Does technology exacerbate mental health decline?

According to news reports, media mogul Simon Cowell has ditched his phone for over ten months, and has been quoted to say the withdrawal from technology has been good for his mental health.

He says he was irritated with how often he was using his phone, and ever since he ditched it, he was more aware and paid more attention to the world and people around him.

“It’s a strange experience,” but he “is more aware of the things around me, and happier for it.”

Cowell is not alone. More than half of phone users check it within 15 minutes of waking up, and many believe that our partners use the phone too much too.

Being swarmed with technology creates many problems.

Technology is a good thing, but we haven’t quite learned to manage it yet. Unfortunately, workplace systems and processes demand that we embrace it, rather than ditch it.

It is easier for employers to demand their employees remain at their beck and call, and get them to do more work out of office hours by saying “I emailed you the documents over the weekend” and then expecting things have been dealt with, or demanding their response with a text message.

You can choose to filter out technology, but unfortunately many of us don’t have this choice, unless we work for ourselves, or – like Cowell – have executive assistants to deal with such matters on our behalf. We don’t want it intruding, but we can’t exactly do without it completely, and it is in navigating the disconnect that proves difficult.

Technology promotes a disconnect in many ways too. Musicians who rely on technology face having to alter their art form because the audience expectations have changed. Remember when being a music DJ meant spinning decks and records? Now it is about clicking touchscreens and select pre-edited tracks. Musician Bob Dylan faced accusations from the folk community when his music became electric with amplified guitars.

Disconnect is fun, don’t get me wrong. Listen to classical music crossed with disco. Or metal music is enjoyed because the dark lyrics are sung to major keys. But when you have a disconnect in daily life that widens each day, managing that contradiction is one of the things you need to do, or it will lead to a decline of your mental health.

Google or Counselling?

Seth Stephenson-Davidowitz is a data scientist, which – apart from the fact that it is viewed as a modern, tech-y, somewhat sexy job – means he uses data to draw insights. A major part of his work uses Google searches as a data set, because he believes that people are less inclined to tell the truth when presented with a face to face interviewer or a survey, simply because of how it reflects on them. In other words, traditional methods of information gathering are not necessarily trustworthy, from a deeper truth point of view. However, he believes that because there is a higher perception of anonymity afforded a computer user who goes on Google to search for answers to thoughts, the data trends are more accurate.

There is some truth in that belief, but in counselling once you have established that relationship of trust with a counsellor, it is easier to unravel the tangle of thoughts in your head, to work through the things that trouble you, instead of looking to Google for answers – the latter would be akin to reading an online self-help book!

One of Stephenson-Davidowitz’s research on data trends has focused on depression. According to data searches, August 11 and Christmas Day are the happiest days of the year – there are less searches for the word depression, while depression is highest in April, the month called the “cruelest month” by poet T S Eliot. Google data also suggests that climate matters a great deal. But also highlights that money is the perhaps a strong underlying cause – searches for depression are less in areas which a large percentage of people are college-educated, which – for those of us in the UK – means they have degrees, and are not to be confused with sixth-form college.

Using such data to gather insights is useful, but we should be careful about being too reliant. The data used in this research also suggested that areas with higher Hispanic-Americans were less depressed, but that could have been because Hispanic-Americans might not have typed “depression” into Google, but used other phrases as well, some of which may have been in other languages. And while depression is an anchoring word, people might look up “suicide”, “how to kill myself”, or “end my life” as other indicators of depression.

When you are depressed, it is a good idea to speak with someone else, because not only would that help unravel the thoughts in your mind, the speaking is effortful, and helps you burn off unwanted stressful energy within you and dissipate it. Of course, the listener – the person you are speaking to – should listen, and be trained to withhold comment, otherwise helpful “suggestions” only increase the pressures on you and the things you have to do and cause more mental triggers!

If you are not yet comfortable speaking with someone, try taking up a skill to take you out of the spiral of negative thoughts. Try a candle-making course, something arty, that takes you out to meet people. But if that still is too far of a social stretch at the moment, then something like learning the piano might be a useful skill. Learning the piano activates different parts of the brain which relieves the pressure on the cortex and the word-processing part of the brain, and as you get lost in the music and melodies, it will momentarily take you out of your stressful world and you give you some form of mental escape – instead of being lost in the maze of Google searches without a way out!

The balance of creativity

Sometimes when we see children misbehaving we are inclined to think the worst of them. This is especially true if our energy levels are low and we have not an ounce of patience left within us. We might let an angry word slip from our mouths which we regret later.

Of course, this is not a good thing to happen. And sometimes children frustrate us. We ask for something to be done one way, someone comes back with a smart aleck comment that only saps us further of our energy when we have to explain a second time. Being around children can be draining!

It really comes down to how children decide to implement their innate creativity – whether they use it in a good way or bad way. I will suggest that the decision between using creativity in a good way – say, finding a unique solution for a problem – and using it in a bad way (to find a method for getting out of doing a task, for example) comes down to will. It is how children choose to use their creative nature, whether they have a good or bad outlet for it.

When we chastise children for being devious or calculative, we should make sure they understand we are not chastising them for who they are, but for the wrong choice they made. If a child has shown poor judgement in using their skill – applying it to bad use, for example, such as in arranging toys on the floor such that someone would trip over them, thinking it would be fun to “prank” someone, we should make sure they know why they are wrong, but not try to squeeze the talent out of them by admonishing them outright and making judgements about their character (such as using statements like “You stupid child” instead of saying “you acted stupidly”.)

Every one of us has talents that could be put to good or bad use. Problem-solving could be a good skill to have. But problem-solving put to bad use in order to weasel out of a situation, such as to pin blame on someone else, is not a good thing to do.

The Impressionist music composer Claude Debussy was by many counts, a rebel. As a Muswell Hill piano teacher tells us, Debussy failed his harmony music exams because he was always experimenting with music and sounds, instead of accepting the theoretical knowledge that was being taught. If one of his teachers had forcibly made him rein in that creativity by drilling it out of him until he complied, he would have completely eliminated that creative, experimental streak that soon gave rise to the Impressionist movement, music by suggestion rather than by explicit mention. And what a great loss to the world that would have been!

Maybe slightly entwined with a creative streak is the will to try and be open. Part of being creative is to experiment and push accepted boundaries (of course, within reasonable limit), and to try new things. If you are stuck in a rut, and have given up trying, and accept life as it is, you take fewer risks, but there are less opportunities to grow and become more inward as a person. And so when we get older we should try to risk, to extend ourselves. We can do so by learning a new skill, such as playing the piano, or basket weaving, or any other activity that involves reaching into the mental framework and shaking it up. But when I mention risk, it has to be balanced and cautious. Extend yourself, but slowly and not too far out!

Moving beyond boundaries

 

<blockquote>Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.</blockquote>

 

We live in a world of Thou Shalt Nots. Remember life as a child? Frequently our view of the world and immediate surroundings around us were shaped by prohibitions against dangerous situations.

“Don’t touch that. It’s not.”

“Don’t cross the road until I’m there.”

“Don’t annoy me.”

This is not necessarily wrong. In prehistoric times, the key to staying alive was actually not to get yourself into dangerous situations that might actually kill you. That is just how evolution has shaped us.

But there must be a balance drawn in this kind of admonishment, and the daring to explore outside of those boundaries.

If we only live life guided by prohibitions, we would find ourselves increasingly boxed in as the number of rules increase with life.

We can take our lead from the field of music. The Impressionist composer, Claude Debussy, who wrote many works including Clare de Lune, was a student at  Paris Conservatory, where he famously failed many of his theory exams. His crime? Trying to be different. Schooled in the harmonic traditions of Bach and other composers, Debussy found it difficult not to experiment beyond these boundaries, and the conventions of the time did not suit him. Eventually he found some form of reconciliation between the past and the inventive path he wished to follow. The Impressionist phase in music is often seen as the point in Classical music history where the break that would eventually lead to harmonic dissonance and jazz chords being commonplace in modern music occurred. Had Debussy been governed by his Shalt Nots, the course of music history might have been delayed by a decade or two, or perhaps gone on a divergent path. You can read more about this on the Piano Teacher Finsbury Park blog.

Daring to be different is a way to push past existing boundaries. But maybe we should push just slightly, and not so much that the boundaries break, but ever so slightly that they bend, to have more space for our selves to grow – it is about finding a balance.

Knowledge

Knowledge is like underwear. It is useful to have it, but not necessary to show it off.

Have you ever encountered someone who is like a smart aleck? Someone who feels they always have something to say, to contribute, or feels that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, that they must also show it, and display it by saying something really witty.

Perhaps we know someone in this kind of a context. Perhaps we are that person ourselves. In fact, some people read trivia books or memorise witty one-liners, because they think that being socially witty counts for a lot and gives you a lot of social capita.

It is useful to know things, but we do not need to show it off to other people. We do not need to show people we are well read, or that we know a lot. Of course, when we’ve read a bit, we’ll remain under the spell of what we have read and will want to make sure others know about it, and that they know we know about it. But that is kind of showing off really.

Another problem with showing off is that we are likely to say things that we think are witty but may not necessarily be so. Often these may take the form of silly remarks, but unfortunately may be misinterpreted by others.

Take for example, the many cases of middle-aged men making inappropriate remarks, which in retrospect they define as a bit of “male banter”. “Banter” is a very careful way of deflecting fault, by saying that witty remarks – or those made with a view of being perceived as intelligent – had been misinterpreted.

The bottom line is, if you are not sure how your remarks may be perceived by others, then don’t show off by trying to say something clever. And even if you have an area of interest where you know more about the average person, there is no need to show off to the other people what you know.

Humility is often a good way to go.

 

Better to burn out than fade? Use experience to achieve balance

Sometimes in life we feel drained, when we have tried to do too much and it takes a toll not only on our physical being but also of our mental health. What can we do? it is a good idea to take a break, and the length of this break depends on how deep we are into this kind of negative thinking or perhaps even depression.

Why is a break good? And how long does it take before we come out of the other end of the tunnel?

Scientists refer to this break as taking time away to refocus, to reset our neural circuits. When we overthink situations or spend too much time exploring different avenues, our minds go into overdrive trying to think out various contingency situations for which only one is needed, but because we need speed and responsiveness we try to do everything so that when the time comes we do not have to spend precious time thinking. But the problem can be that we have invested so much time thinking out possible scenarios, that by the time we have to act on one, we have already exhausted ourselves and our energies.

The flip side of this is inaction. For some people this is the mode of choice – to others it looks like they have given up. But being resigned to circumstances and expecting life to shape itself out for you, so that you can drift along with the tide is a bit of irresponsibility, a sort of transference that borders on having given up.

What can we do then? The narrow road is finding a balance between the hyperactive mindset and the inactive mindset. It is not necessarily better to be burnt out than to fade away. In some situations it may be more self-preserving to fade away that to expend energy being burnt out. It all comes down to balance. Sometimes we need to find that balance between expending too much and too little energy for the things we need to do in our lives. And how does that balance come about? Experience.

Managing change

Change is something we all have to embrace. Some of us are more welcoming of it, while others are more resistant. There is nothing right or wrong about these attitudes, they are normal human reactions.

Why do some people welcome change? For some people, change brings variety and a new scenery – whether physical or mental – and being in a new situation creates a buzz of some sort. Being in a new situation brings new stimulus – mental and physical – which they enjoy.

For the others, the new stimuli is what they seek to avoid. They do not enjoy the new stimulus that comes with change.

But that does not mean we ought to criticise these people. When you look at why people avoid change, it may give you some insights into their life.

Let’s say you are a busy mother with three children, trying to balance a part-time job with running your family. Change for your children is good and exciting, but for you, the logistics of going to new places and clubs and doing new things may cause you stress. And if you move your children to a new home or school, this brings about new concerns that you may not have the capacity to deal with at the point in time.

So change is good, as long as you have the energy to deal with it. If you are in a stressful moment in life, then change is obviously not the thing to strive for. Try to adapt to a sense of calm normality in order for your inner spirit to equalize. There is nothing wrong to avoid change at that period in time. What we must avoid is to make over-generalisations about situations and our reactions to them.

Sometimes you can’t help but face change – and if you tend to react less positively about it, then focus your energies on changing the way you view the situation. Change the way you think, rather than fight the change – it may be less draining and less of an energy spend. Focus on building the new rather than fighting the old.

And if you are the sort that loves change and variety – enjoy it!

Change is inevitable. Life is full of changes, some big and some little. If there was none, we’d still all be babies in nappies. So we can’t go through life hating change and wishing there was none, but we have to see it as a natural progression of life, and manage it appropriately. If you like change, embrace it. If you dislike it, learn to manage it, and your reaction to it. Let that be your thought for the coming days.