reasons why. I’ve included a wealth of techniques anyone can apply to help learn how to wake up, and get up. This guide is written for loved ones. It’s written for you.

Note: If you regularly struggle to get out of bed when you have obligations, this could be a sign of clinical depression. Consider talking to a doctor if you’re missing work or regularly cancelling plans.

Bedroom rumination and the spiral of anxiety

“Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings,
Of the bluebird as she sings,
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring,
But six rings and I rise,
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes,
The shaving razor’s cold and it sting.” — The Monkees — Daydream Believer

Not all thoughts are equal. Our minds can be a source of wisdom. Our minds can also be a source of meaningless junk, in the form of intrusive, repetitive thoughts with no substance. Fears, inner-criticism, indulgence in past and future. Eastern spiritual traditions refer to our default thinking processes as the “monkey-mind” for good reason.

On the mornings when the leaves blur, I fall down the rabbit hole of thinking. Me and my thinking become one, but not in the bliss or creative insight or problem solving. Often, I’m visualising premonitions of the day’s events or facing an inner-battle; excuses to stay in bed — “just five more minutes…” — fight incessant inner-dialogue, where I chastise myself for laziness.

Ever lie in bed, paralysed by thoughts bemoaning how much time you’ve wasted… lying in bed? In psychological terms, this is rumination, “a negative, repetitive style of thinking about present and past symptoms, loss, and failure.” It’s heavily linked to an increased possibility of depression and anxiety.

Depressed people may sleep excessively to cope with rumination, when the only escape route seems to be the world of dreams.

I think because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I think

Rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming embroils you more actively in the drama or your life.” — Stephan Bodian — Meditation for Dummies

Rumination is also associated with avoidance. We fall into the trap of believing if only we think enough, all of our problems will go away! This is a poor coping mechanism. In fact, chronic rumination increases indecision and inactivity. A 2003 study found that, when faced with a task “fraught with uncertainty and performance pressure,” nonruminators delved into problem solving. However, ruminators focused on the distress, which “amplified it and enhanced its subsequent effects on their thinking.”

Applying this study to pillow procrastination (term trademarked), I speculate those prone to rumination are particularly triggered by the uncertainty of the blank slate of a full day ahead. The nature of an anxiety disorder is the notion of “I can’t cope.” I remember many mornings spent fearfully rehearsing every perceived threat the day would present — often accompanied by visualisations of a worst case scenario.

If you find yourself ruminating, remind yourself it’s a coping mechanism with little benefit. You won’t find the answers you’re looking for. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to become entangled in this cycle. Set the intention to break the cycle the night before. Write a post-it note as a reminder: “action is the answer” or “you can’t think your way out of a paper bag, so get up” are two options.

Could improved, realistic goals be a solution?

Jonathan Rottenberg, psychologist and author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, provides an interesting theory on why depressed people struggle to get out of bed. Rottenberg pays close attention to the functionality of mood, arguing low mood is the result of poor progress or the response to an important goal being threatened.

Low mood may be the result of poor progress towards goals.

“Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals,” he writes. “They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly.” The reason this is so debilitating is because humans override mood function to continue pursuing unattainable goals. Without this override, Sisyphus would’ve stopped pushing that bloody rock after it became obvious it wasn’t a good idea.

I’m on board with Rottenberg’s forward-thinking. I’ve experienced paralysis caused by unrealistically high expectations of what should be achievable in a day. And paralysis based on the fear of not living up to self-imposed expectations. Both of these are signs of perfectionism — in the context of goals and behaviour. We don’t stay in bed because we don’t care. Quite the opposite.

SMART goals and accountability

One way to explore if overcommitment is a problem is to assess your goal setting standards. Do you follow the SMART technique (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant)? Would your to-do list make Elon Musk tremble with performance anxiety? This applies to short and long term goals. To wake with purpose, try writing your daily goals the evening before. Check if they follow the SMART guideline.

If you’re struggling with goal setting, consider hiring a coach. A skilled coach can provide the skills, resources and guidance to uncover meaningful, attainable goals. Better still, outside support can have a galvanising effect — a study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) revealed accountability can increase goal success by 95 percent.

Find a higher purpose to get your head off the pillow

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Goal setting won’t see you leap out of bed each morning unless imbued with a deeper sense of purpose. Lacking direction or a connection to “something bigger,” is a key hindrance to having motivation to wake up and get up. Identifying a lack of purpose doesn’t have to be a lightning bolt of divine intervention — it may be as simple as accepting your employment or lifestyle isn’t fulfilling.

Find your North Star; find that thing, personal to you, that gives you meaning and purpose. This discovery is a process, but if you make the effort to reflect on your values, and times when you felt truly aligned, you will begin to understand what drives you. With clarity comes direction as you are pulled towards your guiding Star.

north star
Find your North Star.

As a personal example, my North Star is serving others to help improve their mental health and make sense of suffering. It’s a sensation unlike any other, as if driven by an energy outside of my control. Discovering this purpose has added deeper meaning to my life and made sense of years of my own suffering. In addition, spiritual practice has increased my connection with the world and with others, and cultivated the mental clarity to understand what I truly value.

Banish the smartphone — and social media — from the bedroom

Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show

If you can’t get out of bed and want to learn how to wake up with motivation, banishing your phone at bedtime needs to be a priority. A study by Reportlinker found 46 percent of Americans check their phones as soon as they wake up; rising to 66 percent in the millennial age bracket. The most common usage was to check emails or social media.

I’ve previously explored the addictive quality of smartphones, plus the negative impact social media has on mental health. It’s long been suggested social media can lead to depression and loneliness, without quantifiable evidence. Well, as of this month, a study from Penn State has linked Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to reduced wellbeing.

Furthermore, multiple studies have found a positive correlation between mobile phone use and procrastination. If not staring into the abyss and ruminating like a trooper, your day may be delayed by browsing Twitter, scrolling Instagram, reading news or playing candycrush.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Ditching the phone, writing to-do lists the night before, and other solution suggested have a similar aim — to simplify the decision making process. There’s a reason for this. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister discovered a correlation between decisions and decreased willpower and self-control. Constant decision making tires us out.

Morning decisions can be overwhelming. We decide what to wear, what to do on an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, what to eat for breakfast, whether to go to the gym. If our phones are at our bedside, we may tap in to another form of decisions: what time do I meet my friend? How should I respond to this WhatsApp message?

A consistent morning routine is a great way to reduce decisions. I go a step further and follow a morning ritual. What’s the difference? You could argue semantics, I’d argue devotion. Rather than a routine I blindly follow because I believe it’s good for me (boorrriiinnnggg) I devote myself to cultivating joy in the sacred moments after waking.

ritual stove press
Rituals can cultivate joy.

It begins with the dedication to be mindful and take time for myself. I stretch, move, focus on the breath, get blood and oxygen flowing. I meditate, sometimes. I assemble my morning oats, with the same ingredients, in the same order. I carefully set up my Italian Stovetop Espresso maker. I listen to the noise of boiling water, close my eyes and enjoy the scent. I wake up and smell the coffee… with a few added steps.

If tiredness is the culprit, assess your lifestyle

It’s unlikely the reason you can’t get up exists in a vacuum or is caused by one single factor. But if you feel physically drained, applying any of the above actions will be more difficult. If tiredness is the problem, you may have to cast the net wider and address your lifestyle.

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting enough downtime? Are you cutting back on caffeine and reducing alcohol consumption? Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating well? The better the quality of fuel we provide the body and the better rest, the more resources our hearts and minds have to work with, metaphorically and literally speaking.

Piecing it all together

I’m hopeful this article gives you something to work with. I can vouch for the above actions, and I believe they can have a positive influence and increase purpose. But I’d like to end with a reminder for self-compassion in the process. These steps are a designed to move you towards where you’d like to be.

It’s important to celebrate each step in the right direction; if you struggle to get up five days a week and reduce that to three or four, celebrate! If you start writing a SMART to-do list the evening before, celebrate!

And, importantly, if you read this article and nothing changes, remember rumination, and guilt, won’t fix the issue. Only action will.

Carpe diem. But first, wake up.

Have you tried any of these actions? Or do you have tips of your own? Let me know by commenting below.


Psychology

The Self-Critic Screams When Expectations Aren’t Met

self critic
When does your self-critic scream?

Forget Ghostface this Halloween. Most of us are bullied by a screaming ghoul of a different nature — the self-critical voice. Netflix’s animated gem, Bojack Horseman, offers surprising insight into its destructive nature. As the title, Stupid Piece of Sh*t, suggests, Bojack’s self-critic isn’t particularly friendly.

Those who pay too much attention to the noise become extremely vulnerable to depression, with Bojack levels of excessive self-criticism acknowledged as a huge factor behind major depressive disorders.

Don Miguel Ruiz refers to this as the parasite. Jungian psychologists The Saboteur. Spiritualists the Ego. Call it what you will, all of us can fall victim to the self-critic.

You smash a plate. Dick. You fail an exam. Stupid idiot. You’re rejected by someone you were convinced was The One on Tinder. Unlovable fuckwit. You accidentally call your boss mum. Weird Freudian-slipping manchild freak.

Certain situations fuel this voice. Maybe the self-critic perks up when in work, in social situations, when public speaking, when meeting the in-laws.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGalix-sVXs

This nagging, judgemental, stupid piece of shit affects the quality of our relationships, lowers our self-esteem, limits the scope of our life choices and provides a barrier to inner-peace.

During a recent coaching conversation I had a realisation: the self-critic is fuelled by unrealistic expectations. Specifically, the self-critic is constantly comparing you to an idea of perfection, in which you will always be second best.

Expectations are flawed perspectives

The self-critic thrives on comparison. Think about it — without anything to compare yourself to, how can you come off worse? You can’t fail to meet expectations that don’t exist. Whether you’re not enough or too much, judgement requires an external element to compare yourself to.

Often, it’s not a direct comparison to some actual living, breathing human being. It’s an idea of who you should be. And, for bonus points, the negative bias and never-satisfied nature of the egoic mind means who you should be is perfect.

Always perfect.

Always on the ball. Always funny. Always getting absolutely everything right. Always saying the right thing. Always productive. Always happy.

The self-critic is like an overprotective, neurotic parent desperately living vicariously through their child in a maladjusted attempt at love and discipline.

Like the neurotic, control freak of a parent, the self-critic wants the best for you. But with the expectation to be always perfect, best is unattainable.

Further still, the greater the distance we perceive ourselves to be from these lofty expectations, the louder the voice screams.

So how do we make it shut up?

Amplify the voice

If the self-critic screams, it appears counterintuitive to increase the decibels. However, the results may be surprising. Rather than tensing up and trying to ignore the critic, by amplifying its voice, we’re tuning in to its thirst for attention.

I’ll assume the typical dynamic is similar to how you’d respond to a real-life bully; feelings oscillate from fearing its presence, to feeling angry and frustrated at its attitude, or occasionally complying and taking what it says as truth.

Applied to the self-critical voice, amplification is really paying attention to the voice, and the myriad of ways it manifests in the mind. Amplifying the voice is saying: “I’m not afraid of you. And I come in peace.”

Identify the self-critic’s expectations

The peace treaty has been initiated, now it’s time to negotiate. The first step is to identify what expectations the self-critic has that aren’t being met.

For example, let’s say you amplify the voice and notice a recurring theme — the self-critic calls you stupid. A lot. When you trip in public, don’t register an intellectual joke, forget your keys. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Make an honest assessment of the underlying expectations to this theme, preferably in a journal. Perhaps the self-critic believes humans should never trip, and trip frequency has a direct correlation to one’s IQ. Perhaps the critic believes knowledge is power and to be anything but stupid, you have to know everything. Perhaps not being stupid is remembering everything all the time.

I can almost guarantee these expectations will always be always perfect.

Speak from the critic…

In 2013, a psychotherapy study specifically explored therapeutic methods related to managing the self-critic. One of their recommended treatments was to “speak from out of the inner critic.” That is, for a psychologist to encourage their client to talk about themselves in third person, from the perspective of the critic.

excessive self criticism
Speak from the critic.

I know this works because my coach used this technique on me. By the time I heard myself say “I’m afraid people will think Ricky is pathetic,” I realised I was on to something. I’d like you to try this too. It’s a little trickier without someone to guide you through, but it’s doable. You can try this in your head, out loud, or better still, written.

… To understand what it wants

The main aim is to engage in dialogue. After all, the critic is a separate part of the psyche. If it wasn’t, phrases like “you idiot” wouldn’t exist; who’s the you in that scenario?

An inner-dialogue may go something like this:

“You keep saying I’m stupid. I made one slip up during the presentation and you were saying I’m completely useless and a waste of space. I was just wondering what would be good enough for you?”
“Sorry, what?”
“Well it’s just… I’m clearly not enough. So what does enough look like?”
“Oh, we’re going there. Well, seeing as you asked, mistakes aren’t tolerable.”
“I’m not allowed to make any mistakes?”
“Sure. Yeah. No mistakes.”
“That’s impossible.”
*Silence*
“What scares you so much about me making ‘mistakes’?”
“Look, I just want you to be loved, and to be loved, you have to be perfect.”

Bingo. It might not be this straightforward but you see the intention for this exercise. The critic wants you to be loved. However, this is underpinned by the mistaken belief that only perfection is loveable.

To action any “aha” moments coming from the dialogue, challenge the belief by reframing. For example — “I am imperfect and loveable. In fact, everyone is imperfect, and everyone is loveable. Equating perfection with lovability is a fallacy.”

Befriend the critic

In Godfather 2, Michael Corleone recounts fatherly advice: “keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” I wouldn’t usually advocate applying wisdom from the fictional Mafia, but, this works well for handling the self-critic.

Once you’ve understood its needs and discovered underlying expectations, it’s time to call a truce. And the best way to do that is to counter self-criticism with its polar opposite — self-compassion.

Put simply, be kind to yourself. Work on cultivating supportive self-talk, not destructive self-talk. It’s definitely not easy. It’ll take constant practice to master, such is the nature of the mind. Yet small steps can make a big difference in mood.

Like the unlikely protagonist of a Hollywood horror surviving against the odds, one day, when the self-critic tries to scream, it won’t have a voice.

How’s your relationship with your self-critic? Do you use any different tools to manage it?


 

Psychology, Social Media

The Subtle Ways We Seek Salvation From Our Smartphones (And How To Stop)

obsessive phone checking
Hello… is it me you’re looking for?

There’s a universe at your fingertips, brimming with promises of digital delights. How hard it is to resist the lure of bright lights, shiny icons and pleasant pings! Every aspect of this universe is the deliberate result of Silicon Valley exploiting behavioural psychology to hijack our habit-forming tendencies. Knowing how to stop being addicted to your phone seems an impossible task.

Our phones may be in the palm of our hands, but the truth is, we’re the ones under the thumb. I’m all too familiar with the iPhone’s gravitational pull. There have been occasions where I see a familiar glow in my peripheral vision. My attention immediately diverts, only to realise the screen was alight because I’d pressed the ‘home’ button seconds before, like a dull, first-person Black Mirror.

Sometimes, I catch myself in the middle of a disturbing ritual; I unlock, scroll through the icon screen, open ‘photos’, close, open WhatsApp (despite no notifications), scroll, open an old conversation, close, open Instagram, no new notifications, scroll, close. Then I realise what I’m doing and feel mild shame.

The human equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Although embarrassing to admit, I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual. Research suggests we touch, swipe or click 2,617 times every day, spread across 150 sessions. Holland Haiis, a digital detox expert, refers to technological addiction as “the new 21st century addiction.” Without a doubt, my tail-chasing icon-swiping is a sign of addiction — I’m seeking salvation from boredom.

Proactively checking vs. reacting to notifications

Notifications are highly distracting. Studies have illustrated this for a while, and more and more of us are turning off notifications to reduce stress. However, obsessive phone checking is proactive. Often I unlock my phone when I don’t have new notifications, consciously aware I won’t find what I’m looking for.

I follow a similar process on my laptop — checking for new emails, logging onto Facebook or browsing BBC football without purpose. However, this behaviour is much, much more prominent when associated with a mobile device. The UX universe becomes a black hole of temptation in my pocket.

Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset?

I’ve made steps to reduce this behaviour. I receive notifications for messages on WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, or SMS (from one friend — you know who you are). But I don’t have Facebook on my phone, and don’t receive notifications from any other apps, including Instagram and Twitter.

Most studies focus on the distraction of checking our phones when notified. But why do I find myself opening an app without notifications? Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset? Would it be better if I actually knew, for sure, whenever something occurs in iPhone universe?

Opening WhatsApp and scrolling aimlessly through old conversations, unconsciously browsing old photos, mindlessly swiping the icon screen, double tapping ‘home’ and closing apps for no apparent reason… That’s just weird. I know it is. Clearly, there’s more to obsessive phone checking than a thirst for notifications.

Is a problem a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem?

This behavioural loop is subtle, and identifying it as a problem is… a problem. If your addiction is deeply intrusive — injecting yourself with heroin or blowing your life’s savings on a 10-match final score accumulator in the Romanian second-division — alarm bells will ring.

These types of addiction pacify deep-rooted, intense emotional states such as clinical depression. But what about feelings on the “slightly below average” part of the emotional spectrum? Boredom? Restlessness? Frustration? Agitation? These states induce behaviour matching their tenacity.

“There are those of us where addiction has completely taken control of our lives,” Valerie Mason-John, author of Eight Step Recovery, told MindThatEgo. “Then there are those of us where addictions are hidden. We don’t even acknowledge them as addictions,” she added. Obsessive phone checking is in this category, subtle, easy to dismiss.

The balancing act of dopamine and subtle emotional states

Dopamine is the reward chemical flooding our brains when we have sex, eat, exercise and socialise successfully (not at the same time, though I’m sure combining these activities would feel great). Clinical depression may lead to an attempt to “balance” the state with a heavy dose, turning a Class A drug such as cocaine. Boredom, however, may be balanced the tiny hit of dopamine our phones provide.

“If you understand people’s internal triggers, you can try to satiate them,” Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, told Wired. Eyal specialises in creating “habit-building” products. “If you’re feeling lonely, we can help you connect. If you’re feeling bored, we can help entertain.” Creating a landscape primed to form habits, whilst promising connection, has manifested the inevitable. A 2014 study discovered cell-phone addiction (CPA) is driven by the urge to connect socially.

But is there harm in mindlessly picking up the phone and swiping? Are we nullifying human traits and striving for Jesus-like perfection? Let’s return to those mildly unpleasant states. The same study compared smartphone addiction to shopping or internet addiction. These addictions begin in a benign manner, until a “tipping point” is reached and a few dopamine-seeking swipes down the line, you’re dependent.

Dependency and seeking low-risk comfort

This dependency is the real issue. Valerie Mason-John refers to this process as “seeking refuge” — the source of addiction becomes a place of comfort, a coping mechanism to escape troubling emotions. You choose your smartphone because it has provided comfort in the past; the timeline of dopamine rewards become hardwired into the subconscious. Chemically, smartphone addiction creates an imbalance in the brain.

Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Trevor Haynes, of Harvard Medical School, likens obsessive phone checking to a psychological framework known as the “variable reward principle.” Habits form easily when we believe we will be rewarded at random (in this case, new likes, followers or messages) and the cost of seeking the reward is minimal. Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Whilst writing this article I’ve stopped to check my phone numerous times. This behaviour isn’t much different from someone leaving their desk every 30 minutes to smoke. The hit of nicotine is replaced by the hit from a new notification. These moments reinforce the behaviour. When the tiny buzz wears off, as it always does, I’m back to square one. Swiping. Clicking. Tapping.

How to stop being addicted to your phone

break smartphone habit.
We can learn to break the phone checking habit.

Break the cycle by journaling habits

So how do we break the cycle? Begin by catching yourself when you pick up your phone. You may find yourself suddenly staring at the home screen with no recollection of how you got there — I feel you, I do it too. But the more you become aware of the process, the more you seize control of auto-pilot. Try this for one week. Journal how many times this happens in a day. Use meditation and mindfulness to increase space between thoughts and action.

After detecting moments of obsessive checking, explore your underlying thoughts, emotions or desires. Return to your journal and note the context of each moment. For example: “Today I realised I habitually reach for my phone when I’m tired. It’s almost like I need a pick me up, something to stimulate my brain. Thoughts usually centre around the hope of someone contacting me with something amusing to brighten my day. A little laughter would give me energy.”

Explore the context of underlying thoughts and emotions

Next, challenge your perspective. Look at the bigger picture and reframe. Using the above example: “I didn’t get much sleep so I was more tired than usual. Tiredness is more of an issue than I thought; I definitely rely on others to pick me up whenever I feel drowsy… It’s as if I’m running away from the feeling of drowsiness.”

In Buddhist philosophy, seeking pleasure to avoid pain is a prime cause of suffering. To free ourselves, we need to embrace the impermanent nature of craving. Then, confront our emotional triggers.

“I’ve associated drowsiness as something inherently bad. Like I shouldn’t feel that way. That makes me feel restless and I get the impulse to turn to my phone. In reality, drowsiness is fine, it’s part of being human. To help, I can sleep more and eat better. I’ll pay attention to fluctuations in energy without magnifying the lows. Now I think of it, many times I perk up after a spell of drowsiness.”

What are you expecting to find?

iPhone addiction
The universe at your fingertips.

Another technique is to explore your expectations. When you pick up your phone, what are you expecting? A reply you’ve been waiting for from a friend? A retweet from the celebrity you mentioned on Twitter? Likes on your latest Instagram photo?

Looking at your expectations can shine a light on what you’re seeking. Maybe you are lonely. Maybe there’s social anxiety around the selfie you shared, and you’re awaiting a like or a comment for validation.

There are practical steps, such as using apps to limit mobile usage. Apple even introduced “Screen Time” as part of iOS. As useful as they are, these apps don’t stop you picking up your phone and checking. Until smartphones can physically restrain users, we’ll need to consider another option.

I always put my phone in another room when I’m working. On days when I’m particularly weak, I turn it off and hide it from myself (sometimes in my sock drawer or food cupboard!) and set a time when I’ll consciously check-in. I bought an old-school alarm clock and I turn my phone off an hour or so before bed. I won’t check it until I’ve eaten my morning oats — at the earliest.

You may find your own tricks, and please let me know if you do. The universe at your fingertips is intoxicating, but with a little conscious effort, it doesn’t have to control us.

Hang on a sec, my phone’s glowing, I think I have a new mes-… never mind.


 

MindThatEgo Podcast

🎧 MTE Podcast #5: Crazywise with Phil Borges

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What if psychological crises were opportunities for spiritual awakening? That’s the question that motivated Phil Borges to direct his documentary, Crazywise. While documenting indigenous and tribal cultures for over 30 years, he realised the healers and visionaries had each undergone a personal transformation our culture may label a breakdown, psychotic, crazy… Unlike in the West, these “disorders” are seen as gifts.

Phil’s Ted Talk on the subject has nearly 2 million views, and it’s easy to see why. Having watched Crazywise on a friend’s recommendation, I was eager to talk to Phil. I wasn’t disappointed — our discussion in MindThatEgo Podcast #5 was fascinating. We cover diagnosis, peer-support, the overuse of prescription drugs, hearing voices, authenticity, and much more.

On a personal level, our discussion was extremely emotional. I’ve shared a few things not many people know about my own crisis, particularly around grief and psychosis. Phil was open-hearted about his experiences, too. It’s a conversation that will no doubt stay with me for a while.

Enjoy the show!

Trigger warning: this podcast episodes contains reference to psychosis and suicide.