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Is Your Anxiety or Depression Worse When You’re Alone?

Constant distraction can lead to increased stress and self-alienation.

Key points

  • Screen dependency can impair people's ability to enjoy alone time, fostering disassociation and disconnection from themselves and others.
  • Studies show that screen dependency can negatively impact mental health, the ability to self-soothe, and emotional intelligence. 
  • Steps to enjoy alone time include limiting screen time, starting a mindfulness practice, and launching a creative solo hobby.
Photo by Bruno Gomiero on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Bruno Gomiero on Unsplash

Television was the biggest screen in most people’s lives not so long ago. You couldn’t tuck in into your pocket, purse, backpack, or briefcase or wear it on your wrist. When you left the house, you were utterly (gasp!) screenless, forced to wander the world unencumbered by technology, left alone to deal with your unfiltered thoughts.

Today, the digital revolution has deposited a screen before every face. Look around public space and notice: How many people are engaged with screens rather than each other or their thoughts?

Distraction has become a national pastime. Everywhere you look, you find people scrolling through messages, surfing the internet, watching videos, listening to music, updating social media, swiping left or right, working on documents, or playing digital games.

Unlike old-school television, screens now follow you wherever you go. And not just the self-selected screens, such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, or watches (yes, watches!), there are the intrusive screens you didn’t choose, the glowing ones begging for your attention in restaurants, bars, waiting rooms, airplanes, and even elevators or restrooms.

It’s unfair to claim that life without screens is better; every generation faces its own unique challenges. But since the pandemic, as screen dependency increases, studies show it can negatively impact our mental health, our ability to self-soothe and even lower our emotional intelligence.

That’s right. We became sadder, more anxious, and emotionally dumber.

Living a life of distraction

Constantly staring at a screen disrupts your ability to be alone with thoughts. Rather than processing feelings, you distract yourself. With just a few clicks, dopamine and self-reflection are a thing of the past.

Living in self-alienation, disassociated and distanced from your uncomfortable feelings or frustrations, screens, like many drugs, can numb and disconnect you from others — and yourself.

Screens and mental health

Numerous studies have found that the greater dependency on screens, the higher the likelihood of mental disorders. The more time you spend on screens, the more you may put yourself at risk for anxiety and depression.

For example, a recent study of college students conducted by BioMed Psychiatry concluded that the overuse of cell phones can “aggravate psychological disorders such as anxiety, stress, and depression.” It further concluded that placing limits on cell phones “can increase the level of mental health and improve the quality of life in students.”

Many other studies have come to the same conclusion; extended screen time can damage your mental health.

Forgetting how to be content alone

What happens when you take away the screens and suddenly have to spend time with yourself? Most people report moving through three stages:

  1. Boredom: you don’t know what to do with yourself; everything disinterests you.
  2. Frustration: you start to long for a screen and become more irritable.
  3. Depression or anxiety: feeling defeated and melancholy, you withdraw or grow jittery and restless.

Without screens, you’re stuck with all the thoughts and feelings that you’ve been distracting yourself from. (See "Understanding High Functioning Depression")

Learning to enjoy me-time

Consider the following steps if you feel increasingly dependent on screens and more anxious or melancholy.

1. Limit screen time: Start to set boundaries around your screen usage. For example, avoid using screens first thing in the morning or before bed.

2. Start a mindfulness practice: Mindfulness has the power to lower stress and improve mood. You may even discover you’re good company for yourself

3. Launch a solitary hobby: Knit, play an instrument, draw, or paint. Any solo, creative activity will help you self-soothe and relax without being glued to a screen.

4. Exercise: Hate the gym? Walk, hike, or bike; anything that increases your metabolism and boosts endorphins is scientifically proven to improve your mood.

5. Journaling: For many people, journaling is a natural way to spend time with yourself or begin a journey of self-discovery. (See "Three Signs You Need A Lifestyle Change.")

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