Situation: You are putting a phone on a night table. Your rational side of the brain is telling you: ‘Lets go to sleep’. You stand up to clean your teeth and all of a sudden a worrying thought visits you ‘Are there any news about the virus I don’t know?!’. Right after the thought fades away, this guy comes in.
You unwillingly proceed to spread a sensation of anxiety all around your body. To stuff the unpleasant emotions down, you grap the phone and check news about Coronavirus: “100 confirmed cases, today” and “Scientists from Osford created a rice calculator.” (I know strange right?)
One hour later; You finally break the chains of mindless scrolling just to realize, that your eyes hurts. ‘Oh no, I did it again’ and another guy comes to visit you.
Yep, you slowly start to enjoy the taste of regret, guilt and it’s so late already, that you even think counting rice grains would be a better use of time.
Hopefully, your room is more empty before going to sleep. However, for those of us with full room and swallowed eyes; Let me give you, the best advice in the world!
“The best advice in the world”
I don’t have one.
Here is the thing. Changing habits is like trying to stop a rolling car towards you in a Bruce Benner form (Hulk reference). You will survive, however you are full of rage right after it.
What I can do, is to shine a bit of clarity into “What is happening?” and suggest a mini-habit to practice. If you are on board, buckle up Brucy, we are going for a ride into unconscious land.
Remember the situation from the start where you felt asleep flawlessly. Let’s investigate, what was happening behind the scenes of awareness.
‘How many new cases did we have today?’
a tiny thought pops up around the time, you should go to sleep. Anxiety starts to tighten your underbelly and clench your jaw while all this is happening unconsciously.
Taking the phone and checking the news.
and mindlessly scrolling through it almost like on autopilot.
‘Ahh, 320 new cases’
feel a bit relieved that you know. However your body sensations are still anxiously colored (trigger) so you go and repeat the scrolling to see the next news (behavior) and feel the reward of finding a new information.
Anxiety -> Scroll -> Relieve happening unconsciously.
That’s the point. It is not like you consciously go and decide ‘Ohh, I am going to spend 1 hour of my time, blasting through news with anxiety just to regret it afterwards. On top of that, the way you solve unpleasant feelings is, you guest it; “Checking the phone again.” This small automatic behavior just repeat itself like me saying a word unconsciously. “Unconsciously!”
Let me beat this horse a bit more for you. (I am sorry animal people. I haven’t come up with this saying. We, people in Central Europe, don’t even have it here. Yeah, we were probably too poor to own horses.)
It is like the moment when you take your booger out right in front of your girlfriend mother while she is eating.
You feel bored (trigger) hunt a dried nasal mucus (automatic behavior after boredom) and celebrate the consistency (reward).
It’s just a u t o m a t i c. (See, I haven’t used the uncon… word.)
This intrinsic ability helps us to automatize behaviors, that we do on every day bases, however disgusting they are. It is there to free our big brain (prefrontal cortex) to focus on something else.
“Okay, so what can we do about it?” Glad you didn’t ask.
Here it is. Ready?
Go and take out your booger!
What? It’s fun, haven’t you seen the mothers face? I am sorry, you are probably here for the sleeping situation, not how to impress future family.
Here is the first step.
Literally that’s what you will be doing. Catching when the trigger for checking the phone arise. Although, in my experience, I am usually past that point of trigger, mindlessly scrolling. That’s, okay if you can notice it. (I usually notice it in a small moment of pause, like loading the app. Small trick: Reorganize your procrastination app icons, it does help to prolong the pause, so you can catch yourself doing it).
This is really important step because without recognizing it, you are truly lost in the scrolling. Okay, so now when you have recognized, that you are in autopilot again the next step is…
2. Do it
This may surprise you but, do the behavior you want to avoid (phone checking) with one slight change. Observe:
‘Hmm, how does it feel, when I am doing it?’
Inquire: ‘Where do you feel the anxiety in your body (belly or jaw)?’ Drop your mind into the body and feel: ‘What is this sensation?’, ’Is it tightness or pressure?’ Allow yourself to be with it.
You may ask. Yeah, it’s that simple, but there is nothing simple about it. What you are trying to do here is to see the actual reward of your behavior which you are overlooking while running on autopilot.
If you think about it, when you are scrolling you are not doing anything more complex than that, in a moment. You are just repeating this simple behavior till 4 am.
What this isn’t
Here is what this method isn’t doing. It is not telling you to go to sleep before midnight and restrict the phone use at least 2 hours before sleep. Relax, have sex and all those stuff that you already know, but don’t have anyone to do with. (“Talk for yourself!” Okay, okay.)
If you do them, great! I am not putting them down. I even use the no blue light policy in a room after certain hour (with somehow mixed results). However this method is not trying to prime your environment or to use any of the rest anti-addiction strategies like will-power (“Today, I’ll go to sleep before midnight!”) and substitution (“Lets eat a cake instead of a phone checking). It is not like you don’t know all of that. It is just hard to stop because of the current inertia of habits.
What this is
What this method give you is a chance to see the actual rewards of the behavior. So after some time observing yourself doing it, you may find that this distraction behavior isn’t that rewarding as your brain thought. The anxiety is still around and I haven’t even started on the next day regrets.
When your brain sees the updated reward value, you can exchange the behavior for a better one without forcing it. This is a crucial point.
Also, It takes some time for your mind to update the actual reward value of scrolling the news. But in the mean time, you can scroll! (That’s a counter intuitive strategy right?)
Just a warning
Don’t skip the ‘doing the behavior you don’t want’ part. It may be tempting to just stop the behavior when you recognize it, however the disadvantage here is that it can come back like a booger joke.
Also don’t force it, if you feel that you no longer wanna to do it. Its not like you would be doing it till 5 a.m. and saying to yourself: “Its for science baby, that’s what I need to do!” No (I see what you are trying to do here), but no!
Maybe after some time of mindfulness practice (I finally unrawelled the lable name), in each scroll you would have a choice: ‘Would I go to sleep now or would I eat the booger’ (See I told you, like a boomerang). Maybe I have a mini-habit to work on too. (I mean, to add more jokes like this)
Sped up suggestion
“I don’t have time for this! I need to wake up tomorrow normally in the morning and be fresh. Not, one week from now!”
Okay, if you want to speed it up, here is a thought exercise. Say to yourself: ‘I choose to spend next half an hour on the phone checking the news with all the consequences’, recall and imagine all the consequences from past experience and wait for the conscience to come.
and listen to him. However as I said before, you would run into the problem; This habit is still here waiting to be triggered.
Inspired by my experience and work of Addiction psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Dr. Jud Brewer. Here is a video of him talking about the sleep and anxiety combo (youtube link).
If you find yourself, reading this article second time, thinking that you know all the theory but you are frustrated of how it all is playing out. I wanna to say:
“Welcome to the human club!”
When the friends of human club like anxiety, regret and pain visits you, just welcome them too. They are just a human symptoms of these times.
Jokes inside, I wish you good luck and take care.
Ohh yes, just a last note. I felt a resistance to gain followers from the corona situation so, if you are thinking to follow me please leave it for next time. Maybe our roads, will meet again in the future (not literally but you know, you seeing my non-corona article). Somebody screaming from behind: ”Nobody wants to follow you!” I know, I know just to be sure.
‘I wonder how does one hand clap sounds like?’ You:“I see what you are trying to do here!” ‘Dammit.’