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Mindfulness: Are We Losing Ourselves in the Digital World?

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Interview with Dr. Bjarte Stubhaug, M.D., Ph.D.

"Start with dramatic changes in your digital habits, then stay on that narrow road. Have no fear, you will be rewarded," the psychiatrist says.


Dr. Bjarte Stubhaug is a Norwegian psychiatrist and mindfulness-expert with 30 years of clinical experience. Photograph by Hanne Suorza

We check our smartphones on an average of 150 times a day.

That makes me wonder:

Are we losing ourselves in the digital world?

Losing touch, maybe. Losing the awareness of the present moment, which is -- in the end -- what living is, isn't it?

150 times a day. Isn't that a bit insane?

To a psychiatrist, insanity requires even more insane behavior. Neurotic and compulsory might be better diagnoses.

At work, in bed, even when having a meal. What's your opinion of it?

I pay attention to the fact that you are mentioning it, then try to be non-judgmental about it, and let the thought of it just flow away...

When you start coming to your senses; maybe that is balance

Why do we log in at all times?

I think partly as a habit that has infected me, as an automatic behavior having poisoned me. Also, as a dysfunctional response to the anxiety of not being there, where we believe other people are, not realizing they are in a virtual, non-real world, too.

What does this do to us? To our brains? To our health?

There is scarce research providing answers to such questions, and definitely there will be great individual variation. In clinical practice I have seen sleep disturbances and anxiety associated with this, higher levels of stress activation and more sustained arousal. This is all bad news to your health, in general. Does it get in the way of real life, here and now?

It might. Losing the touch, literally, of being here, living my life. But then on the other hand, you need to be logged on, be on your way, be executive and effective in order to achieve some of your goals in life. Maybe it is more a matter of balance, being mindful of the present moment regularly and best you can.

What is a healthy balance?

When you experience the freedom of being off -- really offline -- when becoming aware of hearing sounds you haven't noticed for a long time, when you start coming to your senses; maybe that is balance. Having hours, days and nights offline, weekends and vacations. Try it. Just do it.

If you are not motivated for change: forget it. If you are, just do it

As a therapist, what do you see as common challenges and symptoms with such digital activation? A physiological response with more stress activation, and a tendency to more attention deficit. It can cause problems both when studying and at work, as well as being absent-minded with friends and in love life. Serious business.

Facebook, Instagram, E-mail, Snapchat, Twitter. If you're caught in a technology trap, then not checking your phone might feel like a real challenge?

Yes, it does. More than a challenge, sometimes. More as an obstacle, mission impossible.

What to do about it? How to reduce digital distractions?

First of all, decide to change your habits and behavior. If you are not motivated for change: forget it. If you are, just do it. Start with dramatic changes in your electronic habits, then stay on that narrow road. Have no fear, you will be rewarded.


By a gentle wind of calmness touching you. By the mellow taste of serenity you had long forgotten: it is all right just being here. You are all right. Some people crave more rest and spare time, but seem to be connected 24/7. What are your thoughts on that? They remind me of children. Low capacity for waiting, for tolerating the frustration of immediate needs not being met. And the price of constant activation, as mentioned.

Likes are affirmations of reward, no-likes are signals of rejection. Ugly business, actually

Meaningless scrolling vs. reading a book. We´re not always reasonable?

Not always, not only.

Talking about reasonable: Why do grown ups care about likes, likes, likes?

Even adults have immature, childish patterns of emotions and behavior, as well as needs of immediate rewards.

How do likes affect the way we feel?

Likes are powerful communication signals creating both negative and positive feelings. Likes are affirmations of reward, no-likes are signals of rejection. Ugly business, actually.

Ugly business. Do you experience that likes lead to problems for some?

I do. Especially for young people and vulnerable persons with low self-esteem. Some people have linked their self-esteem to affirmations from others, by the number of likes. It can cause frustration, uneasiness, dispair and depression.

Anything users of social media can do about this?

Be nice. Be friendly.

Then how to be more mindful in the digital world?

Why not start with being mindful about your mobile or iPad? Notice the shape and weight, the feeling of it, resting in your hands for ten seconds. Still breathing? Both in and out? Notice your lips: clinched or relaxed? Smiling? If not, try to. Makes wonders.

Bjarte Stubhaug is a well-known Norwegian psychiatrist and researcher with thirty years of clinical experience. During the last ten years his main interest has been within the field of stress medicine.

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