Tech is at the helm of our anxiety epidemic

Anxiety is a minor key. Pressed lightly it rings with a pang around exam results, dark alleys and unrequited love. Slammed, and it can become a heavy dread; oppressive, squat on your stomach like the demon of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare.      

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” wrote WB Yeats. If you’re anxious, the world can feel like it’s unsustainable, incomprehensible, unraveling. From a medical point of view, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) comes about when those feelings of anxiety spiral out of control, impacting your daily life, making it hard to work, to sleep, even to breathe.

Digital technologies, and the social patterns they encourage, have had an undeniable effect on our relationship with anxiety. Constant email connectivity, social media and 24-hour news cycles have all had a part to play in carving out a society where we are bombarded with non-stop information and the self-publicity of friends and co-workers.

For example, a recent survey by children’s rights charity Plan International UK found that almost half of 11- to 18-year-old girls admitted that social media makes them feel like they have to look or act in a certain way. Similarly, a 2015 study from University College London and the Anna Freud Centre found that the emotional problems of girls aged 11-13 in England increased 55% between 2009 and 2014.

It would be easy to chalk this up to the rise of apps like Snapchat and Instagram, but the reasons likely spread much deeper than individual platforms – reverberating with everything from cultural distractions impacting academic pressures, to new levels of sexualisation amplified by social media.

Disconnection anxiety

“While new technologies such as smartphones and social media have the potential to connect people in ways that was quite unimaginable years ago, they also have the ability to impact on people’s’ anxieties, and it’s important to recognise this,” says Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of charity Anxiety UK.

“New technologies are being found to give rise to new issues such as ‘disconnectivity anxiety’, while they can also contribute to people experiencing difficulties switching off and being able to concentrate on meaningful activities. Like most things, it is important to achieve a balance when it comes to using technology.”

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are designed to encourage near-constant interaction, from the sounds chosen for notifications to the dots, flags and other symbols to needle you into consuming fresh content. With habit-forming patterns conditioning your brain to anticipate the sights and sounds of interaction, social media can feel incredibly addictive. As Lidbetter notes, this can lead to anxieties about checking your accounts, and a feeling of emptiness when those habits undermine other activities or relationships.  

Professional anxiety

A natural place for anxiety to flare up is in the workplace, the tangible boundaries of which have blurred, thanks to round-the-clock emails and conference calls. Work is no longer something conducted at the office and left behind at the end of the working day; it’s accessible at the touch of a button – or the tap of a screen – thanks to smartphones, tablets and laptops. As such, portable devices make it nearly impossible to switch off, both literally and metaphorically. 

Some firms are turning this dynamic on its head, actively employing technology to remedy anxiety, rather than cultivate it. Psious, for example, is a Spanish-based company specialising in VR and AR technology designed to alleviate the ill effects of lapsing mental health and behavioural issues, such as anxiety disorder. The Guardian spoke to its founder Xavier Palomer, who modelled the idea, in part, on a friend’s coping mechanisms for his flying phobia, which he apprehended had broader applications. Exposure therapy was the first order of business, with AR being used to produce virtual snakes, for example, to desensitise people to their phobias. The company’s endeavours have since expanded, with the technology used “to help people calm their nerves, relax, become better speakers, all useful things,” explains Palomer. 

Wariness is advised here, however. There’s an element of fighting fire with fire that rings alarm bells; the notion of alleviating tech-induced anxiety with more tech is something of a house of cards. Well-known pillars of mental health – exercise, regular human contact and an inquisitive disposition – are more robust, not to mention more accessible, coping mechanisms. But more on that later. 

Relationship and sexual anxiety

Marian O’Connor, a psychosexual therapist at Tavistock Relationships, explains that the patterns brought on by new technology can create anxiety in relationships, with partners becoming disconnected even when they’re sitting besides each other. “There used to be a time when your partner was at home with you in the evening, you felt that you know where your partner was. Now you can be in the same room but each on your smartphone and chatting on social media with different people with different interests.

“As you reach over to see what your partner is up to, he or she can close the page or lock the phone,” she adds. “Couples can spend a whole evening together without ever talking to one another but chatting instead to others. How do you know whether your partner is really focused on arranging the next football team outing or whether he is moving between the football WhatsApp group and an online dating site?”

For those that are single, dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble and Grindr can offer up a whole other platter of anxieties. While these platforms have done much for sexual liberation, breaking open limitations around the amount of potential partners people can meet, they can also encourage a quasi-consumerist approach to dating. The emphasis on personal appearance, coupled with the sheer quantity of people using the apps, can make connections feel depersonalised and transactional.

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“This depersonalisation can cause some people to feel that potential sexual partners aren’t interested in knowing them as individuals but only as sexual objects,” says O’Connor. “This can result in an uncomfortable body-mind split which can lead to depression and low self-esteem.”

Overcoming anxiety

The good news is that we’re becoming more conscious about the effect of digital technology on our mental health. Over the past few months, there have been a number of prominent articles covering individuals attempts to detox by forgoing social media altogether (this one in The Guardian is particularly good). With this year marking the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, it could well be that the hyperconnectivity of the past decade is giving way to a more measured approach to smartphones and social media.

“By simply being mindful of how much time you are spending on social media, you’re putting yourself in a far better position”

“There certainly seems to be growing awareness of the potential impacts, both positive and negative, that social media use can have, which is a good thing,” Lidbetter says. “By simply being mindful of how much time you are spending on social media and how it can influence your mood, you’re putting yourself in a far better position to ensure that you maintain a healthy balance. Setting time aside on a regular basis to have a ‘digital detox’ can be helpful in the management of anxiety caused by technology.”    

Another part of this backlash is the growth of apps and technologies specifically angled at alleviating the anxiety brought on by modern life. This includes a whole array of tools designed to make it easier for people to sleep, as well as a plethora of more general apps advocating ways to gain peace of mind. Anxiety UK, for example, is partnered with Headspace, which offers daily, bite-sized sessions around “mindfulness”.

When online, it’s important to keep a sense of proportion about what you’re experiencing, and keep in mind that the facades people present on social media are not necessarily reflections of a person’s reality. “People specifically select photos and posts to share in order to present an edited and touched up portrayal of their life,” notes Lidbetter. “When people try to compare themselves to what is online they can often feel that they just don’t quite match up and they can influence their self-confidence.”anxiety_4

More generally, there are a number of simple tactics you can take to encourage wellbeing. In 2008, the UK Government Office for Science published its Five Ways to Wellbeing guide, which includes advice to regularly connect face to face with people around you; to keep active; to keep curious about the world; to always aim to learn something new; and to regularly give something to others – whether that’s offering a smile or volunteering at an organisation.

Regardless of how you spend your time, it’s always a good idea to take regular breaks from screens. That could mean actively putting down a smartphone for a short walk, or shutting a laptop screen to talk to loved ones. Either way, it’s a small step to take in wrestling smartphones from the centre of your mind, detaching from pan-global news networks, focusing on your immediate surroundings, and remembering that social media doesn’t deserve to have such a large sway over your life. “Like many things in life, it’s all about ensuring that you have balance,” says Lidbetter.

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