The hidden stress of cell phones

Feb. 6, 2018

people looking at their smart phones

Most of us would probably wager that we use our cell phones a bit too much. What we may not know is how cell phone use affects us.

Recent studies suggest Americans unlock their phones an average of 100 to 150 times a day. Whether that’s to check the time, send a text or Google a fact, each interaction can cause stress.

“It might be said we are addicted to being distracted,” said Victoria Strohmeyer, a registered psychotherapist with UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “When you check your phone or hear an alert, you activate your sympathetic nervous system, the part of your body that’s always scanning the environment. It gives you a little shot of adrenaline for every interaction.”

That adrenaline, which is meant to trigger your body to pay attention, sets off a cascade of chemicals that increases heart rate, pulse and muscle tension, and shunts energy from the brain to the muscles.

“It will take five to 30 minutes for your body to get back to baseline after every one of these alarms,” Strohmeyer said.

Which is a problem in a world where cell phones rarely stop.

“Essentially, people don’t ever come back down to baseline,” Strohmeyer said. “We have one stress after another after another.”

All that stress wreaks havoc on the body and mind, causing or contributing to a range of diseases, from heart disease and depression, to sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue.

“This stress is increasing to the point where it’s starting to create disease in our bodies,” Strohmeyer said. “So it’s important to find a way to get back to baseline.”

The first step is awareness. You can download a variety of apps to track how often you use your cell phone and what you’re spending your time on.

From there, you can move to acceptance and action.

“It’s important to accept that we live and work in a place where we’re probably going to need to carry a phone,” Strohmeyer said. “Then you can choose your actions rather than blaming the world for these interruptions. Because that’s what these devices are set up to do, to interrupt the heck out of you.”

A key action that Strohmeyer recommends is using your breath before using your cell phone.

“When my phone rings, my immediate reaction is to run across my office and dive for it,” Strohmeyer said.

But she’s made it a habit of first taking a deep breath when she hears that ring. She may put her feet on the ground and move her body a bit and take another breath, all before answering.

The same technique can be applied to any interaction with a cell phone, whether you’re scrolling Instagram or checking prices for a new purchase.

“If I can put that space in there, that pause, that breath, it allows me to relax,” Strohmeyer said. “Then I can pick up the phone and I’m present. I’m choosing, not just diving for every soccer ball that gets hit into my arena.”

Other tips include turning off your phone’s automatic alerts, unsubscribing from email lists and avoiding websites that you know cause stress. While it may be tempting to try to unplug for an entire day, often that goal is unrealistic, so Strohmeyer recommends small steps.

“If I don’t have a plan, I’m just a Ping-Pong ball getting bounced around,” Strohmeyer said. “When I get to the end of the day, I’m exhausted and stressed out because I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish because I allowed these interruptions. But by practicing a few simple steps, you can take back that control.”

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Jan. 29. 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at