How This Approach to Digital Connectedness Has Helped My Bipolar Disorder
It’s 6:30 a.m. Your alarm just went off. The first thing you do after wiping the crust from your eyes and yawning is grab your phone. You find the usual social media check is a quick dopamine rush to start the morning off to be sometimes better than coffee. Sifting through Facebook friend requests, then current events on Twitter. Your blood starts flowing as you get irritated by some clickbait news headline. To reset your mood, you start playing your favorite game since Angry Birds. Tinder.
$#*@! Before you know it, It’s 8:30. You are supposed to be at work at 9:00 a.m. (So much for coffee.) You scramble to get yourself together and start your day.
With all the wonderful advancements technology and social media have brought us, the actual social downsides of a supposedly “connected” society are staggering. Polarization of politics, a 24-hour news cycle, clickbait, confirmation bias, fringe ideologies, social justice issues, algorithms, Russian robots, conspiracy theories, hackers, misinformation, disinformation, echo chambers. All of these things contribute to the compounding psychological stress in our lives.
Your work day has been dragging on. You decide to listen to a podcast while you sit in your cubicle, send emails and work through the mountain of Excel sheets. You disappear down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos and again, before you know it… it’s already 5:00 p.m. Barely any work was done today. You reluctantly head to a restaurant for that diner Tinder date. You have no idea what to expect. You arrive with an open mind and scan the bar for her. You notice every person at every booth is looking at their phones and not each other. You find her. Surprise. She’s on her phone.
Recently I’ve been trying to find a balance between being informed about what is happening in the world, and being actively engaged in my own life, for my own peace of mind. Living with bipolar makes this even more crucial, as our moods are tied to the world and situations in a very real way. We feel more deeply, and internalize the external world. It is a source of great power if you can learn to create habits that work with your natural cycle, and control how you react to certain situations. Sometimes that’s removing yourself from it. The connection to the world is crucial, but don’t confuse some text on a screen with real life.
While there are real issues in the world that need to be fixed, I urge you all to think about how our amazing yet complicated digital social world may be affecting your mental health. A 24-hour news cycle alone is bad for the human psyche; now add in text interactions through all facets of our life. Void of tone and inflection. The warmth of a human smile or the coldness of negative body language. Feedback. Context. Information. Ironic in some ways that that the information age brought us our smartphones… which are anything but from a social perspective. There is a reason face to face meetings are still the preferred method of communication for most businesses. We feel more than we say.
The date ends up going well actually (once you got her off social media). You both have a nice peaceful walk a little bit buzzed, up and down the quiet street after dinner. You connect, and find common ground on so many levels. Morals, philosophies, and deeper, more meaningful values. Big picture stuff. Smitten, you convince her to go back to your place. You guys have a nightcap, one things leads to another and you wake up next to her. In the morning out of habit, you open up your phone, and catch yourself. Disgusted at your impulse, you look to your left and see her sleeping. Your stomach feels like a sailors knot.
Moments like this illustrate how disconnected we really are. While it may seem convenient to shop for a date like buying pants on Amazon, or Google what your friend is spewing out of his mouth and prove that what they just said is completely not true, it’s also disrespectful and socially obtuse to do so. Ask yourself, why are you doing this? To prove him wrong or for you to look smart? We are losing the art of conversation. The root of my issue here (although it sounds like an old man complaining) is actually connection. Human beings need connection. So in such an interconnected digital age why do we feel so isolated?
As a kid growing up with bipolar, you learn how to be disciplined early on in life. I have always felt this way. Growing up in the late late-80s and early-90s, video games were proliferating every kid’s life. It started with Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers for me, evolved into Sonic Pinball and Earthworm Jim on Sega and eventually into the era of PS1, where I became obsessed with Syphon Filter and Metal Gear Solid. I locked myself in my room and isolated myself from the world. I neglected my school work and my health in a time when what I needed most was to get it all together. I’ve fallen into this trap before. It was always amazing to me that you could be so effective in a world that didn’t exist, but completely ineffective in the one that actually does. So I gave it up.
I feel my best in life when I am passing my time in reality. Not spending it, but misplacing it unwillingly. Engaging with friends, having dinner, running by myself. I feel most alive when I lose my sense of self, and time just seems to slip away into the ether. Social media is a time thief. How many moments have you started a Youtube rabbit hole and next thing you know it’s one hour past your bedtime. Is that really living?
I’ve consistently been an advocate for personal responsibility in association to mental health and this subject is often overlooked as it’s become so normal in our society. This issue requires discipline. Below are some practical tips to remain connected while being… well, connected.
Every night at 8:00, my phone gets set on “do not disturb.” I plug it into the charger and do something for me. I cook dinner and watch a movie. Listen to an album and have a cocktail. This time is for decompression. I also leave the phone on the charge and don’t allow myself to look at it when I’m in bed. That bright white light alone affects us all a lot (especially people with mental illness), as it is linked to our sleep cycles. Work with the natural cycles of your body, and create an environment for your circadian rhythm to take hold. You’ll sleep better and feel better. Use do not disturb to silence your phone, or set a time limit that locks you out of your own device.
Take Detox Days
Turn off your phone. Go for a hike. Go camping. Disconnect. Life is much better when the birds are chirping and the sun is out; not when you’re inside with agoraphobia worried about WW3 because of the president’s Twitter. If WW3 does break out, you’ll be happy you went on that hike.
This is not about apathy — it’s about preservation. While there are issues in the world that may be changed by social interactions and public perception, weigh that energy output against the effectiveness of your energy output. Is Tweeting about an issue changing the world? Probably not. But protesting on the steps of a government building will probably intimidate the powers that be. Is pouring an ice bucket over your head curing ALS? Nope. It’s more about your own vanity than it is about the cause. Learn to spend your energy effectively. Don’t waste it; your time on this planet is precious.
Get good at something. Pick a task that excites you. Get really good at it. I can’t express how important this is for your mental health. It will help you navigate our confusing and polarizing digital world with confidence because you have a skill that can contribute to it in a meaningful way. I’ve spent the better part of 10 years learning my skill set, and now have confidence in myself and my abilities regardless of what happens in the economy, politics or online. I believe I can navigate on the merits of my ability alone and that makes the world a less scary place. You like to draw? Get really good at it. Maybe one day it will become what you do for a living. But even if it doesn’t, it will make you a better, more confident person.
Realize Real Lies
Comparison is the thief of joy. While all the shiny new pictures on your friend’s feed seems perfect, pristine and candid, they are not. They are a carefully curated selection of images that project an image of the life they believe to be living. Strip away the filters and the effects, and you’d see a lonely person taking 27 images of their face on the subway, for one that they believe is flattering. It’s not reality. It’s curated content. Don’t worry about what they are doing. Worry about you. Same thing could be said about the news nowadays. Check CNN? WW3 will be started on Twitter. Check Fox News, and the emperor can do no wrong. Realize the agenda of the person or publication who is transmitting information to you, and you’ll see the heavy hand of the artist coloring in the truth… which lies somewhere in the middle. Take a step back and see the forest for the trees.
Human beings are tribal, and it can either manifest itself in beautiful ways or savage ones. The internet is a vacuum for negativity. Have you ever seen a YouTube comment that is actually helpful made by someone with an anonymous user name? Not likely. Some people use the anonymity of the internet to fight for sport. And the algorithms will keep that fire burning. My advice is to unplug and go outside. Meet new people. Learn something. Ask questions. Be actually connected to the world. Get outside of your comfort zone. By doing so, you will find like minded people. You will find meaningful connection.
My point here is that I believe we spend too much time in the digital world, and not enough time with each other. Human beings need community. They need to be with all sorts of different people to expose us to different perspectives and ways of life. With all the hostility and fear mongering on the internet, I believe it’s helpful in an undisciplined world to have discipline. It will free you. Whether you have bipolar or depression, or are a “regular Joe,” we could all use less of that black mirror in our lives.
While there are wonderful things that the internet allows, it’s something we are not prepared for yet in our evolutionary cycle. We are not supposed to get news instantly from all corners of the world. No wonder our “Spidey senses” are tingling all the time, causing anxiety and depression. Your mental health diet is as important as your physical diet. What and how you take things in can shape your world view and ultimately, you. Be careful what you take into your mind, and make time for the things that are most important. Ignore the rest. Disconnect to interconnect.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Getty image via Marjan_Apostolovic.