Vogue Australia – by Ana Morales, 12 September 2019

As soon as I wake up, I look at my phone. 

I’ve written several articles on how not to use its alarm clock, so that I can avoid the temptation of checking it, but nothing works. For a few days, I convinced myself not to use it in the morning until I got out of the house (so that I wasn’t late for work, to avoid stressing myself out), but I quickly relapsed.

The problem isn’t that I look at my phone as soon as I wake up, go to bed, or whenever I wake up in the middle of the night. The problem is that I check it constantly: when walking on my own, when stopping at a traffic light, when grabbing a coffee, while queuing at the shop, while watching a film that I’m supposed to be interested in. Any daily impasse that I could have used to empty my mind, I use it to get my phone out and take a look instead — often for no reason.

Doctor, what’s wrong with me? Do I have a phone addiction? It’s obvious that this dependency and information overdose is taking a toll on me. And no, I’m not the only one this is happening to. “A study from Montreal’s McGill University showed that the main reason for this addiction — or attitude, to be more precise — is the social needs of human beings, and how easy it is to satisfy them via smartphones,” explains Antonio Gallego, mindfulness expert and collaborator at meditation app, Petit BamBou. He says that managing the need for a kind of socialisation that “satisfies the reward system” makes us repeat our actions.

“By repeating behaviours over and over again, we leave an instant satisfaction mark in our system whenever we face a certain brain stimulus,” continues Gallego. “The brain asks, ‘Hey, what if something has happened? What if someone needs me at the other end of the phone?’ Our body reacts immediately and performs the whole process of grabbing the phone, unblocking it and looking at the screen. It does it so quickly that we don’t even realise the fact that we might need to check anything on our phones.”

What are the consequences of a phone addiction?

There are many, but Gallego summarises the consequences of constantly checking your phone as “totally contrary to the socialisation sought” — meaning it has the opposite effect satisfying your social needs. Having FOMO, or someone not responding immediately, is the root of many anxiety and stress issues.

Gallego also thinks that one of the consequences is catching up with me in a most evident way: the constant feeling of exhaustion I have been living with for a long time (I have always blamed this on my hectic lifestyle, rather than a phone dependency). “We don’t realise that we’re submitting our brain and body to a constant bombardment of information, which can prompt negative reactions such as anger, arguments, [reading] toxic news,” he says. “If we start being aware that a great amount of the exhaustion we suffer from comes from this information overload, then maybe we can dedicate a few minutes a day to do nothing — or at least, nothing exposed to [our phones]. The physical and mental benefits of introducing these pauses will immediately show and, contrary to our beliefs, we will begin to be more productive.”

How can you create a phone-free space?

Although we will speak about how we can work on the physical and mental impulses leading us to checking our phones every two minutes, we’ll start with working on that dependency from a practical point of view. And that’s where Gallego suggests making it a personal experiment by establishing phone-free actions or spaces (and no, we are not speaking about living off the grid). But how?

Going for a walk in the woods or to the beach without carrying your phone
Keeping your phone turned off until breakfast is finished and also turning it off before dinner
Turn bedrooms into phone-free areas
Putting your phone away when meeting friends
Spending — or even contemplating the idea of — entire days without a phone and analysing its impact on you.

How can you stop the physical habit of picking up your phone?

Gallego says that phone dependency is motivated by two factors: mental impulse and physical action. This physical action is the bodily result of the brain-generated need to look at the screen.

According to Gallego, this reaction is easier to detect and control; he advises us to be aware of the physical sensations we experience whenever we look at our phone through ‘body scan’, one of the most common mindfulness practices. He proposes the following exercise: “Put the phone on the table and, while you observe it, notice which areas of the body are activating. You may feel some activation or even tension in your chest, the impulse arriving to your arm to grab the phone, your head turning to look at the screen or, if you already have it in your hand, you can notice the inertia towards unblocking it.

“Being able to notice these sensations and stopping them one by one (observing them in order to recognise them and even closing your eyes to take a moment to ‘soothe’ that activation with your breathing) will make it easier to disrupt that automated process. If you find yourself ‘detecting’ that process when grabbing your phone during your everyday routine, and you’ve been able to stop it, then ask yourself what the real intention behind checking your phone is. If you decide that there’s no reason and you put [your phone back down], give yourself a pat on the back and enjoy what you’re doing. That way, you will be giving your brain the reward it needs and it will be able to change its impulses.”

How can you rewire your brain?

Constantly checking your phone is an acquired habit rewarding your brain. In order to avoid it, Gallego recommends undoing the path with patience and repetition: “The first thing is to be aware of the urge to check the screen. It is harder to detect when we live accelerated lives, on autopilot and paying little attention to what we are doing. Any minimum distraction from what we are doing becomes a great opportunity to see the likes or messages on our social media accounts. Therefore, we must start by working on our attention span in the present moment, on the activity we are currently doing and everything it entails: who we’re with, what is happening, the surrounding environment.” And that also means stopping to watch films or TV shows while keeping the phone close, and thinking about posting a picture in our social media.

Are lots of people addicted to their phones?

“Completely,” answers Gallego. Compulsively looking at a phone is like having the TV on to avoid being in silence. “This way, we are creating noise rather than listening to ourselves,” he adds. Gallego invites us to practice self-knowledge and manage those moments inwards instead of replacing them with a phone forcing us to look outwards. Sometimes finding ourselves can be distressing, but it’s the right and necessary thing to do.

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