Saturday, July 7, 2018
Frantic Emailing and Texting: Illusory Anxiety Relief
If you find yourself like me—compelled to check texts and emails at regular intervals to ensure sanity—consider the complete absurdity of the practice.
Frequently looking at your mobile phone, frantically searching for whatever new messages may have arrived, usually represents a useless, illusory method for anxiety-reduction.
Sadly, we humans sport an evolutionary propensity towards anxiety. Having only organized into civilization around 5000 years ago, our DNA still sports genes remembering predators at every step. Hyper-arousal associated with anxiety protected us. Listening to every sound, scanning the world before you, and otherwise preparing yourself for danger kept your ancestors alive.
That’s why you’re here.
That’s why, for the most part, you’re anxious.
Nowadays, we in the developed world anyway tend to absurdly map our genetic anxiety propensities onto our devices.
They are so convenient.
We even project the remaining anxiety, that nasty existential angst, too, onto them.
Bizarrely then, those stupid machines also host our standard human concerns like aloneness, meaninglessness, death and responsibility.
Much to the irritation of my family and friends, I have my cell phone set on permanent silence.
I don’t want to jump every time I hear a sound of some type.
Most people seem to need those sounds shouting at them continuously, summoning them, they believe, to something important, crucial, urgent.
If you think about it, though, these tones rarely actually call us to anything truly important.
You’d know a true emergency for sure.
Perhaps you’d smell the smoke of your apartment or house burning, or feel the ground trembling beneath you in an earthquake, or hear your phone ringing incessantly in case a true emergency strikes a loved one.
If aliens really invaded the earth, you’ll hardly need your computer, voicemail, or cell phone to inform you.
Meanwhile, the extreme focus on devices, with anxious alarm, represents an excellent example of the concept of “binding” anxiety.
We cannot stand the simple angst of living, let alone fears your boss hates you, your boyfriend plans to leave you, the freckle on your hand is actually a melanoma, or (oh shit) you forgot to file your tax return last year.
Therefore, we look for a way to ground the anxiety, to bind it like a book.
Although my devices are nicely silence, I continue to feel compulsively driven to run through these various forms of communication to make sure “all is ok.”
It is entirely absurd.
Only rarely—literally every few years or so—do these rituals reveal anything real suggestive of a catastrophe. And yet they provide a focus, a type of orange-juice-projection-concentrate, allowing for bogus (but experienced) anxiety relief.
After checking my voice mail, email, and texting every morning and evening, for example, I experience some variation of peace.
It seems all is alright.
I can proceed as planned.
Moments like this second, though, when relaxing in an environment with little structure, I find the ritualistic, absurd nature of the practice nearly overwhelming.
It brings Taosim to mind.
Verse 29 of the Dao Te Ching reads, in part:
Allow your life to unfold naturally.
For those of you willing to face your fears head on—real or imagined—I’d suggest avoiding these various methods of grounding or binding anxiety.
You’ll feel the fear unbound.
Perhaps you will then take more notice of the moment.
So much of what we fear is imaginary.
The more you breathe in the air, smell the fragrances, taste your food and drink, and feel the sofa or bed beneath you, the better.
As for me, these remain aspirational goals.
Just before posting this, before the final edit and read-through, I checked my telephone messages, glanced at the texts on my phone, and reviewed my emails.
I’m enjoying the illusory peace right now.
But at least I’m immersed in the absurdity of it.
Perhaps I’ll appreciate the cooler air up here tonight, or the fresh Northwestern sushi, or the feeling of love and connection, or the sounds of the wind through the trees.
One can only hope.
In the meantime, we probably should strive to live in the moment.
It’s literally all we truly possess.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP