Reclaim Your Brain

Mindfulness for addiction

Posted Mar 28, 2018

“Sometimes I feel like my phone is my lover, sometimes my BFF (Best Friend Forever), but lately it is feeling like my crack dealer,” Carrie quipped. “I get anxious if I don’t check it every few minutes. And I find that I’m checking it compulsively, even if there’s no need to check. It’s feeling like a bad habit if not an addiction.” She paused. “But it’s worse for my kids. They take the phone to bed, they text in the middle of the night, it’s the first thing they look at when the wake-up. I’ve tried to set limits but they melt down and have tantrums if I do. What do I do?”

In my practice these days, I’m hearing more and more concerns about our growing dependence on our phones. And while our phones make our lives easier in so many ways, people are worried that there is a downside as we are finding that too much technology can be a problem. Many people worry that our phones are controlling us.

  • Tony Fadell, co-inventor of the iPhone and inventor of the iPod says that we have “unleashed a beast.”
  • Most adults are spending 8 plus hours in front of a screen per day, with children averaging over 6 hours.
  • 34% of us have checked Facebook in the last 10 minutes.
  • 80% check their phones the first thing in the morning
  • Nine people are killed each day and thousands are hurt from texting and driving.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle, a renowned professor at MIT, has spent decades researching and studying our relationship to technology. She cautions that it changes who are, how we behave, and our relationships with each other. Parents text and email at breakfast and dinner even though their children are demanding attention. We look at our phones while pushing strollers and while watching children at the playground. We text in the classroom, in the boardroom, and even at funerals. People bring their phones to bed. Often, we would rather text than talk.

In other research, psychologist Jean Twenge has found that teenagers are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, in spite of the illusion of connection.

Tristan Harris, a former product manager at Google, critiques the way that Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram draw us into their products, “hijacking our brains,” often making us feel controlled and manipulated. He suggests that we need to transform our awareness of how we spend our time. How can we do this? Harris suggests that we block moments that hijack our minds in a way we may regret.

A number of years ago, in this blog space, I created a practice to help with “Screen Apnea.” Now, drawing on the ideas of Turkle and Harris, I have developed a practice that can bring awareness to our desire to reach for our phone. This practice also draws on the work of G. Allan Marlatt, a psychologist who was one of the first therapists to use mindfulness in the treatment of addiction. I am not claiming this is a magic bullet, but it may help us pause, reset, and reflect on how we want to spend our time. Try it and let me know.

The aim of this practice is to help you remember that you have a choice about you where focus your attention. You can control how you relate to technology; it doesn’t need to control you.

Reclaim Your Brain

  • Start by sitting comfortably, taking a few minutes to ground and anchor yourself with your breath.
  • Start by thinking of a recent situation where you wanted to check your phone. Perhaps you were worried about missing out, maybe you were bored, maybe you felt that you needed to respond to a text or an email immediately.
  • Stay with that feeling, and pause right before the feeling peaks, right before you grab the phone. Stay with that wave of desire. Feel it in your body. Try to stay balanced at that edge. Breathe and relax into the experience.
  • Be aware of the sensations in your body. Become aware of what you are thinking. Become aware of what you are feeling. If you feel anxiety rising, don’t worry. Notice the feeling and get curious about it. You can return to your breath if you like.
  • As you observe the moment, watch the intensity of the urge, and notice how if you stay with it may rise in intensity. See if you can stay with the “rising” rather than fighting it or going with it. See if you can ride the wave of your experience.
  • Use your breath as a surfboard to keep yourself steady. Know that the waves will come and go, rise and fall. It’s ok to wobble and to move back and forth as you try to find your balance. See if you can find a dynamic rather than static balance where you feel in charge, in control.
  • Think of the saying, “You can’t control the waves, but you can learn to surf.” See if you can ride of urge of your need to check your phone more than you really need to. Let yourself stay steady as the wave begins to subside and fall. Notice as other things and desires enter your consciousness.
  • Spend a moment reflecting on how you would like to spend your time.
  • Return to your breath for a few moments before ending and returning to your day. Return to this practice whenever you like, but with kindness and compassion. Changing habits is never easy. See if you can find a balance that works for you.

But what about our kids? If we can’t regulate ourselves, how do we expect them to do so? I find wisdom in the following story about Gandhi. A woman embarked on an arduous journey to take her son to get advice from the sage. They travelled on foot for days, in extreme heat, to speak with him. After waiting in line for many hours her turn finally arrived. “Sir, my son is eating too many sweets and it is making him sick. Please tell him to stop.”

“I cannot help you now, you need to come back in a month,” Gandhi replied.

The woman and child returned to their village. The next month they made the same arduous journey and waited hours in line to speak to Gandhi.

“Sir, I have returned as you requested. Please help my son. He’s eating too many sweets and it is bad for his health. I can’t get him to stop.”

“Young man,” Gandhi said looking directly into the young boy’s eyes. “You need to stop eating sweets. It is not good for your health.”

The woman was dumbfounded. “But why couldn’t you tell him this a month ago? Why did we have to make this long, arduous journey, and stand in line for hours again?” she demanded.

“Madam, last month I was eating sweets. I had to know that I could change my ways before advising your son to stop.”