Is Your Phone Causing Your Anxiety?

March 14, 2020

Reading Time: 5 minutes

It is thought that the relationship between sleep and anxiety is two-way. Anxiety will disrupt sleep; meanwhile, a lack of sleep will increase anxiety. We all know that dreaded feeling of tiredness: a complete lack of energy, physical and mental exhaustion and often a lack of motivation. When your brain is this tired it cannot function optimally. The effect of this is that it becomes more difficult to concentrate and you have difficulty in thinking logically and sensibly. You may even find your attention span shortening and start to forget things as your memory weakens.

An abstract collage showing a woman in space craddling a gold planet.

Untitled by Mohsen Elblasy

If this is something you are struggling with you may be like so many others that are questioning why they are feeling this way. Sleep is challenging and at times you feel anxious but you’re not quite sure why.

As a hypnotherapist that specializes in anxiety one of the first subjects I ask my clients to talk to me about is their screen time. Screens, including mobile telephones, computers, tablets and flat-screen televisions emit very strong blue light waves. Whilst you may be thinking, “but I’ve watched a lot of TV for years,” the development in digital screen technology has grown exponentially with most now using LED back-light technology to help enhance screen brightness and clarity. The blue light waves emitted by the new tech are much stronger than those of years ago. Because of the need for screens we are exposed to more and more blue light and for longer periods of time.

Why is blue light a problem?

Blue light scatters more easily than other visible light and is not as easily focused so it can cause eye strain. Whilst eye strain does not affect sleep directly it can cause problems such as headaches and joint aches that may prevent restful sleep.

During the daytime hours blue light can be beneficial. When the eyes absorb blue light during the normal, circadian hours, this helps regulate the body’s natural rhythm. This body clock sets itself by the amount of light and dark it is exposed to. The body’s sleeping and feeding patterns, hormone production, brain activity and cell regeneration are all regulated by the circadian rhythm. The normal schedule is set by the sun and moon. When absorbing only natural light and entering darkness as the sun goes down, the body will create a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is also known as the sleep hormone as it lets the body know when it is time to doze off. Normally, at around 9 PM the body temperature will drop as melatonin is secreted and the body will begin to prepare for rest. When the body is exposed to the natural morning light the opposite will happen: the body will produce cortisol which helps it to wake up, at which point the body temperature will rise.

Too much unnatural blue light, particularly in the normal hours of darkness, can confuse the circadian rhythm, resulting in difficulty sleeping at night and tiredness during the day. A study published in 2010 investigated the effects on melatonin, in which Individuals were exposed to room light or dim light in the eight hours preceding bedtime. The results found that even room light “…exerts a profound suppressive effect on melatonin levels and shortens the body’s internal representation of night duration.” (Gooley, 2011)

When the eyes take in the unnatural blue light of screens the body does not recognize the darkness outside and will not produce melatonin. The results of the above study showed that when exposed to bright LED lights, compared to dim lighting, the melatonin production in 99% of individuals was delayed and shortened by around ninety minutes. The researchers also noticed that exposure to room light during the usual hours of sleep suppressed melatonin by greater than half in 85% of trials. When melatonin is reduced it becomes harder to fall and stay asleep. This lack of sleep can heighten anxiety, so while you fret about what is causing your recent struggles it may be as simple as reducing your exposure to blue light.

What can I do about it?

Mobile devices can be metaphorically described as black holes! It’s all too easy to get taken down a long path of checking multiple notifications, while quickly responding to one very important email. If you find that you are feeling more anxious recently with no real reason, it may be time to reduce your screen time. We are currently in a transition period. Whilst we have become a society that expects an instant response, there are increasingly more people speaking of their desire to use mobile devices less. By not providing immediate responses to notifications you can help lead this change.

Start to break your habits by turning off all notifications so you are less inclined to jump from app to app. Consider what you need to know instantly, and what can wait until later, instead of immediately responding to every notification on the device. Turn your phone to silent so that you are not pulled in by every ping. Put it in a different area of the house or a desk drawer to prevent the unconscious habit of regularly picking it up. I highly recommend keeping all devices out of the bedroom. Using an alarm clock and removing devices can prevent the scrolling before bed and first thing in the morning that so many of us are accustomed to.

There are ways to set up the device screen so that the opening of apps and scrolling needs to be a more conscious action—for example, putting apps into folders that are not shown on the home screen. On some phones you can set the screen to greyscale which lessens the brightness of the but also makes it less desirable to look at. Many devices can also be set up to only allow a certain amount of time on applications of your choice. You can also set “downtime” hours during which the phone will restrict you from using apps or the entire mobile for the hours you set.

Alongside keeping devices out of the bedroom, turning your phone off at least an hour before bed can increase interaction with those you live with and help your brain recognize it’s the evening and begin melatonin production. ITV recently ran a campaign to get people talking about mental health. On one episode of Britain’s Got Talent, Ant & Dec shared the fact that anxiety and depression in children has risen by 48% since 2004. The show was then paused for one minute and viewers were encouraged to take that minute to talk with each other. Turning devices off an hour before bed and taking the time to be present with those around us can significantly improve mental wellness.

The draw of the phone when you know that there is a new notification can be as strong as that of a smoker waiting for their next cigarette break. Something that helps many smokers kick their habit is the continuation of regular breaks. If you are using your device to get some downtime, take a five-minute break every hour, regardless of whether you are on a computer at work or cleaning the house; five minutes to yourself, to be present and mindful, is probably a more beneficial break than scrolling through the applications on your mobile device.

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