Attention, Anxiety & the Internet

As I’ve often mentioned, my day-to-day life is very virtually centered.  My work is completely internet-based.  I am taking several continuing education courses online and I am now pursuing this program though Stout.  Even my social and romantic life have a significant digital component.  This week’s assigned reading from Net Smart,  by Howard Rheingold, was very relate-able.  In particular, I identified with the first chapter that discussed how our attention can be taken over by our use of digital media.

When email makes you anxious.

Media expert Linda Stone, hit a nerve for me when she said, “we’re putting our bodies in a state of almost low-level flight-or-fight (Rheingold, 2014, p.45).  Lately, I have begun to notice anxiety creeping in to my virtual world and not necessarily “low-level” as she describes it.

I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life.  The anxious state and panic can often occur just easily if I’m out in the “real world,” versus if I am behind my computer screen.  It really just depends on where I am when an anxiety-producing catalyst comes along.  Perhaps the only difference is that I can hide it a little better when I am in the comfort of my own home.

I have been noticing a peculiar shift lately.  Recently, my daughter was going through some health issues.  Because of some extenuating circumstances, I was required to rely extensively on emails to communicate with some of the specialists and insurance professionals that were involved.  Then during this same time period, I was negotiating some financial issues with my ex. I had a friend who was going through an exhausting emotional stretch and reaching out via email.  Then, there have been some very stressful work-related issues that are also being communicated primarily though email.  I am used to the internet being my vehicle to conduct much of life, but suddenly it was being inundated with negative interactions.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but several days, I have found myself lying in bed and not wanting to get up.  I can’t avoid the computer because a lot of the ways I use it, aren’t optional.  During the week, I actually share countless loving emails and instant messages with my significant other.  We are both single parents with a lot on our plate, so it’s our way to connect and share romance. This is a daily habit that usually drives me out of bed to see what is waiting there for me!.  Of course, there were some other positive emails I would be getting as well.  But, during this little pocket of time, the dread and anxiety I felt at having to go face my email box, and be ready for whatever stressful ones came in, was just overwhelming.

Attention isn’t always up to us.

Perhaps the gravity for me is because the internet is more than just “digital stimulation” for me.  It isn’t something that I am addicted to because I crave it per se.  It’s really the village I call “home.”  I shop at the store there. I communicate with everyone.  I work there.  When my marriage was crumbling, I (occasionally) felt that same way about getting out of bed.  I didn’t want to know what going to happen in my home with my ex-husband–but I knew once I got up, whatever stress there was to be had, would be unavoidable.  Now my “home” is more than a building. It is also a complex ecosystem of digital technology.  I cannot always control or mindfully avoid, some of the incoming data that impacts my “online” home.

I am going to spend some more time rereading this chapter as I am fascinated by the concept of “attention” and how we use it.  I also think it is worth considering that the degree to which one can control their attention or minimize where they turn their focus, is dependent on their relationship to digital technology–how much of their interaction with it is in the realm of optional, versus how much is a non-negotiable aspect of their day-to-day life.

Posted on October 18, 2015, in Digital, Social Media, Society, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Rebecca,

    I am also one who spends a good chunk of my life online. During my honeymoon, which I am on right now, instead of going out and having fun, I am doing my homework for two online courses at Stout, and I am working a couple of hours online for work as I had left work to go on my honeymoon at a very bad time for them. I have never before been so anxious about making sure that everything is done on time so that I can spend time with my husband.

    I tried the meditation technique around 3 am this morning, since I had a hard time sleeping because of a project that is due within a few days and I have not even started on yet. The project is due the same day is my flight, and if my flight is badly delayed again, like it was coming down here, I will have less time to get this project done.

    Unfortunately, after an hour, the meditation did not work, so I grabbed my phone and caught up with Facebook instead. I felt better after that. So, for me, it is funny how technology can be a burden and a blessing at the same time.

    I am not sure if you tried the meditation technique after reading the first chapter, but if you did, you will have to let me know if it works for you. I think that I just need more practice. 🙂

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I completely understand how you feel, and I could once relate to this. Email has never been as significant to my life as texting, FaceTime, Facebook, and Instagram, but I find similarities in all text based communication.

    When it comes to messages of any sort, there’s an unspoken rule about brevity (at least in my age group). A major no-no is sending long messages on anything, (a) nobody is going to read your essay, and (b) you look mentally unstable for even sending it.

    The sight of a long message stresses me out, so I don’t even read or respond to them. Most of my bad news comes on the telephone, so if anything, a ringing phone stresses me out more than the computer ever will.

    When it comes to important information and conversations, I’m on the phone or in person. I let all of my friends and family know, and I’m not afraid to ask them not to send me novels. I don’t conduct any important business online, the most I do is mobile bill pay and paperless banking.

    Your situation is unique because of the things you needed to take care of in your life, and I would probably feel the same in that situation too. Linda Stone was on target with her “fight or flight” comparison, which is why I choose to handle online communication the way I do.

  3. HI Rebecca,

    I know how you feel about dreading the task of checking your email each day. Because I am expected to have my work phone on me at all times, each morning as I eat breakfast I hear the ping of new emails coming in.

    Despite not knowing what the contents contain I grow increasingly anxious with each ping. When do check them, I don’t hold my breath as Rheingold noted, but I have noticed that I physically tense up.

    Going back to Stone’s fight or flight comparison, I’m clearly gearing myself up to “fight” whatever monsters may lay waiting in my inbox. After reading the chapter I’m grateful that I am able to recognize these behaviors in myself, and want to make an effort to be more mindful of my attention.

  4. Hi Rebecca, I, too, wrote my blog post about email-associated anxiety and its effect on me. I think that, perhaps, email stresses us out so badly because of its lack of context. Whenever you hear that “ping” or see a new email flash across your screen, you assume the worst because, at least in your recent experience, you’ve gotten a lot of negative news.

    There is no context for a “ping” in the way that, if your manager had called you into her office and had a scowl on her face, you would know it’s bad news. With email, you have no idea what’s waiting for you, because there are no facial expressions, body language or closed or open office doors.

    It might just as easily be a congratulations on a job well done, but we have no way of knowing that. Email also denies us the chance to absorb or respond with context; we have to carefully interpret, with no contextual clues, what the email means and then carefully, also without the benefit of voice inflection or eye contact, intellectualize our responses. All of that is anxiety-provoking.

  5. Hi Rebecca. I think it is very remarkable to think of how we are getting to the point of avoidance almost with technology. I too can relate through the anxiety and avoidance that I experienced in my marriage. In fact, after my marriage ended I navigated towards the online dating world. It allowed me to begin a new chapter in my life through the use of technology without having to put myself out there face-to-face. But once the negative interactions begin to overtake something you once found joy in, I feel it would be difficult to find excitement in using that.

    I definitely wouldn’t be embarrassed to admit that you don’t want to get out of bed knowing you will have to use technology. I think it is only natural that you would want to avoid something that gives you displeasure. But I think this idea of how we pay attention to something, might also help us to realign our focus on our negative view on that specific thing.

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