How to escape from pervasive technology, antisocial media and constant political turmoil to rejuvenate mind, body and soul
In the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Julia Keiser didn't feel the usual glide between joints of the vertebrae as she moved her hands along her patients' backs. Instead, the muscles were tight, tense—their spines like stone. Eventually, the shock began to subside and the vast majority of her clients returned to normalcy.
But not everyone. She estimates that 10 percent remained rigid as the weeks passed. It was puzzling, until they told her they couldn't stop watching TV coverage of the terrorist attacks. For those people, it was as if the hijackings never stopped, just a tragedy on repeat. Keiser, a chiropractor and the founder of Worthington Optimal Wellness, recognized the culprit: emotional overload and chronic stress, which caused unrelenting muscle tension. She told her patients to make a decision: If it evokes such strong feelings, then donate money, donate blood, fly to New York, meditate, pray—do something. But stop watching it on TV because there's no benefit, and it's causing physical and emotional harm.
All too often, today's world feels much like those harrowing weeks. We're constantly bombarded with stories of disaster and impending doom, piling up in our brains like layers of sedimentary trauma. There are military quagmires in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and a nuclear-tipped panic pulsing from North Korea. There was Charlottesville, followed by the destruction wrought by Harvey, Irma and Maria. Then the Las Vegas festival massacre—bloody, cruel and senseless.
The proliferation of mobile technology has allowed this unsettling noise to follow us everywhere. Bad news once ebbed and flowed through morning papers and nightly TV broadcasts; now it gushes from the internet's open firehose. We need respite.
The United States of Stress
You feel that? Your shoulders probably got tighter and tighter as you read that opening section. Mine did just from writing it. I often find them in this position, unconsciously pulled upward and frozen with tension. It's a common physiological response to stress, the everyday equivalent to a hardened spine.
The good news is that we can manage our exposure and control our response to stress. The bad news? You probably have one of the most pernicious modern sources with you right now. Last year, University of Pittsburgh sociologist Margee Kerr told Rolling Stone that receiving constant news updates on our phones makes everything feel more emotionally charged—“a false sense of involvement.”
In August 2016, the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey reported that constantly checking emails, texts or social media (behavior ascribed to 43 percent of adults) was associated with higher stress levels. It also noted that social media users were more likely to feel significant stress from the presidential race. A follow-up survey in January confirmed the ongoing anxiety; 57 percent of respondents found the political climate stressful even after the election. The January survey also recorded the first statistically significant increase in overall stress since 2007.
Ken Yeager, the co-founder of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at Ohio State University, points to one particularly disruptive convergence of politics and technology: Twitter. Everything is now disseminated in immediate, 140-character increments, including political discussion, reaction and even the policies themselves. The brevity makes statements more harsh, blunt and confusing. “There's no way to project, in a text, any kind of emotional intent,” Yeager says. “It just is text, and it's a limited amount of text. So people are left to assigning their own meaning to it, and I think that's a huge factor.”
Stress also has bled into pop culture, where we seek escape. Keiser says TV content has shifted drastically in the last 30 years, toward anger, conflict and the pressure of timelines and budgets. Even the Food Network has gone from anodyne to outlandish. It used to be Jamie Oliver playing in his garden and cooking in his kitchen, she says; now it's Cupcake Wars. “We're the only culture in the world that could take a cupcake and turn it into a war.”
The experts say that stress is neither good nor bad; it simply exists. Whether the source is positive, like planning a wedding, or negative, like the looming heat death of democracy, it will affect you.
“Stress, in and of itself, is not the problem,” says Maryanna Klatt, a professor in OSU's Department of Family Medicine. “It's the sustained stress where your body doesn't get a break.”
Stressed Out: The Physical Effects
There's a heating pad pressed between the back of my chair and my shoulder blade as I stare at my computer screen at work. The trapezius muscle running along the left side of my neck hurts. I'd like to believe the pain is my subconscious attempt at the writerly version of method acting, temporarily taking on a primary way people carry stress—across the shoulders and upper back. If only I could wish it away so easily.
Our bodies bear the weight of stress in many ways, sometimes literally. At OSU's Institute for Behavioral Medicine and Research, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and her team have conducted studies showing that when people eat high-fat meals after encountering stress, they burn about 100 calories fewer than normal. It's not much, she says, but if repeated it could add 7 to 11 additional pounds a year. Kiecolt-Glaser, the institute's director, says that stress also affects the immune system, impairing the body's response to vaccines and causing wounds to heal slower.
Sleep also can fall prey to stress. Klatt explains that cortisol, a hormone released when someone feels stress, is naturally highest in the morning and lowest before bedtime. But it remains high when people are chronically stressed and can interfere with sleep cycles. Recent research indicates that blue light emitted by devices like phones, computers and tablets likely exacerbates the problem by throwing off your body's circadian rhythm, your biological clock.
“If people are on the computer, that blue light is stimulating, stimulating, stimulating,” Keiser says. “It's keeping that brain fired up and ready to go.”
The stress of life and constant connectivity to blue-light devices can prevent people from getting enough deep sleep, which is when the brain clears toxins, Yeager says. Also, sleep-deprived people tend to eat more, Kiecolt-Glaser adds. “And the issue, of course, is that when we're stressed, we don't reach for broccoli—unless it has hollandaise on it.”
Stress is corrosive that way, feeding on the bad habits it produces. For example, exercise is one of the best stress-reducers, Kiecolt-Glaser says, and yet people are far less likely to exercise when they're stressed. They're also more likely to drink and smoke. “I think when we're stressed, we just don't pay attention to what we should be doing,” she says. “We're so consumed with the bad feelings.”
At Worthington Optimal Wellness, I find the MindFit system tucked into a nook in the lobby. It resembles a prop from a sci-fi movie; sleek headphones attached to an opaque space-age visor plugged into a wall-mounted digital media player. The MindFit—also called BrainTap—uses light frequencies, audio tones, music and guided reflection to try to produce a deep meditative state in just minutes. Keiser recommends it for some patients struggling with stress-related sleeplessness.
I sit in a zero-gravity lounge chair and position the headset, with eight blue-white lights beaming into my eyes and nine over each ear. The guided visualization begins, with the gentle voice of inventor Patrick Porter leading me through “The Enchanted Forest” overtop background sounds, like musical instruments, chirping birds and gusts of wind. It's like being brainwashed by Bob Ross in stereo. But I feel more relaxed 18 minutes later, and the pain in my back has temporarily subsided.
Whether you rely on fancy gadgets or age-old methods, experts agree that meditation is one of the best strategies for combating and controlling stress, particularly mindfulness meditation, which Yeager describes as reflective, nonjudgemental awareness of what's going on around you in the present moment. The mind can run wild and become a train wreck, says Lucy Bartimole, the co-owner of Shift, a studio in Grandview for meditation, yoga and tai chi. Mindfulness meditation allows you to recognize those runaway thoughts and emotions, she says, while also noticing your elevated heart rate. Then you return to the current moment, to breathe, to restore peace to the body.
At Ohio State, Klatt has developed Mindfulness in Motion, an eight-week program that helps people change their responses to stress. During one study, she worked with intensive care nurses who'd struggled with several traumatic patient experiences in the months prior. The nurses met weekly to participate in group sessions of yoga and mindfulness and completed daily practice on their own. Afterward, Klatt and her team discovered that the nurses had a 40 percent reduction in a salivary biomarker of stress.
“It's been shown through countless scientific studies that mindfulness practice reduces cortisol levels and has an effect on the brain,” Kate Curlis-West writes via email. She's the director of the Shambhala Meditation Center of Columbus, where the primary practice is traditional seated meditation, though mindfulness can take other forms too.
Klatt is now running her program for a group of medical residents. Recently, she led them through an “eating meditation”; instead of doing a session that focuses on the breath, they concentrated only on the taste and texture of food. “I know that sounds bizarre,” she says, “but it's so effective.”
The (Other) Best Medicines
On the first Sunday in October, I attend comedian John Morgan's set at the Funny Bone. There's no recording or taking photos, and everyone's cell phones must stay on silent. I'm laughing so hard for most of the night that I don't think about my back. I'm not stressed, not in this moment. It's unorthodox, but it worked for me, at least for the evening.
For those looking for more conventional approaches, several experts endorse yoga for the combined exercise and meditative components. Keiser also recommends high-intensity interval training, a fast-paced, circuit-style workout, and she says that cardiovascular regimens are best for improving sleep (massage can be effective for that as well, she adds). The British wellness magazine Breathe touted the benefits of swimming; like yoga, the special attention paid to the breath is beneficial. Plus, swimming with your phone is generally discouraged.
It's nearly impossible to disengage from technology altogether, but it's important to set boundaries. When he's away from work, Yeager limits himself to a half hour each morning and evening to answer emails. Be aware of when news and political content are starting to stress you out, Klatt says, and then restrict yourself accordingly. Both Yeager and Klatt recommend taking 10 minutes during the workday to shut off technology, relax and reorient your attention to your breath. Yeager also encourages people to always be planning vacations; he books places without internet service so that he's truly disconnected.
The Shift studio recently held a daylong retreat called Cultivating Courage in Heartbreaking Times. Motivated by the increasing stress from information overload and political turmoil, the getaway was meant to promote spiritual revitalization and help participants build awareness of the messages their bodies send them. There are also permanent sanctuaries around Ohio for disconnecting and rejuvenating, like True Nature Holistic Retreat in Millersburg, about 90 miles northeast of Columbus, and the Hope Springs Institute in Peebles, about 100 miles south of Columbus.
As people limit technology use, they should seek out renewed connections with others. Klatt's Mindfulness in Motion program incorporates groups because she believes community-building is another victim of technology's growth; the Stress in America survey reported that those who constantly check their devices feel more disconnected from family and friends. Kiecolt-Glaser cites studies that found that lonelier medical students had poorer immune function. “Strong personal relationships, supportive relationships, are a really important stress buffer,” she says.
All of this advice has one thing in common—the individual, you. It's self-centered, for good reason. You can't control Kim Jong Un, or Donald Trump, or hurricanes or the steady march of mobile, global, invasive technology. But you can control your breath, or go on a retreat or swim some laps. You can turn off your phone, at least sometimes. But if everything remains overwhelming, Bartimole has another tip: volunteer. Serve dinner at a soup kitchen. Visit a nursing home. Help someone else.
“I think a lot of times we get mired in the worries of our small worlds, and we don't realize that there are other things going on,” she says. “Once you get that larger picture, you just feel more at ease.”