Chapter 3: Where Does Stress Come From?

Technology is wasting our time. We can agree on that, right? At least to some extent? So far we’ve established that technology and social media have reduced our offline hours and left us little time to refresh and rejuvenate, but there’s actually another effect of all the pings and beeps.

Stress. The emotional toll.

While technology is meant to enhance our lives, it’s difficult to argue that it doesn’t also increase our stress. You’ve likely experienced the pull to check and re-check your inbox. You’ve no doubt felt the rush of anger or confusion after an unpleasant interaction via text message. How do you feel even simply reading about the bombardment of interruptions from various alerts? Even as I write this down I have to vigilantly protect my mind space to do just one task.

It takes effort.

The mind and the body are connected. If the mind is constantly revved up, so is the body. Do you ever feel a spurt of anxiety when a negative image or message pops into existence in your facebook feed? What about the irritation caused by multiple layers of messages in a group chat? While on the surface these do not appear to be major causes of stress, it all adds up. Many people have told me they like checking their email while they’re on holidays because it’s overwhelming when they return to an overloaded inbox. Heck, many of us are even reaching for our phones in the wee hours of the night so we don’t have to deal with it in the morning. The sheer number of notifications and the fact they don’t cease can have a profound impact on both your emotional and physical state.

As you start to consider the changes you want to make to improve your relationship with technology and social media, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of your body and its relationship to stress. Then you can decide if, and what, changes may benefit you.

The Science of Stress

A human being’s stress response is an effective means for the mind and body to manage challenging situations, specifically those in which we need to ensure our survival. It’s an oversimplification, but look at it this way: your nervous system is composed of two main parts.

Part 1. The Fuel

The sympathetic nervous system, or the gas, revs you up. You’re likely familiar with the feeling of a racing heart, quickened breath, and clammy palms. When you experience a full throttle stress response, blood flow is concentrated to the major organs and muscle groups that help you fight or flee from physical danger. What isn’t functioning at full capacity are mechanisms such as digestion, reproduction, and analytical thinking. These functions aren’t as crucial for survival. So, if you have a paper or report you need to finish, some degree of stress may spur you into action, but too much stress could cause distraction and muddy your performance.

Part 2. The Brakes

In contrast to your nervous system’s fuel, the parasympathetic nervous system allows everything to settle back into a rhythm that existed prior to a stressful event. It re-regulates your heartbeat and breathing, calms you down, and allows blood flow to return to all parts of the body, not just those parts required for survival. This part of your nervous system lets you digest your food, increases chances of reproducing, and lets you think more clearly. In a bit of biological irony, an overly active parasympathetic system can create passivity and idleness, in effect slowing us down too much and making us more complacent than we’d like to be.

The goal of these two key nervous system components are to maintain homeostasis (otherwise known as balance). This means that one response is actually no better than the other. You may find it easy to consider why too much stress is not helpful because you have likely felt the unpleasant aspects of this. But you don’t want to be too relaxed either. When you’re overly relaxed it’s difficult to get up and tackle your day. We want to experience both sides of the spectrum of stress. We want to deal with challenges and return to a neutral state in short order, ready for the next stimulation to come our way.

Just How Smart Are We?

Just because we’re built to experience stress, doesn’t mean it’s something we enjoy if we’re faced with it all the time. The challenge here is your brain. In a stressful situation, you want your body to react appropriately, but the problem is our brains take over and we think ourselves into a physiological stress response. For example, a quick response is necessary if you’re driving a vehicle and an animal darts in front of your car, right? Your body can instantly help you solve the problem. But the funny thing is, you don’t actually have to be currently experiencing a stressful situation to experience a physiological stress response. For instance, by imagining an animal racing in front of your car, you can elicit the exact same physical response in your body. Cool, right? Well, not so much when you’re sitting wide-eyed at your desk while your heart races.

Not convinced? Take a second to think about something that irritates you. Perhaps a perpetually sniff-happy cubicle-mate? Maybe a car in front of you driving 10 km below the speed limit? Spend some time really diving into that memory and pay attention to how your body and mind react. Go on, we’ll wait…

Notice a change? You may not experience a full blown stress response, but it’s likely you’re no longer feeling as relaxed as you might have been a moment earlier. The same thing happens when we find ourselves thinking about stressful or scary situation - it’s usually just more extreme.

What does this have to do with social media?

Well, for many people the thought of their neglected inbox or social media feeds creates this type of stress. Though you may not notice it regularly, the tension of your overwhelming to-do list nestles quietly into your physiology. Just looking at a device can create turmoil in your mind regarding unfinished tasks or business, and before you know it you're no longer enjoying a meal or some quiet time with your family. Your brain is back at the office or stuck in a stream of texts sent back and forth between you and your partner.

Here’s an important key to the whole puzzle: social media and technology didn’t create this effect, but they have added to it.

The Cost of Stress

Our little devices are worse than the small children who constantly interrupt our day without being aware of it. There’s an immediate cost to all that distraction: irritation, loss of productivity, and simply feeling overwhelmed. When it’s distracted, your brain is unable to fully concentrate as you flip back and forth from one task to another. Can you guess what this leads to? You got it: stress. Human brains are not designed to catapult from one topic to another. Recent neuroscience research shows the idea of multitasking may actually be a myth (even for women!)

Think about a time you were doing something that you really gripped you - a work project or a fun activity, it doesn’t matter. Now imagine that every few minutes the activity is halted. Your partner calls you, the battery dies, your phone rings, someone needs your help… And on it goes until this amazing flow you’d developed is broken for good and you’re left feeling frustrated, angry, or worse. The stop/start dynamic is rough on all of us and if it’s not dealt with it adds up exponentially over time.

Whatever emotional reaction emerges for you after a bombardment of interruptions, the easiest way to break it down seems pretty obvious, but we often fail to grasp cognizance of the connection.

More interruptions = more stress

Fewer interruptions = less stress

Gadgets pull us away from the task at hand and we let it happen. One minute I’m hard at work writing this book in the middle of a fantastic flow, and then suddenly it’s an hour later and I’ve gone deep down the rabbit hole of internet distraction. One quick fact-checking task leads to a second link which leads to a third and in short order I’m bombarded by useless bytes of information I hadn’t considered (and likely isn’t even relevant to the task at hand). Soon, the time block I’d dedicated to writing has disappeared and I’m disappointed in my lack of progress and stressed about where I’ll find the time to fit things into my schedule again.

So as you can see, I’m not merely a preacher on the benefits of social media balance, I’m a student as well!

Individual interruptions feel stressful in the moment, but they also add up over the long haul. A little tech management and you’ll be surprised at how your stress levels can change. Plus, it feels great to live in a place of thriving instead of merely surviving.

So, all together now, let’s say goodbye to stress response living, and let’s say hello to calm, focus, and accomplishment.


Want to read a little more about the realities of stress? Here’s a couple cool videos to tide you over until my next chapter!

Kelly McGonigal TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend

National Geographic: Stress - Portrait of a Killer

Further research: