Words by Erin, 27 NSW
From the addictive hit of heady dopamine we get from Facebook ‘likes’ to using our screens to escape dealing with our problems – the things we enjoy about our smartphones can be what hurts us the most. There is so much to be thankful for when it comes to technology and social media, yet there is something sinister about the way it buries itself deep in the human psyche.
Before you roll your eyes, this isn’t some technophobic, generation-dividing article about how we need to tune out and switch off. Such lectures are no more helpful than the old saying “turn that off, or your eyes will go square.” This article explains how a lack of control over my usage had detrimental consequences for me.
Like the many-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, my mental health struggles can feel like I am cutting off heads only for others to grow in their places. I’ve always used therapy and mindfulness techniques to deal with anxiety and intrusive thoughts. And yet at some point, an unhealthy coping mechanism still developed. Obsessive thinking became compulsive doing and eventually Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder.
It began by making sure my phone was in my bag before leaving home. Then I started to worry I had lost it after using it throughout the day. Soon this progressed to continuously checking I still had my phone, even if I knew I had just looked at it.
This desperate scramble through my bag every few minutes evolved into also checking what was on my phone. Even if I didn’t hear my message or ring tone, I’d check anyway – just in case my phone had broken.
My paranoia didn’t stop there.
I was utterly trapped in a cycle of checking notifications then trying to ‘find’ them by opening and closing every app individually. At my very worst, this would have to happen a few times in a row until I finally got 5 to 10 minutes of reprieve from my intrusive thoughts.
Then that sick feeling in my stomach would start again.
All of this happened insidiously; my habits went from ‘normal’ phone checking to absolutely out of my control. I had a problem, but I would never have caught it on my own because everyone is addicted to their phones, right? I trivialised my habit as a garden-variety reliance on technology. If my psychologist had not picked up my behaviour as OCD, I would still be trapped in the same cycle today.
OCD is about catastrophic thinking. The ‘worst possible scenario’ becomes your default thought process, and it is terrifying. While those of us with OCD are trapped in our compulsions, the real nightmare is the obsessions. An image enters the mind, and it will not leave. There is no such thing as ‘just don’t think about it’ when it comes to the mental component of OCD. Compulsions become a way of surviving this, and physical behaviours bring relief. The more you obsess over intrusive thoughts, the more you are compelled to do things in response, and doing them reminds you of the thought, so you do them again.
It’s a bully in my head trying to get a reaction out of me, and when it does, it doubles down.
I would panic if I had missed a message from a friend, family member or employer and didn’t reply immediately. In my head that meant they would think I was a terrible human being and cut me out of their life.
I was absolutely terrified of being completely abandoned by everyone I cared about and being alone for the rest of my life.
I was sure this would happen if I didn’t check my socials.
It wasn’t rational to panic that I would be kicked out of home if I didn’t reply straight away to a text from my mum.
It wasn’t logical to start hyperventilating at the thought of missing a message from my boss, and that it meant they were going to fire me.
They were complete overreactions and deep down I knew this, but I was always too anxious to acknowledge it. I could reason with myself all I wanted, but when there is a separate force hijacking your brain and telling it to think something over and over, you start to believe it. You take it as fact, no matter how absurd it is.
Welcome to the hell that is my OCD.
My recovery involved Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I began practising leaving my phone at home. At first, I physically would not be able to get out my front door without it. It was a slow process to learn how to prevent anxiety attacks. The reason for them was still there – I just had to pretend they meant nothing until they finally didn’t. I found a lot of therapy for me is faking it until you make it.
Sadly, I think my anxiety and intrusive thoughts are with me for the long haul, but I’m finally out of the cycle that held me hostage for so long.
Maybe you can recognise some of your behaviour in my technology nightmare. Perhaps you never ride the bus home without checking your phone, or you find yourself still awake, scrolling three hours after getting into bed. This doesn’t mean that you too have OCD (after all, phones are designed to make you look at them). Regardless of whether your attachment is pathological, it is still worth considering how strong the umbilical cord is to your device.
There are ways to help with this attachment; you can leave your phone in a designated place at home and charge it away from your bedside table at night. I found it helpful to turn off certain app notifications and check them at the end of the day.
I know how difficult these things are. Taking two hours away from my phone is an exercise in stress, but I grit my teeth and bear it because that time away from my phone? It’s healing my brain.
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, ones that take up all your time, that need youto react to them and if you don’t something terrible will happen – you don’t have to deal with them on your own. There is information to arm yourself with, factsheets from organisations like SANE Australia and national help lines and websites with people who will listen and are a great starting point to speaking up and asking for help.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc