Your Toolbelt Blog

The Rat Race

Back when I first starting practicing therapy (and here I date myself), I had a paper appointment book for all my appointments. I didn’t have a website, and it likely wouldn’t have occurred to most, if not all of my clients at the time, to have looked for me on the web, anyway. The Yellow Pages was how most people found services “back in the day.”  I remember, too, when I got my first “PDA” and was recording appointments and keeping track of payments electronically for the first time. I felt very technologically advanced—but still no website, and no computer in my office. I wrote my progress notes by hand.

Nowadays, not only do I have a computer at work, but I have an iPhone, too, and Wi-Fi to access the Internet at all times. I have a website, a Cascade Facebook page, and now a blog. I’m on Google People, Bing, Linked In, and, soon, Twitter. I bill electronically, send PDFs of statements to clients, and have an online calendar that clients can schedule and cancel appointments for themselves.

“Back in the day,” I was available to clients during their scheduled hour-long weekly sessions only, with the rare exception of an emergency phone call during times of crises. Now, I commonly get emails in between sessions, sometimes brief, sometimes anything but brief. I still occasionally get calls, but mainly it’s email and, sometimes, texting, too. Since I check my emails several times a day, I also typically respond right away, and so am now truly more “on call” than ever before.

So, what am I getting at? No, I’m not devolving into a “woe is me” diatribe about my job—I love my job and love the work I do with clients. My point is that if, in a field that is traditionally much more slower paced and technology free, therapists are now becoming available 24/7, it is a safe bet that other careers are experiencing a similar, if not more extreme, increase in the demand on their time.

And, statistically, this is proving to be the case.  A 1999 National Institute on Safety and Health report documented that, in 1990, 40% of workers self-reported high stress. In 2000, however, 62% thought stress was a significant problem, and by 2005 80% reported feeling stressed at work. * While the studies do not account for the sources of the stress, I think it is no coincidence that with the rise of technology in-between 1990 and 2005, there has been a concurrent rise in workers’ reports of stress at work.

Because of where I work, in the heart of “technoland,” I have found this to be very true of many of my clients.  The technology industry, from my experience, encourages workaholism and 24/7 availability. It is not unusual for work emails about last minute “emergencies” and/or projects to come in at 10 p.m.  with the expectation that the email will be responded to that very same evening.  It is also not unusual to be given a project just prior to leaving for the night, and arrive in the morning with the boss expecting there to have been progress made in the interim.  Just saying “no,” in this culture and pressure is a good way to get shown the exit door, so developing what therapists would consider healthy boundaries with your boss is not always adaptive in these work environments.

Work aside; we are also now so “wired” in our daily lives, that technology is often the interface of choice for communication, socializing, and general information gathering.  It is now not uncommon for teens to come into therapy complaining of anxiety and depression directly related to interactions via Facebook, IMs, texting, and other social media. “Cyber bullying” is now epidemic among adolescents.  Parents, too, are complaining that their kids have no attention spans, and are connected to Facebook, texting, IMs, and iTunes at the same time they’re doing their homework, to the detriment of their grades. Has the moment Einstein feared, when he said: “I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots,” arrived?

In 1997, when we were still below 62% experiencing work stress, David Shenk , a journalist, wrote a book called Data Smog, detailing ramifications that were already being observed of our having an abundance (some would say an “excess”) of information readily available at our fingertips at all times.  He predicted that such an amass of information at such a rapid pace would lead to stress and performance impairment.  Later, David Lewis, PhD, also writing of “Data Smog,” coined the term “information fatigue syndrome,” to describe his findings about the impact of information overload on people.

My own clinical experience is that this information overload dramatically exacerbates anxiety in anxious people due to the steady tickertape of pessimism, tragedies, and other morose “news” that now streams to us like IV fluids. The anxious brain does not need new material to chew on—it can find danger and tragedy all on its own. So, with this media stream, I have seen mild to moderate anxiety blossom into obsessiveness, paranoia, and panic. Anxiety and depression often go together, with one magnifying and exacerbating the other. It stands to reason, then, that the anxiety brought on by information overload can and often does lead to depression and despair.

Studies on sleep consistently show that exposure to technology within hours of going to bed can and does impair sleep—both going to sleep and quality of sleep. I will be writing soon about the impact of the quality and quantity of your sleep on your mental health, but suffice it to say here that you can improve your mood dramatically merely by improving your sleep hygiene. Our brains simply cannot function optimally without adequate sleep. And yet, now we have technology not just creeping into our bedrooms, but stomping through them….TVs, even in kids’ rooms, Smartphones by our beds, Nooks, Kindles, iPads–we’re wired even in our sleep.

So, what’s a modern techie to do, given the ready availability of technology, the onslaught of information, social “poking,” and the steadily increasing demands from the corporate world?

I regularly advise my clients, particularly my anxious clients, to severely limit their exposure to excessive news—unsubscribe to news channels, avoid reading Facebook posts of traumatic events, and otherwise shelter themselves much as they would their children. “But Lara! If I don’t read the news, I won’t know what’s going on!!” I often hear in protest. That, I reply, is just the point.  Restricting your information diet will not turn you into an ignorant hermit, trust me. Our technology age is too advanced to remain completely in the dark. And, I am only advising to limit your intake, not completely eliminate it.

I also recommend against having TVs, iPads, Laptops, Desktops, and other large technology in the bedroom. Really, sleep experts suggest not having any technology in the bedroom at all, reserving it for sex and sleep only (not necessarily in that order), but as someone fond of reading in bed, I can appreciate a Nook or Kindle at the bedside. If you don’t have any real difficulties falling asleep, those forms of technology are likely not to cause you difficulty with your sleep either. However, I strongly recommend against reading email or going onto Facebook with any device right before bed. Both are too stimulating—both positively and negatively.

Another step you can take to significantly decrease your techno-stress is to clean up your email inbox. Create folders and categorize incoming emails so that they go automatically into your folders, when possible. It is stressful to look at your inbox and see 60+ emails waiting for you, and that’s just your personal email.  Make a regular habit, too, of sifting through your “junk” email (all the sales and promotional emails that somehow you had subscribed to) and unsubscribe to as many as you can bear to part with. That will also clean up your inbox and decrease your feeling of stress.

And what about your boss? For the truly terrible situations of an insane and unreasonable boss, a business coach can be very helpful in coaching through how to negotiate and advocate for yourself more effectively.  I can also recommend the books: Where to Draw the Line? How to Set Healthy Boundaries Everyday by Katherine Anne and Coping with Difficult People: The Proven-Effective Battle Plan That Has Helped Millions Deal with the Troublemakers in Their Lives, by Robert Bramson.

Next stop: Dreamland. Until then, “keep breathing,” (Ingrid Michaelson).

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