Digital distraction is everywhere these days. I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.
How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions
I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire. With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.
Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me. I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.
I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.
Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt
Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety. For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse. As a result, Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.
Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.
Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games. She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.
How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others
Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]. We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime. As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.
I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.
The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap. When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.
From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment. This is Clear Seeing, the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan. Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself. For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?
The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go. Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.
Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment. My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.
[i]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You. New York: Tarchin/Perigree.
(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.