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Is your phone making you anxious? 6 easy ways to create healthier boundaries

Don’t worry, we’re not going to take your phone away. We’re just going to show you how to use it more wisely.
Your brain doesn’t perceive device time as downtime.
Your brain doesn’t perceive device time as downtime.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

I love my phone. I take little work breaks with my yoga app and my meditation app. I order groceries at 2 p.m. and have them delivered in time to cook dinner. I’m learning Spanish with lessons on an app.

But there’s a dark side to my phone, too. I treat myself to a short social media break that sucks up 30 minutes. I take a “quick look” at my email before bed and a deadline reminder stresses me out. Pointless notifications break my concentration.

Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association (APA), agrees there are lots of positives to device use. “Where we see the negatives are the constant hyperarousal, the constant notifications,” she told TODAY.

The APA studied stress in America a few years ago. “Those who said they were constantly connected to the devices had significantly higher levels of stress than those who said they weren’t,” Wright said.

It seems like there’s an obvious solution — don’t be constantly connected to your phone. But Wright said that while two-thirds of people think digital detoxes are healthy, less than 30% actually do them.

That could be because our phones are designed to be habit-forming. “Psychologists are hired to make a product that’s enjoyable and that people want to use — that’s how they generate revenue. So, there is a drive to make this something that you want to spend as much time on as they can get,” Jon Weingarden, Psy.D., senior program director at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, told TODAY. “That can cause stress if it becomes a problematic level of phone use or it’s drawing away from mindfulness in other areas of real life.”

Here are six ways to cut back on the stress your devices could trigger.

1. Find the right balance with social media

Connectivity can be a benefit of your devices. “We are social beings and connection is important. Not all digital connection is bad. Some of it is genuine, authentic and beneficial,” Weingarden said.

When you are engaging in social media in a proactive way, like posting your own photos and updates and liking and commenting on other people’s posts, social media can create that positive connection.

What’s not so healthy is passive engagement — scrolling without purpose. “Until people disengage from it, they’re not as self-aware of how it might be maintaining stress in a way that they didn’t realize,” Wright said. “Until you become more reflective and introspective about your relationship with your devices, you’re not as aware of what's going on.”

2. Delete influencers if you find you’re comparing your life to theirs

An influencer’s job is to, well, influence you. Influencers create polished profiles with curated pictures that make them look happier, luckier and more beautiful than you. If you don’t like the way someone makes you feel, you don’t have to follow them.

3. Track your phone use so you can make the right choices for you

You might think you know how often and how long you use your phone. But you’re probably wrong. “There’s this clear disconnect between what we interpret as healthy relationships with our devices and what we’re actually doing,” Wright said.

You can use apps like Offtime or Space to track how much you use your phone. And if you find you’re on your phone a lot more than you realize, you can set screen time and app time limits. “That’s a way to not let it slip up because it’s easy to not recognize five minutes here, 10 minutes there,” Weingarden said.

4. Turn off every notification you don’t absolutely need

If your phone is constantly vibrating, or you’re always waiting for a notification or checking your phone, that can affect your mindfulness. “Mindfulness is highly correlated to well-being and stress reduction,” Weingarden said.

Ask yourself what the notifications are adding to your life, and what they are taking away. Do you need all those social media notifications? Do you need to know every time you get an email, or can you check it on your own schedule?

Try setting notifications to alert you hourly, or block off some do-not-disturb time. If this change feels too big, scale back notifications gradually. And remember, these changes don’t have to be permanent. “You can turn them back on. You’re testing the waters,” Wright said.

5. Don’t let your devices steal your sleep

Poor sleep contributes to your stress. So, turn on your device’s blue light filter in the evenings, and limit screen time for 30 minutes to an hour before bed. “Hopefully at least you'll be getting some good sleep,” Weingarden said.

6. Find some downtime activities that don’t involve your devices

Your brain doesn’t perceive device time as downtime. “I think on a neurological level, our brain can’t distinguish between scrolling on the phone and doing something for our job. So, we think that we’re taking a break while we’re scrolling through the phone, but it’s taking a lot of attention and processing power,” Weingarden said. “Even if we feel like we're recuperating, it may not be giving us that benefit.”