There has been a strong theme circling around me lately so of course I felt compelled to share. It caught my attention a few weeks ago and has carried through to today. I hope it gives you something to think about. Let's start with the first encounter.
A few weeks ago, a patient returned from spending an extended time abroad and described how much better they felt being out of the U.S. Some of the highlights of their experience in this other country were less talk about politics and less exposure to the news, along with other lifestyle choices including meals with fresh ingredients and more physical activity. They were beaming because they felt physically better after engaging in these practices for a month or so. I was puzzled because these are things we can control no matter where we are. We talked about ways to adopt these habits in their day-to-day life.
This past weekend, I listened to an episode of Finding Mastery by Dr. Michael Gervais where he interviewed Dr. Edith Eger, holocaust surviver and author of The Choice. I absolutely had to listen to this podcast because The Choice was one of the more recent books I recommended in my newsletter. It is an incredible story with even more amazing pearls of wisdom. In their podcast conversation, one of the profound things Dr. Eger said was this: what we focus on, we give energy to. Yes. (Please read The Choice!)
Earlier this week, a patient and I had a talk about fear and pain. Fear can stop us in our tracks, make us believe that there is no way out, and disorganize our thoughts to highlight our amygdala (the emotional "lizard" area of the brain) and negate our prefrontal cortex (the reasoning, higher processing area of the brain). This fear was fueled by the internet. See my previous blog post about Fear and Pain.
Then there was this morning. A patient and I were talking about focused breathing, specifically making their exhales longer than their inhales, to increase vagal tone (parasympathetic tone). I have a heart rate monitor that I use with an app called Elite HRV to measure heart rate variability and for biofeedback. Initially, the patient's HRV was in the high 30's. Within less than a minute of focused breathing, it climbed all the way to high 50's-lower 60's. That is a major jump! The higher the HRV, the better your vagal tone. This means promoting a nervous system environment that nurtures rest, digestion, and healing. For more information, check out this previous workshop I did about the vagus nerve. We discussed what could be counterproductive for improving HRV while the heart rate monitor remained on their finger. I highlighted the power of content exposure on the internet. I started talking about how information that may seem helpful initially can actually stand in the way of progress if we keep exposing ourselves to it. I have witnessed this several times throughout my career and have had to gently coach people to turn off their screens. I said the words "fearful" and "scary" to describe the worst-case-scenario stories that are all over the web, waiting to be devoured. When we read these stories, our brain perceives them as real threats, just as they would be if they were actually in front of us, and so our bodies adapt accordingly. As these words were mentioned, the patient's HRV plummeted to the 30's again. I was in awe. I've known about our nervous systems and its response to various stimuli but I have never observed it in real time. I then suggested, as mentioned in Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke, to give up looking at chat forums, online support groups, and researching the internet in general for 30 days.
We've all heard it; you are what you consume. Thanks to the internet, we can consume what we want as much as we want whenever we want. With notifications on, we get buzzed and dinged about the ever changing landscape of current events. If you're not aware, you can keep researching things for confirmation bias instead of keeping a broader view of multiple possibilities. Social media and the internet have cleverly created algorithms so that you get fed even more of similar content in hopes that you stay online for more. This will start to feel like it's reality but outside the internet, it's not the whole story. There have been whistle blowers sharing that social media wants to get you hooked, feeding off of our interests, addictions, fears, and paranoias. We have research to show increased use is associated with increased anxiety and depression. Adolescent girls are taking their own lives and fingers point to social media. How far will this go? Hello, The Social Dilemma.
The internet has many benefits to it as well and I'm not here to say it should be damned forever. Obviously, I'm using the internet now to communicate with you. I just urge you to be aware of how you are using it, when you turn to it the most, and what you tend to turn to. Is it when you are lonely? Is it when you are scared or paranoid? Are you bored? Is it when you have an uncomfortable feeling that you want to avoid? What do you feel in your body as you are on the internet? Do you hold your breath or do you feel tense? Are you clinching your jaw? If you find chat forums or support groups, do you consider information on there to be absolute truth? How do you feel when you stop using the internet? Fulfilled? Empty? Unsatisfied? Content? How can we navigate it all?
I am by no means an expert and admittedly have had my own struggle using the internet. In the past, I found myself choosing to make a social media post for Inspire PT instead of going for a walk or talking to a friend on my lunch breaks. I was losing touch with what really mattered to me and I couldn't take it anymore. So I took my own social media hiatus for 30 days. Now, I post significantly less on the business' Instagram page (only when there is a big announcement or upcoming workshop), I deactivated my Facebook, and I no longer post on my personal Instagram page. I have set a timer on my phone to kick me off the app when I am on Instagram for more than 15 minutes. It is not easy. But what I do know is this: whatever information you find on the internet, go talk to experts in that field about what you found. Challenge the sources of where that information came from. Once you have read about it, move on. Whatever support group you discover online, go join a real live group that is led by a professional or have a mental health professional you can talk to. Be honest about how much time you are actually online each day. Is the internet complimentary to your well-being or is it disruptive?
For a compelling book about the internet culture and the impact of our health, check out The Myth of Normal by Gabor Mate, MD.