Notifications trigger our fight-or-flight response and constant phone checkers are more stressed than the average American.
In this blog post we explore:
- Why is checking my phone stressful?
- How phones trigger our fight-or-flight response
- Why are phone notifications stressful?
- How does phones stress negatively affect health?
- Top tips to beat phone stress
Why is checking my phone stressful?
Americans now check their phones an average of 52 times each day, according to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey from Deloitte - and this doesn’t take into account the moments where we hear a notification and decide to check later.
In the 2017 report “Stress in America - The State of Our Nation”, the American Psychological Association found that US adults who report that they constantly or often check their email, texts and social media accounts were significantly more stressed than those who don’t check them as frequently.
The survey found that on a 10-point scale, where one is “little or no stress” and ten is “a great deal of stress,” the average reported stress level for constant checkers was 5.3, compared with 4.4 for those who don’t check as frequently. For employed Americans who check their work email constantly on their days off, their reported overall stress level was even higher, at 6.0.
How phones trigger our fight-or-flight response
The ‘fight-or-flight response’ is the ultimate survival tool. It describes the instinctive physiological responses that all humans experience when faced with a threatening situation.
Historically, this ‘threatening situation’ might have been a tiger; in the modern world, stressors are often less tangible. But whether you’re facing down a predator, or you’ve received an angry email from work, in a moment of stress your body reacts in exactly the same way. The body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks into action and hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body. These hormones trigger a number of physical reactions such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms and a swooping feeling in the stomach as blood moves away from the gut towards the muscles in your arms and legs to prepare you to either face the danger or run away.
This diagram shows the physical response in more detail:
Many of these responses are excellent for preparing us to run away from a tiger, but are unhelpful when you receive an unexpected email from work.
As work increasingly creeps into our personal lives, checking our phones even on personal days is becoming more regular. In the same Stress In America study, 28% of Americans reported checking their work email on days off as frequently as personal emails or texts.
Why are phone notifications stressful?
We are more connected than ever, and the average American receives more notifications per day than the number of times they check their phone.
A notification can be exciting, or nerve-wracking, but it rarely passes without some sort of physical reaction. The brain might product dopamine, the happy hormone, as you receive a message from a friend, but it also might product cortisol, the stress hormone, if the alert is for an email from your boss. Many of us never change the default notification tone on our phones and so every bleep, chirp or ping triggers a neural guessing game and the brain floods the body with hormones.
Americans are more anxious than ever and so more often than we think, we start to worry that the ‘ping’ your phone made is a problem email from work instead of a message from a friend. We don’t even have to check for the fight-or-flight system to kick in and prepare us to react to stress.
How does phone stress negatively affect health?
While your body’s fight-or-flight response will stop in its tracks when a stressful situation passes, if your phone is constantly beeping you risk not giving yourself a break. Not only will it leave you feeling on edge, but continually elevated cortisol levels are linked to a number of negative health outcomes such as depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, dementia, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” says Dr. Robert Lustig, a neuroendocrinologist, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of The Hacking of the American Mind. “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”
Bruce McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at The Rockefeller University also notes that while our baseline cortisol levels fluctuate in a regular 24-hour cycle, this cycle is disrupted if we get less than seven to eight hours of sleep a night - something that is easier to do if you’re in the habit of checking your phone before bed.
Top tips to beat phone stress
Switch your phone to silent
It seems simple, but if you can’t hear your notifications then they can’t stress you out. Make sure to put a schedule in place to stop you from checking your phone just in case.
Making the most of your phone’s wellbeing settings
Auto ‘Do-Not-Disturb’ modes and priority notifications help you filter and reduce notifications and features such as unlock counters help you understand how you use your phone so you can break the cycle.
As your office to initiative set hours in which you can send and receive emails, and make the most of scheduled send in non-urgent situations so that you’re not responsible for another colleagues out-of-hours stress.
Turn your phone off at night
Turning off your phone might seem stressful but by removing the opportunity you’re less likely to see something you don’t want to when you check the time, and more likely to get the sleep you need.