Technology is often considered a main contributor to our chronically stressed-out lives rather than a tool for stress relief and mindfulness. And it's true: Our iPhones, BlackBerrys, iPads and laptops -- and the frequently codependent relationships we have with them -- can play a large role in exacerbating our own tendencies towards mindlessness.
Science tells us that excessive reliance on technology can have a number of negative health impacts, from social media anxiety disorder to lack of focus to impatience and forgetfulness. And our own experiences and observations tell us that falling asleep with our phones and checking email before we've gotten out of bed in the morning is a common byproduct of our 24/7 digital lifestyles, as is the struggle to devote our full attention to even the things that matter most to us: our partners, children, friends and careers.
Less than a week after thousands of Americans pressed the "off" button in an effort to recharge and regain perspective for the National Day of Unplugging, a panel of experts at the Harvard Forum for Public Health's discussion "Managing Stress: Protecting Your Health" rallied around the idea that technology could actually be used to foster mindfulness and reduce stress.
"It's never the fault of the technology. It's a thought that we impose on ourselves when using these gadgets," Dr. Ellen Langer, Harvard psychology professor and mindfulness research pioneer, said at the forum. "It is not in the activity that we experience stress."
As Langer emphasized at the panel, which I moderated in Boston last week, it is mindlessness that gives rise to stress -- and mindfulness that can bring us back to a place of presence and focused awareness. In addition to significantly reducing stress levels, mindfulness has been shown to improve emotional stability and sleep quality, among a slew of other health benefits.
Most discussions of modern mindfulness have focused on how we can become more mindful in spite of -- rather than thanks to -- the growing role of technology in our daily lives. However, as HuffPost president and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington has noted, we are at the onset of a "digital health revolution" -- a convergence of our national epidemic of stress, flailing health care system, and new and innovative technologies. This revolution involves a seismic shift in our attitudes toward the role that technology can and should play in our lives -- and a desire to use technology to connect not only to our outer worlds but also to our inner world.
With the majority of Americans reporting a significant gap between what they want from the health care system in terms of stress management and what they're actually getting, seeking our own stress-reduction solutions is more important than ever before. So, inspired by the recent discussion at Harvard, here are five ways that we can begin to use technology to relieve stress and foster mindfulness.
1. Check In With Yourself Using Mindfulness and Stress-Relief Apps.
Langer brought up the example of an app that checks in with users and asks them to assess their current state. The Huffington Post's own stress-relief app, GPS for the Soul, operates in a similar manner: With censors to monitor blood pressure, the app can identify if you're exhibiting physical symptoms of stress and, if so, will direct you to a personalized guide to help you "course-correct."
According to a 2012 report, an estimated 13,000-plus consumer health apps will be available in the App Store by mid-2013. Click here for a list of de-stressing apps that can help you stay calm and centered on the go.
2. Use Technology for Self-Knowledge.
New technologies have given us the fascinating ability to quantify the self. Now, we can track exactly how many calories we consume and burn, monitor our sleep quality and activity levels, and check our stress responses. With that knowledge, we can take the necessary steps to create the solutions.
"We're still in the early days ... [but] the competitive marketplace will refine those tools, and they will be helpful," Dr. David Eisenberg, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, said during the panel discussion. "I think it's a part of our collective future, in the area of stress and food in particular."
3. Use Technology to Boost Creativity.
"If someone is on their computer and they're being creative and mindful, that's going to be good for their health," Langer said.
Technology presents us with easy access to an endless number of opportunities for creative expression. Langer, for instance, shared that she is a big fan of Words With Friends, and noted how creative uses of technology that put the user into a state of concentrated focus and flow could be considered a mindful activity. And according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, technology is fostering, rather than inhibiting, creativity in the workplace.
4. Foster Meaningful Connections.
Constant connectivity doesn't have to leave us feeling disconnected -- technology can be used to connect in meaningful ways with our own interests, as well as friends, family, colleagues and mentors. One study even found that social media makes teens more aware of the needs of others. Although social media interaction will never replace in-person communication, intentional and mindful connection through any platform can improve the quality of our lives and relationships. Strong social networks have been shown to reduce stress, and technology can facilitate the building and maintaining of those relationships.
5. Challenge Your Responses to Technological Stressors.
Equally important to taking the time to unplug and recharge -- whether it's scheduling a weekly "technology shabbat" or heading to a silent retreat -- is noticing our thought patterns when interacting with technology. Do your palms start getting sweaty when you open your Facebook newsfeed? Does opening up your email quicken your heart rate?
Observing the way your mind and body reacts to different types of interaction with technology can help in pinpointing where your anxiety is coming from -- and, through mindful awareness, to challenge your automatic reactions.
Check out the technology segment of the discussion in the video below, and head over to the forum's website to watch the full panel.
For more by Carolyn Gregoire, click here.
For more GPS for the Soul, click here.