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Airplane mode in the name of mental wellness

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Yesterday I ate a bowl of garlic butter salmon, fried egg and greens that I prepped and cooked without actually seeing what I was eating. How did I manage to miss what’s right in front of me? Easy. I had a fork in one hand — and my phone in the other.

It’s hard to eat mindfully, do deep work or just be present with our smartphones around.

But there’s one thing in our phones that can actually help with that: the airplane mode.

The airplane mode, when turned on, blocks connection to cellular networks. This suspends radio-frequency transmissions across cellular, Bluetooth and wifi so that nothing interferes with the airplane’s communication systems. And in turn, we can’t use regular things like Whatsapp, Instagram, phonecalls or text.

We’ve all hit the airplane mode before. Not just on board a flight, but at other times too. To save the battery of our dying phone is one example.

But what if turning on airplane mode helps save our batteries too?

Every Whatsapp ping, email and push notification — it sucks a little of our energy every time we attend to it. We may not realize it, but these things add up. And by the end of the day, we find ourselves mentally exhausted, yet we haven’t accomplished much.

By choosing to airplane mode our devices, we give ourselves a break from the constant cries of things vying for our attention. The never-ending stream of information. The social notifications that strangely have the power to validate our importance in this world.

In fact, as I write this, my phone deliberately placed faced down — with my airplane mode turned ON — to safeguard my attention. Because I know that each time my screen lights up, I would glance over at it. It’s an automatic, knee-jerk reaction.

We want to think that we are in complete control, but the truth is, our attention is completely at the mercy of our smartphones.

We need to protect our focus, take back the reigns. Not via a tech-free wellness retreat in the mountains, but right here, with the airplane mode function — and some self-discipline.

The brain drain

Research has found that it’s not only our focus and energy that’s taking a toll when we work with our smartphones right there beside us.

Our smartphones, in the palm of our hands, hold the entire world. We enjoy the benefits of our constantly-wired world, but we are only beginning to wrap our minds around the cost.

Because there is a price to pay: the brain drain.

In short, the brain drain effect refers to how our cognitive capacity plunges when we use our smartphones while working.

Studies showed that even if we deliberately ignored and didn’t attend to our phone notifications, the pings and notifications alone still significantly affected task performance. Researchers chalked it up to the notifications triggering mind wandering and task-irrelevant thoughts.

Another study from the Journal of Social Psychology found that even the mere presence of our phones was enough to disrupt performance at brain-taxing tasks. Our phones don’t even need to be pulsing with push notifications. It just had to be there, ready to ring.

This means that we are essentially sabotaging our own performance when we work with our smartphones in our line of sight and within reach — on or off airplane mode.

It shouldn’t surprise us, since we already know that human beings are built to have finite capacity for cognitive processing. At any given time, our brains are capable of attending to a small and limited amount of information. That’s why our brains do such a great job of filtering things out that are unimportant to us to avoid overwhelm.

Paradoxically, we use our phones to do more but we accomplish less.

We’re all dopamine “drugged”

We interact with our phones on an average of 85 times a day — including immediately upon waking, just before sleeping — and even in the middle of the night. If you think about it, that’s an awful lot of time and attention we’re giving to our smartphones.

In fact, there is growing literature that shows that we might collectively have a smartphone addiction. Similar to drug addictions and non-substance addictions like gambling, our smartphones have similar effects on neurotransmitters mechanisms in our biochemistry — particularly dopamine.

Dopamine is the key driver of all addictions. The main difference between behavioral addictions and drugs is that there is a system of reward through the senses here, while drugs directly stimulate the dopamine circuit.

That first bite of delicious food, after we work out, after we have sex.

These things give us a hit of sweet, sweet dopamine that acts as positive reinforcement and controls our future behavior.

Facebook, according to former VP of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya, is built on psychology that creates a feedback loop of dopamine. He said, “The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Other smart people — scientists, psychologists, computer engineers — have specifically engineered social media in a way that fosters compulsive behavior. Tapping into the science of how we are wired, they have created apps that trigger sort of a feeding frenzy for social media reactions, interactions and keep us on the app.

This explains why we get lost in the rabbit hole of social media way too many times. For more on this, watch the documentary-drama The Social Dilemma on Netflix that explores this thread if you haven’t!

We’ve all been there — we open up Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, thinking we’ll just take a quick 5-minute break. Before we know it, that 5-minute break has morphed uncontrollably into 30 minutes. An hour. A whole afternoon.

And that’s exactly what its creators intended.

While our smartphones are the vehicle, the true dopamine drivers are these social media and communicative apps created with the intention to get us hooked.

Nomophobia and emotional instability

This smartphone addiction has also given rise to another modern-day disorder: nomophobia. A portmanteau for “no mobile phone” and phobia, nomophobia is when one suffers from “separation anxiety” when his or her phone aren’t with them.

Here’s what symptoms of nomophobia looks like:

  1. Spending considerable amount of time on a smartphone, always carrying a charger along
  2. Feeling anxious and nervous at the thought of not being able to use your smartphone
  3. Looking at the phone constantly to see if messages or calls have been received; experiencing “ringxiety”(phantom vibrations or ringing of the phone)
  4. Keeping the phone switched on 24 hours a day
  5. Preference to communicate on the phone instead of face-to-face interactions
  6. Incurring great financial expenses from smartphone usage

In fact, many of us have probably experienced the phantom vibration syndrome —auditory and tactile hallucinations that our phones are abuzz. Or mistaken the ringing of other people’s phones as our own, and we anxiously check it. I know I have.

Research also found that excessive use of mobile phones is associated with emotional instability, suggesting that “the use of smartphones could be an attempt at mood repair, as pacifiers for the unstable individual distracting him or herself from the worries of the day and providing solace, albeit temporarily, from such concerns.”

If this sounds eerily like you, being mindful that you’re using your phone as sort of an escape from daily life is a good first step to break out of this.

Turn on airplane Digital Detox mode

Screen addiction is now discussed as a global health issue and there’s no clear answer for what it means for our mental health. Dopamine drugged and bombarded by constant notifications, our minds are weakened. Exposed.

It’s time for us to really take a hard look at our relationships with our smartphones and be honest with ourselves: are our smartphones causing us more harm than we realise?

Truth is, the airplane mode’s too good to be used only when we’re flying. It’s secret code for digital detox on the ground, in today’s wired world. And we need it more than ever.

Personally, I’m trying to go into digital detox mode an hour or two before bedtime, and in the early morning before work hours. I do it overnight too, because let’s be honest: no one’s going to call me at 3 a.m. and if they do, they would probably face my wrath.

I use the digital detox mode in circumstances like:

When I’m writing or doing deep work

When I’m journalling

When I’m sleeping

It’s almost as if digital detox mode’s created a forcefield around my phone, so that nothing comes through. It allows me to shut out the external world so I can focus on what I want to focus on at this present moment.

It’s one of the best tools we’ve got in this hyperconnected world to safeguard our focus, our productivity and our mental sanity.

Other things I personally use:

  • Set up a Gmail filter so you only see email notifications that you want to see. Because I worked at a clinic, I had appointment booking emails buzzing my phone for the longest time and once I set this up, it immediately made me feel lighter.
  • Turn off social media notification on your phone for God’s sake. They are not urgent and what’s the point of leaving your mind in the mercy of other people’s likes, comments and opinions?

Digital Detox Mode → ON

So, turn on digital detox mode sometimes.

Take a walk in your neighbourhood without pulling out your phone every now and then, safe from Whatsapp and push notifications pinballing on the lockscreen. Get reacquainted with yourself and the real-life, physical world — free from the dopamine hits of text messages, hearts and pings.

As Marcus Aurelius said, “the only way to find peace and thrive is to take breaks from the world and make time to regularly renew ourselves by reconnecting with ourselves.”

Silence the phone, quiet the mind. You may just find the change sublime.

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