I’ve always been an advocate of consuming nutrient-dense food to fuel the body towards optimum health. Aside from facilitating proper recovery after an intense workout and increases mental clarity at work, food provides the nourishment our cells need for proper functioning. The basic premise is this–what we put in is also what we get out. However, little was I aware that this input-output concept was also applicable to psychological health or what thinkers call “the inner workings of the mind.”
During the Holy Week, I found myself having lots of free time on my hands. It was a week-long holiday of fasting, detachment and reflection, but honestly, I wasn’t feeling too spiritual or “zen” that week. Boredom struck amidst quiet solitude, and I found myself constantly reaching for my phone to check social media, read articles or watch random YouTube videos to be entertained. What was supposed to be a week-long respite became an overwhelming and drowning sea of distractions. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a wonderful place to get educated and be informed about current events. Social media can be a powerful tool to produce and exchange information, reach a niche and interact with like-minded individuals. In fact, today, it is virtually impossible for most businesses to thrive without shifting or incorporating online platforms. The world is becoming more and more interconnected or so it seems.
But the sheer amount of information left my mind scattered and racing to make sense of endless concepts and ideas from so-called experts on basically every single field that I’m interested in. I felt tired, anxious and unproductive, plus my eyes hurt a lot. That is why after the holidays, I decided to abstain from my devices for an indefinite time period. At first, it was a complete digital cleanse but my clients and I communicate via Messenger so I shifted to a social media cleanse/social media detox. After two months of social media detox (complete abstinence of Instagram and Facebook), I realized that my mind thrives on simplicity. Detaching from my screen and not fearing that I might miss out, I do not feel overstimulated and I am less overwhelmed of the things happening around me. I have more energy at work and more quality time with my friends. I also feel a sense contentment and loosened my grip on things I couldn’t control.
To stay healthy, we shouldn’t just feed our bodies the right type of foods. Feeding the mind with the right type information at the right dose is equally, if not more, important. Just like our physical health that is dependent on the food we eat, our psychological health is determined by what we feed it. Having quality carbs, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals make us go longer in our workouts. In the same way, what our eyes see, what our ears hear and what our other senses perceive influence how our minds think. We are ultimately defined by the thoughts that we allow to take root in our minds. The mind is an underestimated tool that can lead to our bodies being healed or becoming ill. And what is irresponsibly neglected by most is one’s mental health which is, arguably as important as our physical health. If we feed our minds with garbage, that junk will stick subconsciously and will manifest in nasty ways. Always subscribed to prime time news full of violence and dirty politics? Then you might develop a pessimistic and hopeless view of the world. Always checking beautiful travel destinations or following an athlete for his insane fitness on Instagram to stay entertained and motivated? Then you might develop a false sense of reality. The body and the brain have something in common. They both rely on the information we choose to put in, the operational word being “choose.”
The Price of More
The digital revolution, as wonderful as it is, can have its drawbacks. Research shows that being exposed to too much information, especially random information, such that in social media, can be highly degenerative to focus and productivity. Social media today was not like how it was originally created. Before, it’s very easy for one to post something, leave it and check on it from time to time. Now with newer features such as likes, follows, views, hearts and comments, we check social media all the time. It is constantly being engineered to be highly addictive. To know why, we should understand an evolutionary process crucial to our survival.
Science tells us that it’s not muscle that helped humans survive through the course of evolution but our brains. A powerful hormone called Dopamine gives us a rewarding sensation of pleasure. During the Paleolithic era, this may look like successfully hunting down wild game for dinner or creating a sturdy shelter against the rain. Today, it’s ticking off a task on our to-do list or being affirmed by our peers. According to Simon Sinek in his book Leaders Eat Last, “That feeling of progress or accomplishment is primarily because of Dopamine. It is Dopamine that makes us goal-oriented species with a bias for progress.” This pleasureable feeling give us the drive to do more, be more and know more and can be highly addictive. Unfortunately, this addiction is the main driver of overworking, overeating, overshopping, over-collecting, over-reading, over-studying or social media binging. Unfortunately, constantly multitasking and constantly “achieving” compromises our ability to focus and kills our creativity. We should always keep in mind that every triumph or milestone in life must be followed by a time of rest and recovery. We replenish our physical and mental strength by purposefully resting. Scientists discovered that when we are focusing on a difficult task and we leave that task even just for a moment, it becomes harder to come back with complete focus. They call this phenomenon “attention residue” and this residue takes time to clear out. And while it’s clearing out, productivity and cognitive performance is already reduced.
“Our ability to maintain our focus in one information patch–whether it be a work project or homework assignment–has seriously been jeopardized, and we believe that modern information technology is a major culprit. We have become such massive consumers of high-tech spending the vast majority of our waking hours using one or more devices, and we have no practice sustaining our attention on just one activity and ignoring the lure of others.” –Adam Gazzeley and Larry Rosen, The Distracted Mind
The Irony of Connection
Connection is cooperation and cooperation is survival. In fact, according to Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari, conection allows humans to cooperate at a massive scale. This is our advantage over other animals and is the primary reason why Homo Sapiens rule the world. In his London TED talk, he proposed a situation where if we would pit one human against one chimpanzee in a fight, the chimpanzee would surely win. But pit 1,000 humans against 1,000 chimpanzees and the chimps have no chance. This is because humans can cooperate and work together at this scale. Chimps would only be in a chaotic riot.
However, being connected all the time is not good either. According to Cal Newport, author of the book “Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, there are two phenomena happening when you are constantly connected especially on social media. The first one is “social snacking”, which is basically a low frequency social interaction that replaces real, face to face and quality human interaction. It prevents us from sacrificing our time and energy which is crucial in developing trust and solidarity. The second issue is social comparison. He says that it is simply unhealthy to be constantly looking at carefully constructed positive portrayals of everyone’s lives. Quiet reflection in solitude is crucial if we want to get to know who we truly are. It is important if we are to maintain inner stability and to separate who we are as to who we think we are.
“Solitude is freedom from inputs from other minds.” –Michael Irwin
Just decades ago solitude was inevitable. If one had to line up to pay for groceries and he’d have to wait ten minutes, there was solitude. He was alone with his thoughts. For the first time in human history, we’ve created super high-tech pocket computers that obliterate all forms of solitude and this creates problems. Cal Newport calls this phenomena “Solitude Deprivation Syndrome”, which makes us anxious and impedes our creative and professional insights.
Joseph Campbell explains the importance of solitude in unearthing our hidden potentials in his archetype of the Hero’s Journey. He writes, “The call is to leave a certain social situation, move into youe loneliness and find the jewel, the center that is impossible to find when you’re socially engaged. The first step, detachment or withdrawal consists of a radical transfer from the external and internal world. All of life potentialities are hidden there.” What he is basically saying is that we should disconnect from the external world of noise and enter into the realm of the subconscious, the same realm we enter into when we fall asleep. It is the realm where our potentials are hidden, Campbell says. We cannot tap into this realm if we are always connected and cluttered. We will forever be bugged down, he explains, if we do not come into terms with who we really are and bring to life our potentials. All of which can only be accessible through detachment.
“All man’s history is an endeavor to shatter his own loneliness.” –Norman Cousins, Modern Man is Obsolete
The Age of Anxiety
One may easily assume that with social media and the internet connecting us in radical ways, loneliness can be completely shattered. However, the opposite is quite true–current statistics show that the more we are digitally connected, the lonelier we become. It’s easy to blame technology for eradicating the traditional, face to face ways of interacting and socializing. However, I think that technology is not to blame. It is our inner emptiness and a lack of a well-defined sense of self that is the root cause of loneliness, insecurity, anxiety and depression.
Is Too Little Better than Too Much?
After two months of abstaining from the digital world, I have learned a valuable lesson. Being bombarded with too much information can be mentally toxic, however, time is ticking and the world waits for no one. The speed of progress is at an all time high and being secluded can prevent us from keeping up with our contemporaries. I believe that purposeful balance is the key: a dance of speeding up and slowing down. Plugging in and plugging out. In a world where there is a surplus of almost everything, enough is better than too much. In an age where convenience is a necessity, effort is better than too little.
Here are some tips to stay balanced and purposeful with our screen time:
1. Eat your meals screen-free. Eating is one of the best ways to practice awareness. By freeing yourself from your screen, you can be aware of the food on your plate and appreciate its flavors. Sharing meals also builds trust and boosts happiness.
2. Don’t use your devices or watch movies in bed. Blue light from our screens prevents the scretion of melatonin, which will keep us awake. Movies can overstimulate our nervous system and agitate our minds. These are sure ways to keep us awake and on our devices.
3. Set a screen-free morning routine. Do not check your email or socials upon waking up. The first thoughts that come into your head will set the theme of your day. So create a routine of reflection and plan your day ahead.
4. Set a s schedule of study and entertainment. Use the internet to improve your craft during the day, and relax in social media after your day’s work. Don’t forget to set a timer!
Towards the end of my social media detox, I visited an art exhibit by Ayka Go. I was deeply moved by how she brought to life a respiteful perspective to the turbulent and unsettling workings of the mind. To make it simple, in her set of work entitled Ephemeral Landscapes, she paints meticulously cut out paper to portray blurred out landscapes synonymous to fleeting emotions and attempts to project a sense of serenity because of its temporal nature. Having had a turbulent and anxious mind during my teenage years, I was able to relate and appreciate the fact that emotions–turbulent or joyful–are all but passing experiences and accepting its impermanence and detachment from its pursuits enlighten us towards peace.
“Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it.” –Ram Dass
If we have so much time to spend on our screens, then the good news is that we have lots of time to immerse ourselves to more challenging and enriching tasks. Indeed, one of the ways out of loneliness, anxiety, depression is going out and dedicating our efforts to create something we can be proud of. Something that goes beyond the realm of material wealth, power or influence. Something that contributes to the lives of others. Something that ultimately expresses who we are. Spending more time in creating and producing will greatly strengthen our sense of self and diminish the feelings of helplessness that keep people locked in bad situations.
“In such a highly developed humanity as the present one each man by nature has access to many talents. Everyone possesses inborn talents, but few posess the degree of acquired toughness, endurance and energy to actually become a talent, that is to say, to become who they are.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
As a fitness coach who went through social anxiety myself, my passion is toil everyday to make people stronger inside and out. Strengthening people strengthens me and my strength I use to strengthen even more. This is my magic carpet out of the cave, my escape rope out of darkness. So instead of wasting my time on the social media and the internet, I reminded myself why I do what I do.
“Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, step back. The only path to serenity.” –Lao Tzu