Recently, I found myself in a house with not a whole lot to do.
Sure, there were the usual distractions like my iPhone, iPad and laptop but outside of that, my choices were quite limited. I found this to be quite peaceful, at times, and I napped a lot. Way more than I would have if I were at home, surrounded by piles of laundry, my gaming consoles, my home office, that sink full of dirty dishes, that DIY project I’ve been meaning to do… you get the point. I have a lot of distractions in my usual space and a very, very long to-do list.
So, here I am, in this House of No Distractions, night is coming down on me and I’m freaking out.
Full on anxiety is grabbing hold of my body, I’m short tempered, short of breath, battling a completely dry mouth and I’m wanting to run. The thought of grabbing my car keys and driving two hours back to the safety (and distraction) of my own house crosses my mind a hundred times in those ten minutes. I grapple with sleep and although I eventually win, it’s not an easily fought battle. I fall into a fitful sleep that I come in and out of at least fifty times throughout the night.
My brain makes up a hundred reasons as to why I’m feeling this way. I’m pinning it on the paint fumes from the house, the choices I’ve made in the past twelve months, the overwhelming list I have back home, the fact that I haven’t been fully present in my business over the weekend, I miss my daughter and I’m wondering what she’s doing and I’m wondering if I’ve ever done anything right in my entire life. Full on existential crisis happening at 1am in the complete darkness.
My brain tries to rationalize away the enormous amount of anxiety with reasons as to why I’m feeling this way but the truth of the matter is: it’s the first time I’ve let my mind think a thought without shoving it aside and replacing it with something. You see, when I’m surrounded by 1,000 distractions, they are easy to pull in and place in front of me to quickly replace whatever it was that felt a little bad. “Oh, that doesn’t feel so good… I wonder if my crops are ready in Hay Day?”
Switching gears and satiating my brain with progress and production, even in the form of a video game, is a GOOD feeling versus the BAD feeling that existed just moments before. The stress and anxiety SUCKS whereas playing a game and getting rewarded for simple things like growing crops feels AMAZING. I’ll take good over bad any day, wouldn’t you?
Well… maybe not.
Distracted From Feeling
It’s not that I’m having an existential crisis at 1am in the dark… it’s not that I’m a terrible human being who has made terrible choices and ended up in a place of total chaos, it’s just that I haven’t given myself the time and space to FEEL what I need to feel in order to process my bad feelings into good or better feelings. I’ve distracted myself out of the time and space I need to understand what the heck is ACTUALLY going on.
And holy Hannah, have we been distracting ourselves out of understanding a WHOLE LOT since the introduction of personal, hand-held electronics.
Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, e-mail, messenger, Reddit, Imgur, work, Netflix, text messages… we distract ourselves instead of understanding how to be alone with our thoughts. Understanding the value that exists in spending time with those thoughts, processing them, feeling the feelings and getting over the hump of the EMOTIONAL FREAKOUT, is critical.
When we distract ourselves away from our emotions 90% of the time, the 10% of the time that we don’t feels like a massive spike / surge of emotions and feelings and processing all at once. It’s no wonder we freak the hell out.
Here’s a perfect analogy: you’re clothed 100% of the time in public, yes? Imagine if all of a sudden that number dropped to 90% of the time and 10% of the time, unbeknownst to you and without the ability to plan for it, you were all of a sudden naked. Exposed. Vulnerable. Would you freak out? Absolutely.
Well, this is EXACTLY what we’re doing to our brains. We’re exposing them 10% of the time to something so foreign – the processing requirements that we require to maintain our sanity – and we’re creating a vulnerable, exposed brain that has no idea to handle what we’ve just done to it.
A Culture of Distractions
In a presentation done by Joe Kraus, he talked about how we’re creating a culture of distractions. Here’s an excerpt that echoes what I’m referring to:
We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.
“People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.”
There are some other incredible gems from his talk:
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who studies technology and society. “We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”
Where’s the #1 reported place where people get insight? The shower. Why the shower? In the shower, there’s not much else to do. We’re relaxed. Our mind wanders but it’s not constantly being bombarded with new information.
I could quote the entire presentation but there’s a great video over on his blog post so I’d HIGHLY recommend you take some time to watch it.
Learning more about this detrimental side effects of distractions born from technology is not just for our own benefit. It also helps us to relate to our fellow humans better, too.
Think about the last time you felt something negative or bad — did you have someone you could turn to who could hold the space for that emotion judgement-free? Do you have people in your life who will accept and love you unconditionally, even when you are having a minor meltdown or a freak out? Or, do you feel apologetic when those moments occur? If you do, it may be that the people around you are out of touch with their own emotions, too, and have no idea how to handle yours when they show up in their purest form.
Distractions are causing many of us to detach from each other, only wanting to be an active part of each other’s lives when it’s satiating and stimulating to our brains in a positive way. When things get “tough”, we do what we do online — we move to the next thing that is pleasing to our brains. We don’t always hold the space for each other to express our full range of emotions.
Making Friends with Our Feelings
Okay, so, imagine now a world in which we have far less distractions. Imagine if we sat with our thoughts a whole lot more often and gave them some time to process… would that make those emotional spikes feel a lot less foreign and scary? More than likely. Anything familiar is much easier to handle than something unknown and terrifying.
My client, Irene Lyon, talks about this all the time – having awareness and bringing that awareness back into your body. She’s extremely intelligent and VERY passionate about her work so I trust that what she has to say is rather solid. If you’re intrigued by the science behind awareness and learning some pretty awesome exercises to move through your chaos, check out her website.
Here’s what my non-scientifically backed, simply-going-on-experience brain thinks: we need to give ourselves more time to think. More time to process. More time to hear our own thoughts echo around in those skulls of ours so that we can get a litmus test on where we’re at, how we’re feeling and what we need.
Oh, and we need to figure out how to be okay when those thoughts scream back something hurtful or “scary.” That may be saying, “Oh hey there bad emotion… I see you… and I’m not afraid of you!” (This is my alone-in-the-dark tactic, by the way.) Or, it may be allowing ourselves to feel and express whatever emotion surfaces so that we can become familiar with the less-than-awesome-feeling.
Finally, we need to give each other TONS of support and the container for expression. This means having that tough conversation, letting a friend express their full range of emotions, dropping what we’re doing to just sit with someone — even if it is in silence — and putting people before technology. Not just once in awhile, as often as we possibly can. The more we hold that space for others, the better we’ll get at recognizing our own range of emotions.
If you’re reading this and you don’t have anyone like that in your life, I’ll be your person. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach out and we can connect in a less digitally intensive way. I’m not a coach or a therapist but I can hold space for anything — completely judgement-free — as your friend and confidante.
How we become familiar with our emotions, thoughts and feelings is up to each of us, I suppose. That might look like meditation or quiet time or long walks in the woods or simply turning off everything and lying still in the dark. What it doesn’t look like is shoving more stuff in front of our faces in an attempt to digitally run away and hide from ourselves. That’s the fastest way to become so out of touch that when an unknown or foreign part of ourselves pops up, we’re sent in a downward spiral to FREAK OUT CITY.
All that said, I’ve suffered my own bouts of depression and I know that in those moments, thinking (and over-thinking) often made my anxiety worse. So, this isn’t a prescription for those of you who suffer with depression or anxiety. There are definitely other avenues that are better journeyed in those situations. When you’re anxious and depressed, healthy distractions (creative outlets, for example, like painting, drawing, writing poems or singing) can actually be useful.
Where to Go From Here
So, will we continue to be a distracted society with our notifications and hand-held devices? Absolutely. It’s only going to get worse, I think.
I’m making a much more conscious effort these days to build in a lot of distraction-free time and I’m making sure I do the same for my daughter, too. Time to feel the wide range of emotions — good, bad, ugly and terrifying — so that I can become familiar with them all. That way, when a part of me pops up that doesn’t make an appearance as often, I’m not taken by surprise and knocked off my feet.
I’m also trying to carve out as much space as I can to be a much more open, loving, acceptable and tuned in person for the people around me. While I’m not perfect at it, and they aren’t either, I’m grateful that it is at least a part of my general awareness now.
The first step to changing anything is having the tiny ember of thought ignite in your brain. This post is simply to help blow a bit more oxygen on my ember so that it turns into a raging fire that I can’t ignore. Maybe it’ll spark something in you, too.