Living in the Age of Anxiety, and the Value of Reconnecting

Illustration by Livi Wilson

Josie suggests how we can use our phones more mindfully in a hyper-connected world that’s ruining her inner algorithms

It’s Monday night and I’ve just come home from work. My nine-hour shift has left me tired, irritated, and in desperate need of some space. Exhausted, I fall onto my bed, relieved I finally have some time to relax. But before I do anything else, I absent-mindedly pick up my phone and begin to vacantly scroll. Instagram, Facebook, Messenger – I check them all, making sure there are no texts, stories, or notifications I might’ve missed out on. Ten p.m. draws round and I’m plagued by a strange feeling. It’s an itching sensation that begins at the pit of my stomach and ends at the tips of my fingers. It is a nameless dread, made of noisy images and disapproving thoughts. There’s an ominous sense that I’m being quietly judged.

When this feeling gets particularly bad, I have an intense longing to escape my body, to live inside someone else’s head. All I want is any life other than my own. I turn my eyes towards my phone, but its black screen stays silent and impartial. I want some words of reassurance, but no-one says anything. After twenty minutes of unbearable silence, my phone finally sounds. I grab it from my bedside, hitting the home button so the screen lights up. I see I’ve received six more likes on the photo I posted this morning, and for a moment, the fear vanishes.

I see I’ve received six more likes on the photo I posted this morning, and for a moment, the fear vanishes.

Since when did my life become characterised by this kind of anxiety? I never used to systematically check my pockets, fearing I’d lost some essential part of my being, a device vital to me staying connected. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s hard for us to start a conversation, to even catch someone’s eye, without facing a heroic battle for their attention. Our phones are becoming the elephant in the room, an invisible but ever-present monitor of our day-to-day lives.

In George Orwell’s dystopian fiction, 1984, TV-style monitors called ‘telescreens’ are used by a corrupt government to survey the waking lives of society’s members. In Orwell’s novel, characters try to find the ‘blind’ spots where they can’t be seen. Now, in the 21st century, we’re complicit with being watched. Billion-dollar businesses like Instagram and Facebook have become so instrumental to our identities that we are unable to tear our eyes away from them. Like junk food, we know social media can be bad for us if consumed in excess, yet we often lack the willpower to stop ourselves. This is having quietly disastrous consequences. We’re scared of doing things alone. We hate awkward conversations. We find it easier to interact online. Yet the very apps which provide us with our sense of meaning also supply us with online personas which are comprising our ability to be human.

Millennials have to dig deeper for sincerity. It is more difficult for our generation to provoke the deeper kinds of dialogue our grandparents would’ve taken for granted. Starting engaging conversations with people in real life is becoming rarer, but it remains vital we try. It isn’t enough to live a life dictated by notifications, to the number of texts or likes we receive on our phones. We need to find ways to remind ourselves that the world we live in is not entirely determined by our online experiences. I managed to rediscover more meaning in my life when I recognised that the things which keep me alive – my ability to love, to sleep, to talk, to dream, to eat – are impossible to replicate online.

It isn’t enough to live a life dictated by notifications, to the number of texts or likes we receive on our phones.

This isn’t to say we can’t use the internet to have meaningful conversations. I think it’s great I can use WhatsApp to stay in touch with my family every day, though we live in different places. Instagram has proved a useful business platform for my music. I have friends who have voiced their struggles with depression online, but never found the courage to say so in person. Online platforms can allow us to express personal things we might otherwise be too uncomfortable to discuss. There are people challenging the status quo on the same platforms which reinforce it. As someone who suffers from body dysmorphia and has struggled with eating disorders, Jameela Jamil’s ‘I weigh’ campaign and the #MeToo movement verified that my feelings of injustice were not insane, but part of a global awakening. These were watershed moments that exposed the often painful reality of being female, small steps in the movement towards social change.

Sadly though, much of the content I come across online is still harmful. At least for now, we need to remain hyper-vigilant of what we consume. I try to do this by unfollowing the accounts I know will make me insecure, and seeking out those I find empowering. Yet I acknowledge because the internet is so vast, I will inevitably come across images I don’t want to see. I will process information I have little control over. Apps use algorithms to ensure the images we see are individualised, tailored to our own personal search history. Googling something as simple as ‘healthy dinner recipes’ or ‘reasons to vote Labour’ could mean your Instagram feed is later filled with a deluge of clean eating ads, diet plans, and anti-Tory material. If we do not own the images we see, it remains difficult to control their influence over us.

We aren’t getting rid of the internet. But this doesn’t prevent us from becoming aware of how it is changing us, so we might use our phones more mindfully.

The medium through which we consume images – our iPhones, our computers, or iPads – have indelibly impacted the physical interactions we have in the real world. How many times have you been engrossed in a Youtube video, or scrolled through your Facebook newsfeed, whilst your friend was trying to start a conversation? I’m definitely guilty of this, yet I feel offended if someone uses their phone instead of talking to me. We’re missing out on something fundamental here. There needs to be a drastic change in our education system. Future generations should be educated on how technology has been hijacked by businesses to mould and reflect our desires and gradually undermining our very freedom.

One thing is clear – we aren’t getting rid of the internet. But this doesn’t prevent us from becoming aware of how it is changing us, so we might use our phones more mindfully. I believe we can retrain ourselves to become more attentive, to become aware of the unscripted moments we’ve become too distracted to see. I’ve been trying small experiments to help me reconnect with the world outside. Here are a few rules I’ve set (I don’t always manage to stick to them though I’m trying).

  1. Leave your phone at home once a week.

Once a week, try going to a cafe without a device. Bring a book or drawing pencils, or maybe start a journal. Find something you enjoy but would never share online. Some people might find this ridiculous, but when the mere presence of our phones can be a distraction, sometimes we need to remove them altogether. Our brains are good at remembering certain behaviours, and if we imagine how many times a day we use our phones, it’s not surprising we find ourselves reach for them before we’ve actually heard them go off.

Initially, this is hard. You’ll feel restless, even bored. But you’ll start to fill your time. You might sit and daydream, or finish that book you never had time to read. You’ll start thinking about what really motivates you.

  1. Keep a diary.

These days many people would see keeping a diary as pointless. We’ve become so obsessed with sharing every aspect of our lives that we no longer value privacy. And yet, solitary moments are something humans crave. Having space to ourselves is what keeps us sane. As our lives are filled with increasing amounts of distractions, we have to schedule time for ourselves. Keeping a diary can encourage you to be alone a few times a week. It allows you to get in touch with your thoughts, and to think and write more honestly. This inadvertently improves your relationships with others as you become better at navigating the space between your own thoughts and your external surroundings.

Recognising how our often stressful and toxic culture is influencing our interior monologues can allow us to be more discriminating about the kinds of information we choose to digest. Sometimes we forget to remember our own personal achievements because we are so preoccupied with comparing ourselves to everyone else. It’s actually okay to take things at your own pace – it can be really liberating. If I’ve been looking at people’s posts I try to remember that someone else’s success has nothing to do with mine. In fact, when someone shares something, they’re probably doing it from the safety of their room. They might’ve shared a picture of a night out, but right now they’re probably doing the same as you – sitting at home, or feeling bored at work. The pictures we post often don’t reflect where we are from moment-to-moment, whereas a diary can situate you in the present.

  1. Do, don’t always share.

Everywhere we go, we feel our lives are being judged according to their potential value for ‘content’. This means we have started to assess our experiences according to the expectation they should be constantly exciting. But life is often boring. More often than not, it’s predictable, even mediocre. But that’s okay. There’s a beauty to be found in mundanity. A moment doesn’t have to be ‘Insta-worthy’ to be meaningful. Find some relief in life’s routine – the first cup of coffee in the morning, a good conversation with your loved ones, closing your eyes on a sunny day. These are the things which keep me going when the modern world feels a bit much.

Embracing the everyday made me attentive to a new kind of beauty that exists independent of the camera lens. There are certain experiences that can never be reproduced – an early morning sunrise, the noise at a rock concert, feeling a sense of awe at a landscape. These are moments we can see online, but can only experience within the small minutiae that make up our lives: the beautiful, complex, and confusing series of instances that make each of us uniquely valuable.

Once we can start to appreciate the world as it is, we begin to see people as they really are – not perfect avatars, but humans who are as unique and fragile as we are. We need to stop punishing ourselves for what we are not, and start celebrating the individual qualities each of us has to offer. To do this we also need to recognise our collective responsibility to remain in conversation offline – only then can we take the steps towards more meaningful lives.

Illustration by Livi Wilson – see her website here and her Instagram here

How do you keep your phone usage under control? Leave your own tips in the comments below. 

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