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The Dopamine Overdose: The Importance of Managing Your Screentime

Are you in a toxic relationship with your smartphone? Are you like me, and just try to convince yourself that your addiction isn't THAT bad? Our phones have undoubtedly integrated themselves into our daily life and our psyche, but the question is, how do we approach, and adjust, our relationship with them? At times, our phones and other screens may be integral to our business and staying connected, however why is it so hard to put them down when work is over? I feel like I'm consciously sabotaging myself, since I'm aware of the damaging effects and yet, I feel powerless. In the book Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke states, "The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation." Big tech companies are designing interfaces and building algorithms that specifically tap into, and induce, this addictive behavior. Even without the intentional hooking of users, other things like "doomscrolling," and comparing oneself to others are now deeply seated within our human psyche, and all of these things are working together to make phones have an addicting quality. Let’s talk about why it is crucial to tame this temptation, and explore strategies that I employ when I need to take my power back, and the benefits that follow when we do.

Can Our Phones Cause Depression?

An important discovery I found about myself is that my overall mental health is directly linked to my screen time. The higher my screen time, the higher my stress and anxiety is. We are getting an overdose of dopamine from our phones, to the point where this convenient “tool” ends up making us feel fatigued, stressed, and depressed. What is the role of dopamine, and how do our phone affect it? The following are a few of its roles:

  • Motivation
  • Behavior/Mood
  • Learning 

Dennis Buttimer, with a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology and 40 years of experience in the field, states:

“When we check our phones, our brains release a small amount of dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to take action and each time we hear a notification, we check our device. The problem is this dopamine boost is temporary and leads to a letdown. Our brains want more dopamine, which triggers the habit of checking our phones constantly throughout the day.”

More Dopamine Wont Make You Happier

Receiving more dopamine will never be enough and will never satisfy us because the threshold constantly increases. Scientists use dopamine to estimate the addictive potential of an experience, meaning the more dopamine being released, the more addictive the experience may be. We experience a spike in dopamine in anticipation, as well as when we do the thing itself, making us want to continue the cycle even more. We can then spiral into a pleasure-seeking vortex. The digital world enables bingeing because there are no limitations that force us to pause.

Think about the cycle of posting pictures to Instagram or other social media platforms. The excitement you may feel when taking the shots, carefully selecting and editing your favorites, crafting the perfect caption with corresponding emojis... and then once you finally post, checking and re-checking to make sure everything is just right. Then you eagerly wait for the likes to flow in. Checking your phone each time a new notification slides across your screen... "Who liked my photo? Who's looking at my picture now?"

Note: This isn’t about getting rid of the beast, it’s about taming it so that it doesn't end up eating us. 

When we understand what is actually happening inside the brain during this cycle, it helps us to understand why it's so important to set boundaries. It's a complicated relationship for many of us, but once we start enforcing these boundaries and finding methods that work for us, it can become a healthier relationship. It’s helpful to start being honest with our attachment and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • "Do I believe I can have more self control?"
  • "Why do I want to implement better boundaries?"
  • “How is my phone affecting my mental health?”

When we have a reason for doing something, or in this case doing less of something, it's easier to begin creating solutions.

Graphic of a hand holding a phone with a pop up, "REMINDER. Take a break from the screen!" -- "Okay"

This Happened When I Left My Phone at Home

You're not gonna believe it! 😬

After I typed out this title, I stopped and tapped on my phone to check for any messages. (Hey, at least I admit it, right?)

I am continuing to find ways for improvement because I know my mental health and productivity depends on it. One method that has helped has been "Out of Sight Out of Mind". Recently, I left my phone at home, on purpose, while I went to run some errands. (I know, pretty wild stuff). This is an experiment I have done before and here's the scary part: I automatically kept reaching for the darn thing again and again. (In fact, cell phones, like the first iPhone and its predecessors, used an enticing form factor – called, the candy bar).

My brain wanted that regular "hit" of dopamine because it's so used to getting it. That's when I knew this is a deeply ingrained habit and unconscious response. However, a couple hours into NOT having my phone, my brain experienced moments of clarity and reflection. I was able to process certain thoughts that I had distracted myself from and get this, it wasn’t as scary as I thought. 

Here are some other strategies/ small goals you can try:

  1. "Today, my screen time will be less than __ hours.”
  2. Turn off notifications (or go into do-not-disturb mode). 
  3. Try moving all distracting apps off your home screen onto the last screen instead.

I have days where my screen time is quite alarming. When we give our phones free control to poke us throughout the day, it goes from being a tool to a nuisance very quickly. Recognizing that it’s an ongoing process of accumulating self awareness and by being mindful, you are succeeding. Sometimes big changesd don't happen overnight, and that's okay. We don't realize how accustomed we have become to mindlessly being on our phones until we decide to go against that urge.

FUN FACT: I had a battle with my brain TODAY while I was eating lunch to not be on my phone. It was challenging to simply just eat without scrolling... YIKES!

However, today I won.

The Benefits of a Distraction Detox

This time away from my phone, even for a few hours, allowed me to process, reflect, feel and resolve some recurring thoughts and emotions. That's the thing about healing, we think we have moved on -- but usually it takes continued awareness and compassion as we keep facing it. This might be hard to believe but when I was in the process of processing, I actually felt a sense of relief because I was able to gain some of my self control and power back. As Dr. Lembke gracefully writes, 

I urge you to find a way to immerse yourself fully in the life that you’ve been given. To stop running from whatever you’re trying to escape, and instead to stop, and turn, and face whatever it is. Then I dare you to walk toward it. In this way, the world may reveal itself to you as something magical and awe-inspiring that does not require escape." 

The thoughts and emotions we avoid, only have true power over us when we continue to hide and deflect. I realized in that moment of reflection when I allowed myself to face and feel "it", its overwhelming weight slowly began to fade away. As if all it was waiting for me to do was look in its direction and not look to distraction.

Gaining Freedom From Our Addiction

The truth is, the feeling I have when I am APART from my phone vs. a PART of my phone is why I continue to seek to take my power back.

Some days my screen time is higher than I’d like, but the AWARENESS is what keeps me ACCOUNTABLE.

As the author of The Power Of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains one of the benefits of being in the present moment,

“Don't look for peace. Don't look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender”

I want to continue to be mindful of normalizing emotions that don’t feel good. They are all messages for us to explore and befriend. It may be easier to use our devices as a distraction, but in the long run – those emotions will keep us from growing and achieving our goals. Live in the present moment, experience the things gping on around and within in us, rather than sticking your head into a digital hole. Remember, trying something new can be hard. It's crucial we refrain from constant distractions, because without these barricades, there are valuable parts of us that can begin to emerge. Keep on keeping on and get unplugged.

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