The Dangers of Digital Overwhelm – Are We Changing Our Evolutionary Reactions?


I finally finished redecorating my office the other day. It felt somehow more “important” than the normal satisfaction I would have gained from finishing a project.

In fact, hanging this particular series of paintings felt like a crucial addition, taking it from a mostly utilitarian workspace to a place where I can dream and enjoy color and put together new creative ideas that are currently separated by time and space.

Adding a living ficus tree was also important. It turns out the ficus is one of the top-five houseplants capable of purifying volatile pollutants from the air, regulating the humidity, and creating vital oxygen. Score one for plants!

The space has finally been transformed, and now feels quieting and healing. The problems was, I let myself burn out, and that hasn’t boded well for my creative energies. There needs to be an ebb and flow, but my water table has been pretty low lately.

You can’t draw from an empty well, so there are times when we need to allow our inner world to fill in.

As time passes (often at breakneck speed!) I am feeling a deep desire to return to simplicity, to spend luxurious hours writing longhand in journals, sketching, coloring, and reading real paper books — A desire to take back my life from the clutches of the digital monsters that have invaded the shores of our lives.

So many apps promise freedom from stress and an increase in productivity-but all of them require us to spend more time looking down at the screens of our phones rather than looking out the screens of our windows, or better yet, into the windows of our souls.

My life is becoming more analog, and some of it is because of research I’ve been doing into the stress of excess as it pertains to information overload.

Now I’ll warn you, I’m a nurse and I teach and work with predominantly persons affected by heart and lung diseases, so I tend to geek out on the physiology of it all. I ask your forgiveness in advance if this is more explanation than you wanted. I’ll try to summarize:

When our body senses a threat (whether real or imagined) stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into our bloodstream. These hormones speed our heart rate, raise our blood pressure, slow digestion and blunt our pain receptors.

This is survival mode—a primal, built-in reaction that occurs sometimes whether we like it or not.

You may have heard this called “Fight or Flight”, and it’s initiated in the part of the brain called the amygdala — which is responsible for the fear response.

Once the brain figures out the danger has passed (or that there was in fact, no danger at all) it tries to downregulate these hormone levels, but it’s not immediate. It takes from 20 minutes to an hour for this to happen, depending on the person. The part of our brain that deactivates the fear response is called the hippocampus, and it controls emotional cognitive processes like memory and learning. In other words, our brain learns from every experience so it knows how to catalog and deal with similar future experiences.

Here’s the kicker: A North American study showed that adults experience up to 50 small stress-inducing events every day, so with an average recovery time of let’s say 30 minutes / event, our bodies are spending roughly 1/2 the day in cycles of stress, first activating it, then trying to deactivate it.

Eventually over days, weeks, months — or if God forbid your activation / deactivation system should get “stuck” (think PTSD, trauma, chronic stress) then your poor little hippocampus isn’t able to regulate that adaptive response. The chronic production of cortisol creates a low-grade inflammation of your tissues, and the oxidative stress damages your cells. (Enter increased rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.)

So how does our modern world deal with stress? A study in 2015 showed:

40% of people surveyed watch TV for >2 hours a day

32% of people relax by spending time on the internet.

Guess what? Screen-projected images stimulate regions of the brain that are densely packed with dopamine receptors — giving us a “reward” for doing something that stimulates pleasure. This evolutionary mechanism arose from that same survival mode. So when our ancestors found food or water, or built themselves a shelter, they felt “satisfied”. This mechanism has evolved to the point where personal praise, validation and even receiving a gift can have this same effect.

We come to see an unread email or a text message as a sort of “gift” — intended for us alone, and opening that gift produces a dopamine hit.

So let’s see…how many emails and texts do you receive in a typical day?

Checking our phones becomes an addictive hit of pleasure, and our go-to when we are feeling stressed at work or awkward in a social situation.

And so the cycle repeats. Stress happens, our brain interprets this as a “threat” and releases cortisol, and the posts in our social media feed become mini-rewards to soothe and temper the stress. I’m not even going down the rabbit hole of what this means for the denigration of our levels of physical activity or nutrition, but suffice it to say that as a society, we are becoming exercise-starved and digitally overfed, screen-hungry and nutrient-poor.

Ever since the introduction of the smartphone, and with all of the technological advances since, we have been like kids who spend the entirety of Christmas Day in their pajamas, playing with their new toys and unwilling to do anything else. YEARS later, I am finally pulling my head out of the screen and saying “what the hell have I been doing with my life?!”

I’m sure many of you have already gained control of your digital consumption and take offense to what I’ve said here, but as for me? I’ve gained ten pounds in the last year alone and have upper body repetitive stress issues from spending too much time typing on my laptop and phone. The overwhelm of digital consumption has taken me in a direction that is unhealthy for my body, mind and spirit. So I’ve decided to make some changes.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, I’ve now started bullet journaling, writing things out longhand, reading books where I turn actual pages…I want to write real letters to people instead of emails. To engage with people in a more authentic way than I have been.

My husband is getting ready to go to El Salvador to build homes for a week with Habitat for Humanity. Where he’s going there won’t be any cell service and he will be actively engaging in meaningful work, building relationships with real people, and changing the world just a little bit for the better. A part of me envies this and makes me want to start looking for more opportunities to reach out and tangibly help people.

Extended periods of digital abstinence are good and healthy, but let’s not forget that the down-and-dirty battle isn’t in the once a year trip, it’s in the everyday choices that build the foundation of our habits and tendencies.

These are the choices that make long-lasting differences.

I also think a lot of people are scared to admit that they’re feeling this same sense of digital overwhelm; the glut of consumption. It’s hard when you’re wrapped up in it to admit there’s anything wrong with your behavior. After all, you’re not hurting anyone. But you are, in fact, rewiring your brain. And from an evolutionary standpoint, I wonder what this will mean for future generations. Still, that’s another rabbit hole entirely.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m typing this article on my computer, and I still carry my phone everywhere. Baby steps, right? I haven’t given up on technology, but I have to find a way to balance my consumption and use with actual walks in nature instead of watching a hike on my Peloton, face-to-face conversations rather than tweets and texts, and getting my rewards and validation from within my own heart rather than the questionable world of social media.

I didn’t write this article to make myself look “Holier Than Thou”. Neither do I want to receive hate-mail or to get in arguments with people who might feel differently. I wrote it as a manifesto to myself.

A reminder that there’s more to life than an online presence. It is an encouragement to engage deeply with the people in my actual life. The people I can see, feel, and touch.

This is literally the journey of a lifetime — my lifetime, and I’m the only one who can choose my next step. Every journey begins with one.

About the author

By Hallway11

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