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“Technological progress has merely provided us with a more efficient means for going backwards.” –Aldous Huxley

The Big Idea: According to research, constantly checking our smartphones and email can rewire our brains and our nervous systems into a chronic state of stress or hypervigilance, which can negatively affect our mental and physical health, and our relationships.

What countries have the most stress?

In 2019, Gallup surveyed 143 countries and the  US ranked 4th worldwide as one of the most “stressed out” countries on the planet.

With all our luxuries and advantages, how could this be?

Surely there must be many more countries that experience far more stress than we do?

The answer might be in your pocket.

The first iPhone was released on June 29th, 2007. In the long view of time, that is very recent.

We have yet to fully understand how smartphones are affecting brains and human behavior, but you may have begun to notice some of the symptoms yourself.

Many modern workers and workplaces have a habit of checking phones and emails hundreds of times per day. And then there are personal reasons for checking texts or social media that make this habit even more frequent.

One UK study (2014) found that the average person checks their smartphone 221 times per day.

Have you ever checked your phone repeatedly waiting for a good or bad news response text from a friend? Or constantly checked to see if anyone “liked” your recent post on social media?

I know I have.

A “like” boosts my spirits, and being ignored can make me paranoid or feed insecurity.

I think to myself, “Did I tick them off? Was I being annoying? Are they upset with me or did they just miss my text message?”

On the other hand, even a “like” can cause me to think, “I wonder if they actually read my post or if they are just clicking on it to be nice. Maybe I should like more of their posts.”

Maybe you recognize these thought patterns.

A slot machine in your pocket

Science shows that the constant dings and vibrations of our cell phones is almost like having a tiny slot machine in our pocket.

A message of good news on your smartphone can trigger the release of dopamine—a pleasure chemical in the brain that causes us to feel uplifted.

This article explains dopamine release and how phone addiction develops into a very strong habit.

A message of bad news on your phone (or lack of someone responding to you) might produce cortisol—the stress hormone, which has also been proven to have damaging physical affects on your body and vital organs.

This is not unlike the reinforcement schedule that gamblers experience. They never know when they might strike it rich or lose a bunch of money. This constant up and down produces elevated levels of stress hormones in gamblers (Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2004; Biological Psychiatry, 2000).

Bestselling author and journalist Catherine Price has reviewed studies that show cortisol levels increase when you hear, or even think you hear your phone. In her bestselling book How to Break Up with Your Phone she explains “putting down your phone might actually cause you to live longer.”

We check our phones so often that it’s not unusual to experience phantom vibrations—the sensation that the phone is buzzing even when it’s not.

Studies range from about 30% to 90% of people having experienced phantom vibrations.

In 2017, the media analytics company ComScore found that the average American adult spent 2 hours and 51 minutes on their phone every single day. Recent studies range up to double that number for 2022.

All this cortisol and dopamine can put people into a chronic low-grade state of fight-or-flight. Author Alan Gordon calls these our “high-alert habits.”

And its not just phones by the way.

If you have a really strong habit of watching the news or checking your email, it might have the same effect.

Many recent studies on teens suggest that social media creates a feeling of extreme depression and anxiety by constantly comparing one’s life to the ideal image someone has created on their online profile. We, as parents, must model good habits with technology if our kids are to have any chance of good habits with devices. 

In this article we are only focusing on the stressful effects of devices that create anxiety, fear, anger, or depression.

But countless studies have also shown the degrading effects on job performance by overusing devices. Other skills like attention, focus, concentration, and productivity obviously go way down by checking your phone and email constantly due to all the interruptions and task switching.

Read my last post on this topic if you want more data on this.

Here is a final thought to consider.

Modern spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle suggests that when we walk around in a chronic state of anxiety and stress, we actually create “relational pollution.” He remarks that we often think so much about environmental pollution, while many people neglect this idea of relational pollution that is so important.

After all, we carry that stressed-out, irritable, and reactive energy we have—into every human interaction during our day.

The greatest gift we might give to ourselves, our families, and our coworkers might just be to focus more on habits that cultivate a strong sense of internal peace and calm—and then carry that soothing energy into our daily relationships.

The world needs leaders (and parents) that model good habits with technology and bring a sense of calm and clarity to their work and relationships.

Take action now

Make no mistake, constantly interacting with technology is an extremely strong habit for most people and usually requires an equally extreme level of commitment to change.

After all, the dopamine reward system in the brain is the same system that creates nearly unbreakable drug addictions.

So what can you do to change your high-alert habits?

  1. Remind yourself “why” you are cutting back on technology. Write down a powerful reason why you wish to break your habit of overusing technology. Remind yourself that disengaging from technology will help get you off high-alert, reduce impatience, irritability, and anxiety. It will help you be more calm, centered, less reactive, and more gentle.
  2. Put yourself on an email schedule. Set specific times to check email most days and limit yourself to a few times per day. Experiment with this and see what you notice.
  3. Spend some time every week without your phone. It’s difficult to relax with the phone within arms reach because we are constantly wondering when it will vibrate next. Take some time each week to ensure you are not in the same room as your phone. Remember that we did this all the time before cell phones! You can do this!
  4. Use your “focus” setting to disable notifications at times. I love this feature. You can allow for emergency calls while silencing any other texts or notifications. Use this feature to focus on an uninterrupted work project or be present with your family.
  5. Remove non-essential apps and disable notifications. I got this recommendation from Cal Newport a few years ago. I took a bunch of apps off my phone and removed all notifications. Try it for 2 weeks and then re-install the ones you really missed or needed.
  6. Set a time when your workday ends. Try stopping work at a certain time unless you have a job where you much be reachable at all times. This will help you be intentional about boundaries between work and home. It can be all too easy to justify checking work email when your kids are arguing.
  7. Interact more with nature. Numerous studies have reinforced the importance of allowing your brain to relax in nature. Take more walks, sit outside, and make sure you balance your screen time with experiencing the planet.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.


Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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