When was the last time you were somewhere or with someone and really embraced being there? I was lucky enough to be on Chesterman’s Beach near Tofino this summer.  The sound, feel, smell and sight of the surf, sand, sun and milieu of people swimming, surfing, biking, sand sailing, and kite flying was truly amazing! I looked around and saw a couple, sitting side by side, both of them on their phones, reading and texting. One Sunday recently we were riding on a bike path beside the beautiful Bow in Cochrane, sunshine and breeze and the pleasure of rolling along!   Looking up we saw a toddler alone in a bucket swing, arms hanging down by his sides, a young girl probably 5 playing on the equipment alone, and a Dad on the bench at the side of the play area, reading his texts. I’m sure that you have noticed this, unless this new normal is all that you have ever known.  It’s increasingly clear that people of all ages are engaged with their phones, listening to music, surfing the web, texting. Tech has brought us many awesome things, knowledge, connection, entertainment, communication, advice and organization.

It’s also clear that more people are feeling lonely, struggling with anxiety and depression, sleep disturbance, and lack of meaning in their lives and relationships. If you watch people on their tech, they aren’t animated… they seem flat of affect, trance like. I know that this kind of state is very much linked to depression. Many people are in relationship with their technology instead of engaged with their environment, partner, kids, and friends.  Usually accessing tech means looking down instead of up. There is something to this that you may not have considered. Looking down has long been associated with depression. Why else do we describe someone who is depressed as being down cast, down in the dumps, or just down? One treatment, Neurolinguistic Programming even prescribes looking up above the mid line of your sight to access images and thoughts that have more potential and energy.

Once you are depressed, it’s harder to find the energy to engage and thus the potential spiral downward. Depression is a selfish beast, it wants to keep you to itself and leads you to be off food, sex, relationships and physical activity and thus deepens its hold on you. Technology is a big part of why we are struggling today, where it is accessed instead of engaging with the environment and live face to face relationships. Look at all the people on transit, rarely does anyone look around and even when with a friend, often choosing tech as the go to relationship. This divided attention, internal focus is not at all what was intended for all the amazing new inventions we have seen come into our world, but an outcome nevertheless.

I heard an interview with grade 5 students who have developed an app to help kids with social anxiety. It lets them diarize what they are feeling (that no one will read), gives them an electronic therapist (with canned responses) but one good element, a community to connect with (online at least). Certainly well intended but also this is perhaps just using the problem itself to treat the problem?

Being present is more than just showing up. Let’s challenge ourselves, and invite others to join in on renewing relationships. Get eye contact, initiate a conversation, venture out without your phone, actually call someone and talk to them.  Ask your friends, colleagues, family members to set aside their tech and engage with you. Engage with your kids, it’s the most wonderful way to build their healthy brains and to fire up your own healthy chemical reactions. Engaging with the world can feel awkward, intense at times, even risky, but most likely you won’t feel depressed and lonely, more likely you will reap the benefits of being old school “connected”.  Love your tech, and love your environment and relationships as well.

Please call 403 233 2360 or email us intake@cfs-ab.org or go to https://www.cfs-ab.org/what-we-do/mental-health-wellbeing/affordable-counselling/

by Hugh McGeary, MSW, RSW.
Director, Counselling Services, Catholic Family Service of Calgary