Fight-or-flight mode: phones mess with life-saving hormone
There are some serious health risks attached to checking your device constantly
Over the course of the smartphone revolution, scientists have conducted a lot of research into how our phones may be affecting us and their negative impact on all sorts of areas, from our eyes to our brains.
However, many of those studies have tended to focus on smartphones’ relationship to dopamine, the chemical released in our brains that is instrumental in forming habits and addictions.
Science has found that many smartphones and apps are specifically designed to release this chemical to get us as addicted to checking and interacting with our devices as cigarettes or alcohol.
According to a recent report in the New York Times, there’s now another chemical that smartphones also affect that we should be worried about and which poses potential risks to our long-term health and survival.
That chemical is called cortisol and it’s the body’s primary hormone for dealing with stress – triggered in situations where our fight-or-flight response kicks in, intended to aid us to help fight back in highly stressful or life-threatening situations.
It’s not good to know that seeing an anxiety-inducing e-mail late at night might have the same physical effect as the sight of a polar bear charging towards you, but that’s what new studies suggest may be happening as a result of our addiction to smartphones.
Research has shown the average American “spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time”.
That can probably be extrapolated to similar levels for many other countries, and the result is the same wherever you are because, as Google observed in a report, “mobile devices loaded with social media, e-mail and news apps … [create] … a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress”.
The NYT quotes University of Connecticut clinical psychology professor David Greenfield, who warns “cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear or even think about it. It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away”.
The endless repetition of this cycle of anxiety leads to abnormal spikes in cortisol levels, which poses a serious risk to the body. Elevated levels of the hormone have been linked to “an increased series of health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, heart attack, dementia and stroke”.
Dr Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, told the paper that high levels of cortisol impaired the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and rational thought – what he describes as “the Jiminy Cricket [of the brain, which] … keeps us from doing stupid things”.
If our Jiminy Cricket isn’t working then this leads us to lose self-control and can lead us to do things that may be momentarily relieving but are also potentially stupid and destructive – like reaching for our phones to respond to text messages while driving or not looking where we’re going while walking because we’re so obsessed with replying right this second.
Our hyper-awareness of our phones can also lead to things such as phantom vibrations, where our anxiety about something we’ve just seen on our phones makes us think the device is vibrating when it’s not.
So what to do about all these potentially life-threatening, cortisol-raising smartphone side-effects?
Well, if you consciously work towards curbing some of your bad smartphone habits then this can help your brain and body self-regulate their release of the hormone to acceptable levels.
You can start by turning off unnecessary notifications and the way different apps make you feel when you use them – if Twitter makes you mad as hell then don’t go on it all the time.
You can also attempt to actively take long, initially twitch-inducing but ultimately beneficial sustained breaks from your phone – you don’t have to go all in and start with a 24-hour no-tech-use cleanse, but you can start slowly by doing things such as not taking your phone out during your lunch break or leaving it off during dinner.
The world and smartphone companies may be making it harder and harder to introduce such self-protective timeouts, but it’s up to users to try to make the effort before we’re purchasing phones that are forced to carry health warnings and have tech companies hide behind that old big tobacco “we told you so … eventually … so not really our problem” defence.