Stress: The human cost of technology

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Headline following Marathon bombing

WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 12, 2014  Elevated stress and tension are sometimes the price of technology.  When human beings become fixated with having all the updated information there becomes an overload of sensory stimuli including images, text and integrated multimedia.  In times of national emergency people stay connected to sources of information like CNN, the Washington Post, or other national media source.  Arguably, this can save our lives and bring us valuable information and needed instruction at times of national crisis.  At the same time, the tethered tie to technology reinforces adrenaline junkies like never before.

Prior to culmination of last years terror attacks in Boston, readers and television viewers alike may have been glued to their internet devices waiting on every new post of information.  Meanwhile thousands of people took to the twitter feeds and other social media to post their impressions and notify the world that their tiny digit footprint was alive and well in cyberspace and on the ground.  All the while, they white knuckle their smart phones posting and tweeting with hope of reaching someone who might regard their importance and be mindful.  Unfortunately, there is a price to be paid when this type of sensational event occurs.  The human  body reacts each time a flurry of tweets is released with alarm, threat, grief, and satisfaction.  The human interpretation of these stimuli have the power to create dramatic physiologic changes in the autonomic nervous system.  These lead to insidious, heightened autonomic arousal, increased blood pressure, anxiety and perhaps burn out.

Pavlov had it correct when he described how rewards shape human functioning and how frustrated animals become neurotic trying to gain some fickle reward.  Behavior is molded through a series of subtle reward and punishment protocols.  Rewards result in an increase in behavior.  Punishment will cause a behavior to become less frequent and eventually extinguished. In 2014, the  ‘need to know’ is rewarded by having immediate access to information.  This is a good thing.  Web sites that falter or offer old news are forsaken for the more instantaneous text and images – like old magazines.  Media outlets have taken to social media to access this demand by offering immutable news snippets in the form of tweets or other posts.  If this information is accurate and reliable people will listen (or read) in great numbers.  But this can go too far when people overdose on social media.  For a variety of health reasons it is often a good idea to turn off your digital ping and allow yourself some old fashion quiet.  Relaxation is something that comes when the body quiets itself and slowly resets the baseline axis of autonomic arousal.

The fight/flight mechanism that keeps us on guard plays a primary role on how people feel after episodes of high stress.  Feelings of frustration, lack of focus, chronic fatigue, and even depression can result from an over reliance social media stimuli like an unfed addiction.  Each time information about the Boston Marathon bombing was released people began filtering a barrage of data being generated – some reliable and accurate and some distorted and confabulated.  How many times did we refresh the screen on our smart phones only to see that same header and feel frustrated or angry at the snail’s pace of new information?

People asked “what should we tell the children” when referring to the bomb blasts in Boston.  Television had taken over the airwaves with live broadcasts.  For several days before the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the Boston metropolitan area was closed down making it seem like a ghost town.  Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick asked for a voluntary closing of business including the shut down of public transit, buses and trains.  People began to feel the loss of freedom so common in other places on the globe like the West Bank, South Sudan, and now Syria where people live in perpetual fear of violence, torture, and persecution.  But this was occurring on U.S. soil in a vibrant city on a day where thousands of visitors were running a race for as many causes as you can realize – and perhaps some personal cause of freedom.

Experts finally agreed that the best response would be to turn off the television and allow kids to process what they may have seen.  There come’s a time when the technology begins to overwhelm.  Too much stimuli results in the over abundance of stress hormones that can trigger physical discomfort and interfere with sleep, cardiac rhythms, mood, and needed rest.

The long-term consequence of technology is unclear.  The human cost is measurable in terms of information overload and digital dump.  Some believe our brains adapt to the instant gratification of social media and develop a graving for the deluge of tweeted stimuli or some instagramed image.  Slowly, the body learns to habituate the barrage of stimuli selecting only that which is most novel or unique using a form of cognitive triage.  In the process of habituation people seek more and more stimuli to raise the digital threshold for avoiding boredom, stagnation, and falling prey to yesterday’s news.

People who grow up in war zones demonstrate a similar malfunction in their system of arousal marred by hyper vigilance due to perpetually imploding stress hormones.  This is the result of chronic exposure to unpredictable chaos and the stress associated with a lack of control.  Neuroscientists can now pinpoint the impact of stress on hardwired changes in the brains of children growing up in places without lasting peace.  Social scientists attribute similar developmental mechanisms to the cognitive behavioral underpinnings of children exposed to severe domestic violence.  Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health.  Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional Molotov created by chronic stress.  Why would healthy people create an unhealthy lifestyle in the absence of uncontrolled calamity?  If the dynamic of 24/7 connectivity adds to our health woes than its seems intuitive that we would cut down on our hunger for apps and need for the unending adrenaline dump created by this technology.

What will become of quiet space, solitude, and the capacity to be alone?  There is nothing more irksome than someone walking through a grocery store while chatting on a cellular phone as if she were alone in a comfortable study – laughing, telling personal stories, perhaps arguing with a detached spouse.  As much as I glare at that person – willing them to choke on the gum they seem compelled to chew, they seem totally oblivious of my overt distaste for them.  This person can not be alone even for the time it takes to procure items for the nightly supper or the few needed toiletries for an upcoming trip about which we shoppers heard tell.

To be alone and to experience alonness is a healthy function.  The loneliness felt by many can drive the unquenching thirst for data, information, and the perception of connection that comes with a digital age and the feelings of angst at not getting pinged.

Dr. Michael Sefton is a psychologist and police sergeant in New Braintree, MA .  He along with 3 colleagues published a psychological autopsy on the Dexter, ME domestic violence homicide from 2011 and presented the research before the Domestic Violence Homicide Review Board at the state house in Augusta, Maine in November 2011.

5 thoughts on “Stress: The human cost of technology

  1. Hi Mike,
    Loved your article. I live for my alone time. Especially hiking in the woods with my dog. Glad to hear your still around.
    Cindy

      • All this constant communication that people think they need in their lives just seems to use up valuable time. I can’t help but think when the younger generation are on their death bed they will wonder where there life went. All this stuff takes up so much time and before you know it life has passed you by. It’s better to experience life in person.
        Have a great day. Saw some Robins yesterday at Rutland State park.
        Cindy

  2. This is a significant start to a very important area of interest and research – work that could be further expanded to a seminar or topic of discussion not only for those in management fields but for schools. Parents should also be reading Michael Sefton’s points of concern.

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