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As much as I want to deny it, the truth is I’m totally dependent on my phone.
From Googling trivia and looking up directions to reading the news and texting my partner to ask what’s for dinner, I have my phone in my hands constantly.
It’s the one tool I rely on all day long to help me with a range of useful — and sometimes not-so-useful — tasks.
A few months ago, I began to notice an empty feeling whenever I finished another fruitless scroll through my social media feeds. I’d lost a couple of hours with nothing to show for it, and the deadlines for the work I was supposed to be doing loomed ever closer.
The empty feeling began to grow in momentum until I was finally able to put my finger on it: anxiety. To be more accurate, I was experiencing phone anxiety.
Modern technology has revolutionized the way we engage and interact with one another. Never have we been able to be so connected, to share the moments of our lives with not just our close loved ones but anyone on the planet.
As with anything this exciting, there are often downsides.
Numerous psychologists have reported the damaging effects of obsessive mobile phone use on the mental well-being of young people. This includes a variety of studies reporting on the increase in
But it’s not just young people who fall victim to these feelings.
To learn more, I spoke with Shelby Thomas, a social worker, mental health advocate, and the founder of ReMe, a resource to help people cultivate healthy relationships with social media and their phones.
“We are so used to having our phones in hand since their usage has become embedded in many aspects of society. We’re expected to be accessible at all times,” Thomas says. “Social media use has become a staple, appealing to our natural human desire to stay connected with others.”
Our phones connect us — but according to some research, they may also be addictive.
“Features such as ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons provide a sense of approval and validation that is literally addicting, while ‘targeted ads’ and ‘suggested accounts to follow’ ensure that our interest is always peaked,” Thomas says.
Phone anxiety happens when we turn to our phones as a form of distraction. They can even be an escape from anxious feelings in other areas of our lives.
I discovered that when I experience phone anxiety, I’m not consciously thinking about why I’m turning to my phone. As a consequence, I fall into the trap of consuming content that’s heavily filtered and perfected.
In return, I experience an additional anxiety spike as my comparison tendencies go into overdrive.
“While turning our attention away from stressful thoughts and stimuli can be a helpful mental health intervention, on its own there is nothing being done to address the root cause of the symptoms,” says Thomas. “Even more distressing, anxiety symptoms are greatly exacerbated by feelings of inadequacy that arise when viewing the curated, edited, and filtered lives of others.”
The irony is that we’re often turning to our phones to ease our anxiety, only to be consuming content that spikes it back up. And the cycle continues.
Ready to say goodbye to phone anxiety? Try the seven tips below to kick it to the curb.
Something that’s helped me get a better handle on phone anxiety is to step away from my phone entirely.
Whether it was just one day off or a whole week without my phone, removing my attachment to my device helped provide a clearer picture of how it disrupts my emotional well-being. It also enabled me to put more proactive strategies in place.
When was the last time you did a cleanup of all the apps and extras you have on your phone? I’m willing to bet there’s a few on there you don’t really need.
Reducing my digital clutter helped me create an interface on my phone that looks and feels clean. This reduces distraction and time spent finding apps, plus makes using my phone more streamlined.
That means when I do pick it up, I don’t spend a second longer using it than I need to.
Creating some digital boundaries has helped me ease my addiction to my phone and reduce the associated anxiety.
For example, I don’t look at my phone for at least an hour before going to bed. I also make sure my phone isn’t on my bedside table, so it’s not the first thing I turn to in the morning.
I keep track of my daily usage to help me stay aware of what my thumbs are doing. On most phones, you can check this information in your settings, or use an app like Digitox or Space.
What do you keep wishing you had more time for?
At the start of each week, I reflect on this question and make a list in my notebook. When I feel the itch to pick up my phone for a distraction, I choose an item from my list instead.
Whether it’s journaling, doing yoga, learning to code, or practicing guitar, we all have little passions we wish we could dedicate more time to.
Make your phone boring by making these things your priority.
“There are many apps and accounts that promote mental health development and can help you manage your symptoms,” says Shelby.
Instead of mindless scrolling or time-sucking apps, find the ones that help you combat your anxiety rather than add to it.
Headspace and Calm are two popular apps I personally recommend, but there are plenty out there. Find the ones that work for you.
For many of us, turning to our phones as a distraction is now an ingrained habit that can be hard to break.
What’s been helpful for me in combating phone anxiety is creating a space on my phone that helps me to feel good rather than anxious. This includes a photo album filled with pictures of my favorite things, loved ones, and motivational images or quotes.
If I do get sucked into a mindless scroll, I catch myself and flip to this space on my phone instead. This way I can put my phone away feeling positive and motivated, rather than depleted.
If certain accounts, websites, or people only make you feel worse about yourself, you don’t have to engage with them.
“Be mindful of what you are consuming. If you notice that the content you follow is causing your anxiety to spike, you reserve the right to turn your attention elsewhere,” says Shelby. “There is an ‘unfollow’ button for a reason!”
If it doesn’t feel good, you don’t have to follow it.
If anxiety is a larger part of your life outside of your phone, Shelby says it’s also important to make sure you’re getting the right levels of support.
“Exercise, eating healthy foods, speaking with loved ones, and finding a therapist are all amazing resources and total game-changers when it comes to anxiety — none of which occur during a social media scroll,” she says.
At the end of the day, our phones are just that: phones. The only way they can make us feel anything is by how we use them. We can decide what content we allow into our lives.
As I’ve become more conscious about my phone, I’ve found more moments of gratitude and positivity in my life that aren’t stolen away through negative online comparisons.
Phone anxiety doesn’t have to be just another part of your life. You can stop the scroll and free up your mental space.
Elaine Mead is an educator, writer, and psychologist-in-training, currently based in Hobart, Tasmania. She’s passionately curious about the ways we can use our experiences to become more authentic versions of ourselves, and she’s obsessed with showing you photos of her Dachshund puppy. You can find her on Twitter.