It struck me the other day, while travelling on the tube, that virtually every passenger was jabbing away at some kind of smartphone. Blackberries, Androids, iPhones... from a sexy, expensive, high-end gadget they have become ubiquitous. And, thanks to a multi-billion-pound marketing campaign and their inherent hi-tech addictiveness, we now feel we are missing out somehow - lacking, even - if we don't have one.
And how else would we update our Facebook page every few minutes, catch up on all that desperately important email or, generally, make sure we were contactable and available every single waking second of every day? Let me ask that question another way - when did we decide that this was a good idea? Because, let me tell you, it is most definitely not.
When I start working with a client suffering from chronic stress who is jaded, frazzled, exhausted and on the edge of burnout, one of the first things I recommend is that instead of remaining glued to their computer throughout lunch, they stop; take half an hour out of their hectic day; go outside and walk, breathe a little fresh air and remember that the world does exist outside their office.
Key to this activity is locking their damn smartphone in a desk drawer so they get a break from its incessant pinging and vibrating. Not for the first time, I know I sound like a Luddite, but I strongly believe that - especially for certain types of personality, who are unusually driven and find it hard to switch off, or prone to addictive behaviour - the bewildering array of gadgetry which now means we are can never quite relax or let go is extremely unhelpful.
Our brains are miraculous things. They can process vast amounts of information; store a lifetime's worth of memories; and through 'neuroplasticity' actually change their structure throughout our lives so we can learn Spanish or to play the piano well into old age. But they also need downtime, to process the ever-increasing amounts of sensory information with which we bombard them. If we don't get enough downtime - which means activities we find relaxing and fun, sleep, rest and non-work-related stimulation - we make ourselves ill.
We start feeling stretched and stressed, perhaps irritable or snappy with colleagues, or as if we are suddenly unable to cope with a previously manageable workload. We may get anxious, with irrational fears about future events, or suffer from chronic fatigue, never quite feeling rested or recharged. If this sounds familiar, do three things: cut down on the caffeine, which stimulates your adrenal system and cranks up the stress and anxiety. Take that break at lunchtime and get as much exercise as possible. And look at your digital media consumption: do you really need to be emailing someone at midnight? Taking your Blackberry on holiday? Texting during your kids' bath time?
Chucking your shiny new smartphone in the bin may be a bit extreme, but using it in moderation is not. As someone who recently replaced their iPhone with a 'retro' mobile - which lets me make and receive calls and texts, nothing more - I can't tell you how much calmer I feel. All those 'vitally important' emails and must-answer-right-now messages? Funnily enough, they can wait till I get to my desk. Suddenly I'm reading more books, having time to muse and process the day's events, not distractedly hopping from one form of digital media to the next.
If you're frazzled or fraught, I recommend that you join me. After all, what's more important than your health? Certainly not the latest 'must-have' gadget, however sleek and shiny it may be...
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