Technology -- information sharing technology, specifically -- has been something of a mixed blessing.
It is a powerful tool for enabling change and disseminating information, and it's the most potent stimulant for anxiety and depression ever created.
Dealing with an anxious world
Anxiety isn't just for Information Technology workers anymore. A vast number of people have anxious and depressed thoughts these days. And a lot of it is due to our over-use of technology.
Anxiety cannot be cured and is necessary for human existence because it is a primitive emotion that is intended to protect us by activating our fight or flight response in our amygdala -- the "lizard brain" -- to make us aware of potential danger. We've had it for millions of years, and it is a vestigial and necessary part of our continued evolution as a species.
Also: 2020 election news survival guide: Keep your sanity and your friends with these three apps
Yes, genuine things going on in the world disturb us and make us anxious and depressed. There exists real uncertainty and cause for actual concern. We have to start thinking about how the current situation is going to be improved and act productively.
But anxiety and depression are a trap. For some people, it is a hole that cannot easily be dug out of, and it creates an emotional condition by which day-to-day living and working becomes impossible.
If you find yourself overwhelmingly anxious and depressed, particularly if you have suicidal thoughts, you need to consult licensed mental health professionals (this includes a combination of both psychiatric care and psychological counseling).
A psychiatrist can prescribe appropriate medications that address chemical deficiencies in the brain, such as low serotonin and norepinephrine levels, which are associated with depression and anxiety. A doctor and therapist can help you uncover root causes for anxiety and depression, and they can help you on your path to recovery. And, yes, newer treatments such as CBD and cannabis are natural options for people with anxiety who want to try alternatives to prescription pharmaceuticals.
But there are tools and coping mechanisms that can be used by anyone to help mitigate the effects of depression and anxiety. And, in these challenging times, we need all the help we can get.
The original version of this article was written three years ago when I first started to come to terms with my own anxiety. Since then, the world around us has become much more anxious and stressed out. Whenever I become worried or upset with whatever is going on around me or online, I re-orient myself with these guiding principles:
- Be mindful that everyone, not only you, is stressed out. Everyone is overwhelmed with job demands, things going on at home and personal lives, and by the firehose of current events and an election year.
- Be mindful of how we interact with people on social networks. Much is lost in translation when interacting online that we take for granted in face to face or with voice communication; we lose the emotional impact, and people cannot necessarily tell if we are being serious or joking. Try to be tolerant of other people and approach conversation on social networks from the perspective of "if my employers, or if my close family and friends saw this comment from me, what would they think?"
- Be mindful of the origin of news on the internet. When people share things on social networks, consider the source. On Facebook, you can click the "i" in a news article to display the "About this Content" information and see if it has had any incidences of fake news being reported.
- Learn to set boundaries with online activity. The new software controls for setting limits on screen time in iOS and Android are only as good as we allow them to be because their limits can be bypassed simply by switching them off or by extending their curfew limits. That said, our primary operating system is our brain. Those controls need to be trained and used all the time. Sometimes we have to take breaks for work, and we cant all sit in front of a computer 12 hours a day and expect to have good mental health.
- Don't just say "yes" to everything, and set boundaries with people in our real-life relationships. Take time out for yourself to breathe, take coffee breaks, go out for walks, and leave the desk for a few hours. Take vacation time; don't keep banking it. Push back when needed -- schedule time to do things for yourself.
- Don't preoccupy yourself with things that are not under your direct control. If it's not something you can directly influence, then it's not worth getting anxious and stressed out and angry about it.
The art of being present
I have found mindfulness meditation to be a useful tool when dealing with my anxiety, stress, and depression.
Meditation can help mitigate many of the effects of anxiety by training the brain to function in the present moment -- in other words, to help you live in the "now" rather than dwell on anticipatory racing thoughts that fuel both anxiety and depression.
The practice of mindfulness meditation originates in the religions of eastern cultures. Still, there is scientific proof that it has many health benefits even when used as a purely secular tool.
At a fundamental level, mindfulness meditation is centered around fixating on the act of breathing so that one becomes aware of the anxious thoughts and feelings that are distracting and thus form a better relationship with them.
It sounds simple, but it requires continuous discipline and ongoing practice for it to be effective. Meditation is a brain hack that changes the mapping of your neural pathways over time, so the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the longer its therapeutic effects will last.
While you can practice it without any outside help, it is suitable for novices and even experienced meditators to have guidance during the exercise. And there are apps you can download to the mobile device that assist you in the form of recordings to coach and reinforce the technique.
There's an app for that
Two of the most popular apps for guided meditation are Headspace and Calm. Both of these are excellent subscription services that have guided programs that help you manage stress, anxiety, depression, and other life issues.
The main difference between the two is that Headspace primarily uses a male British voice (Andy Puddicombe), while Calm uses mostly a female American voice (Tamara Levitt) for guided recordings. Both of these companies have contributors of different sexes and voice personalities that provide supplementary content.
Headspace is free for the first 10 sessions while it guides you through a series of "Take 10" (10-minute) meditations. It then costs $69.99 a year. It has 30-day "packs" on different life topics, where you can specify the duration of the daily guidance (10/15/20/30 minute sessions). And it has a new guided meditation led by Andy weekly.
Headspace recently underwent a major UX redesign. It introduced Sleepcasts (contributor-led, 45-minute guided meditations with mental visualizations of different environments to help you fall asleep) and continuous loops of environmental music, such as rain and ocean sounds.
While both apps have very well-designed interfaces, headspace is relatively spartan in its actual UI. It uses illustrative animations and instructional videos that preface content, managed by its production team. Headspace has Alexa integration, too, should you choose to use some of the content directly from your smart speaker, such as the Sleepcasts.
Calm has seven-day packs for topics, such as sleep, stress, and anxiety, as well as a 21-day Calm pack and timed durations. It is $69.99 a year if you want access to the premium content, such as the packs and the Daily Calm. It uses pleasant-moving bitmaps to accompany the audio.
Both Calm and Headspace use countdown timers and audio players with controls, and they have reminder functions that you can use to schedule your sessions. The iOS versions of the apps integrate with Apple Watch, and both have specific Apple Health integration for tracking usage. Finally, both apps link to your Facebook account (so you can use them on any of your devices to track your progress -- this includes pure browser interface, as well), and both apps can cache offline content. Headspace has a specific download manager, whereas Calm gives you the option to download all recordings at once.
Another excellent meditation app is MHK, which is entirely free. It differs from Headspace and Calm in that it is produced in accordance with Hare Krishna principles. Like Headspace, it uses a British voice guide in the recordings.
The meditations are shorter and are grouped according to spiritual categories, such as Body, Mind, and Heart. While there are some Hare Krishna mantras used in some of the meditations, for the most part, the app is secular. It is a good option for those looking for an introduction to meditation before purchasing one of the services above.
Are you using mindfulness meditation to cope with stress and anxiety? Talk Back and Let Me Know.