Take a Break From Technostress
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Take a Break From Technostress

With cell phones chirping and wireless email devices vibrating, is it any wonder folks are feeling technostressed?

For an increasing number of "connected" people, being constantly available, juggling multiple tasks, and sorting through a pile information fosters a type of anxiety known as technostress.

"Technostress captures all the ways technology causes irritation, frustration, stress, and lack of sleep," says expert Larry D. Rosen, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University.

Rosen and his wife, Michelle M. Weil, PhD, have been studying people's responses to technology since the early 1980s. They co-authored the book TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @WORK @HOME @PLAY .

Is Technology Causing Stress?

"We're starting to hear from people that 'I love technology. I use it all the time, but it's making me crazy. I can't keep up'," says Dr. Rosen. "There's new technology every day and more just around the corner."

"Technology can be good," Dr. Rosen explains. "It can be time saving. It can make you work better, more efficiently. But you have to establish very clear limits."

Who's in Control?

Technology makes it easier to check for messages in the car, respond to email while grocery shopping, or check the latest stock quotes at the beach. But just because technology makes instant communication possible, it doesn't mean that it's healthy.

Tune in to your reactions. Do you dart to check the machine when an incoming fax interrupts a DVD you're watching with the family? Are work and personal time becoming one blurred space? Do you feel overwhelmed? Is there always more that needs to be done? In other words, does technology govern you or are you managing it?

"It's hard to control," Dr. Rosen explains. "Unless we set clear limits on our lives, we are going to be continually multi-tasking and dealing with information overload."

What's Wrong With Multi-tasking?

A National Institutes of Health study found that a specific, well-developed region of the human brain handles a type of multi-tasking behavior called branching. Branching allows people the unique ability to temporarily divert their attention from the main task to alternative activities, and then return to where they left off.

But if you're juggling too many things, your brain hangs on to those extra thoughts, waiting for resolution. You might experience difficulty concentrating during the day. Percolating ideas will bubble to the surface in the middle of the night.

"You are setting up a situation in the brain whereby you will have a live brain [even] when it's supposed to be quiet and sleeping," Dr. Rosen says. "It will be processing unfinished tasks you never quite got to."

Why Is It Better to Do One Task?

Striving to accomplish more than one thing at once revs up the stress level and decreases one's sense of control and productivity. People misjudge the speed with which they can accomplish something, spurring unrealistic expectations.

Some have become so adept at multi-tasking, they feel uncomfortable doing only one thing at a time. Even so, it creates what Drs. Rosen and Weil call "multi-tasking madness."

"It will catch up with you," Dr. Rosen warns. "You can't multi-task forever. You can't keep up. There is too much coming."

Multitasking heightens the body's biochemical and physiologic systems. That hyperarousal can dull the senses, making it more difficult to think clearly.

"It leads to chemical reactions in the brain that are going to make you very tired, irritable and create potential, down the road, for physiological problems," says Dr. Rosen.

How Does Technology Affect Families?

Technology not only invades individual lives, it can change family dynamics.

"As soon as you start going 24/7 and allowing access to yourself all day, all night, every day, you're going to find yourself interacting less with family and friends," Rosen says.

"I've never met someone that tells me they love technology and use it all the time that doesn't have some areas that it has impacted their life," he says. "They may not know it, but they are not communicating with their spouse, seeing their kids, or they have lost touch with their friends."

Family members may sit in the same room, but mom might be chatting with friends online, youngsters playing video games, and dad catching up on emails from the office.

"Technology tends to be a sole, one-person activity," says Rosen. "And if you let the kids play, the technological world is so inviting, so multimedia, so fascinating, and so designed to have holding power, they will play for 24 hours straight."

Rosen recommends that parents not relinquish control to tech-savvy youngsters. Parents should set boundaries about what gadgets can be used and when, and serve as good role models, turning their own devices off and paying attention to the kids and each other.

How Do You Cope With Technostress?

Rosen and Weil suggest the following survival skills:

  • One at a time. Confine yourself to one activity at a time. Try to do one thing, and do it well. Enjoy activities without dividing your attention; for instance read or watch TV, not both. "Do one without the other, and you'll find you enjoy them more," says Rosen.
  • No need to know. Accept that you can't know everything nor keep up with the onslaught of data. Limit Internet searches to a predetermined length of time.
  • Slow down. Don't respond to the speed of technology by trying to be speedy yourself. You don't have to answer an email as soon as it pops on the screen.
  • Limit isolating family behaviors. Set time restrictions on playing video games and surfing the Internet. Spend free time playing a board game, enjoying nature, or just talking.
  • Time yourself. Record and compare the estimated time to tackle a task with the actual time and adjust your expectations accordingly. Say no to requests that you don't have time to handle.
  • Take notes. Make lists and write down thoughts so you can come back to them later without letting them clog your brain. Keep a pad and pencil next to the bed.
  • Turn it off. Remove distractions when trying to concentrate. Let the answering machine record messages. Close the email window. Let the fax sit in the machine.
  • Get unplugged. Schedule time away from your "toys." Turn the cell phone off while at the movies, when walking the dog, or watching the sunset from the deck of your favorite waterfront eatery.

"You be the driver with technology. Don't be the driven," Dr. Rosen concludes. "There is no way you can avoid the technology revolution. It's here and it's going to stay. You can control how it impacts you."

RESOURCES:

American Psychological Association
http://www.apa.org/

Mental Health America
http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Psychiatric Association
http://www.cpa-apc.org

Canadian Psychological Association
http://www.cpa.ca/cpasite/home.asp

References:

Data smog: newest culprit in brain drain. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar98/smog.html.

Weil MM, Rosen LD. TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @WORK @HOME @PLAY. John Wiley and Sons; 1997.



Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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