There are plenty of aspects of technological advances that I appreciate. I can video chat with loved ones, we can stay connected with friends and family through social media and I’m only one click away from watching any show or movie I want. While technology has provided a lot of benefits in terms of efficiency, entertainment and engagement, it also comes with some addictive qualities and adverse effects on our mental health. This was already concerning even before the pandemic hit, but is even more so now that so many of us have spent the last year inside and on our devices.
Recent statistics from 2020 show that the average American spends about 10.5 hours a day on a screen or mobile device. Children spend anywhere between 4-7 hours each day, depending on their age. Is this really surprising, though? We have had to move to virtual platforms to continue to meet the nonstop demands of work and school. With the increase of technological use, there has been a drastic decrease in face to face time and interactions with people outside of our immediate family. When we experience decreasing face to face interactions and increasing virtual ones, we begin to use screens to meet our practical and social needs more and more.
There are physiological and psychological adverse effects to consistently using technology to this degree. Over time these effects can lead to serious issues, including depression and anxiety because we are continuously isolated. Constant screen stimulation replaces our need to do other non-screen related activities. With its easy accessibility, a person is more likely to fill in their times of boredom by scrolling through social media, browsing articles, online shopping, and all the other things we all do online.
To help us alleviate some of these effects, it is important to remember one important antidote: connecting with nature. I’m sure you have heard that it’s good to go outside and get some Vitamin D. However, here are some more specific examples of nature-based practices and what physiological and psychological benefits each can bring.
- Earthing: To make contact with soil, grass or sand while barefoot. Earthing helps to regulate our autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary physiological responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestive system and sexual arousal. Earthing also helps to regulate our circadian rhythms, including body temperature and hormone secretion. After earthing, people report feeling less stressed, less angry, or less anxious. Next time you feel overwhelmed, try walking through some grass for 20 minutes!
- Seeing greenery: Seeing greenery (trees, forests, and other “green spaces”)can help lower cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and harmful foods. Studies have shown that living near greenery can lower blood sugar and blood pressure. Children who live near it or spend time surrounded by it have higher rates of concentration, and can also develop enhanced self-discipline and self-control. This can be especially helpful for kids who have ADHD. If you’re trying to curb a craving or if you (or your children) have trouble concentrating on a task, take a break outside!
- Care for an indoor plant: By having a plant, you can improve the air quality in your home because plants release more oxygen and take up the carbon dioxide that you breathe out. By providing more oxygen into the air, your brain can make efficient neurological connections and release the right type of hormones to boost focus and productivity while also reducing stress. Therapists who specialize in horticulture therapy have been known to prescribe plant caring to clients who struggle with depression and anxiety. Taking care of a plant helps increase a sense of compassion and empathy, because another living requires care. If you are on the fence about getting a pet, consider getting a plant instead because they’re lower maintenance and it is mutually beneficial. 🙂
- Cloud watching: Remember doing this as a kid and picking out what animal shapes the cloud resembled? Well, did you know this can be a form of mindfulness and a way to turn off the sympathetic nervous system? The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our flight, freeze or fight response and this system is on for a majority of the time unless you intentionally partake in exercises designed for you to be present. Cloud watching fits the description for this, even if only for a few minutes. Cloud watching also boosts creativity, promotes good eyesight (by practicing watching objects at a long distance), and provides a slow and calming activity of rest. If you’re not a fan of meditation, try laying down and looking up at the clouds!
- Hiking: Navigating a trail helps to improve our brain’s proprioception. Our brain’s proprioception is responsible for spatial awareness and being mindful of our surroundings. A trail is not predictable and as such it helps your brain make the micro and macro adjustments needed to finish the trail. Hiking also encourages feelings of awe where you begin to feel so small surrounded by larger matters of life and as such it helps to alleviate rumination and it cultivates gratitude. Being a physical activity, it helps to promote good cardio-vascular health while also releasing endorphins, which are designed to make us feel happier and re-energized. As a bonus, hiking can be a great social outing with your friends where you will spend less time on your phones (because you have to watch where you’re going) and more time connecting.
Though life will continue to be unpredictable and flexibility is needed to meet its day to day demands, it is important to remember that we were not meant to be tied down to constant screen stimulation. Humans are meant to make connections, foster growth, and find multiple ways to nurture and challenge ourselves. By intentionally setting aside time to connect with nature we can treat it as a reprieve to our busy lives. If we can find 20 minutes to scroll through our screens, I am confident that we can find 20 minutes to partake in something that will increase the longevity of our mental health.
Diana Nesko, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment with Diana!