There are various ways that technology interfaces with mental health. There are positive influences such as meditation apps, anxiety meters, sleep trackers, communication tools, trauma healing technology and more. And there are negative aspects, such as too much screen time, trying to have important conversations via text, over-relying on stimulation and media to relax, etc.
In this article we will discuss how you can harness the positive aspects of technology to improve your mental health and relationships while minimizing the negative aspects.
Technology has significantly enhanced the way we communicate with one another. Cell phones facilitate near-constant connection, texting allows for quick, efficient messaging and we can respond to messages at our leisure rather than have to pick up the phone when it rings. While technology can facilitate greater connection through speed of messages and staying in touch throughout the day, it can also negatively impact connection.
Texting is typically not the best medium for sensitive conversations, due to the inability of the nervous system to measure body language and tone of voice, critical cues that give important information about intent and context. Communicating via text, phone and even video leaves out at least half the information our nervous systems need to process connection with others. Learning how to interact comfortably with others face-to-face, in a way that includes eye contact and maybe even touch, is important to developing healthy, connected relationships and a solid sense of self as well, considering how much of our self-confidence rests on our connection with others.
Technology that is used to aid in trauma healing can be helpful depending on how it is used. When we are recovering from a traumatic event, like an accident, or a loss of a loved one, we benefit from the presence of warm, empathic, trusted people we can lean on. In that context of supportive human connection, there are some trauma-healing technologies that can speed up the healing process. One such technology is EMDR, which stands for “eye-movement desensitization reprocessing.” Francine Shapiro developed this form of therapy to support her clients in healing from trauma and distressing life experiences by helping the brain process upsetting memories and emotions. With extensive research to back it up, EMDR is recommended by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Over the course of several sessions, clients can focus on specific memories where they feel overwhelmed while a therapist guides sets of side-to-side eye movements, sounds or taps. These sets of eye movements allow the brain to process them in a way that naturally supports healing. Clients notice fewer negative beliefs or unresolved emotion around traumatic events and memories and more support in taking action towards more meaning and fulfillment in their lives.
It seems odd to combine technology with meditation, but for some people, guided meditation and relaxation apps can facilitate learning how to calm anxiety and focus the mind. You may not have formal or extensive meditation training, and apps can help you reach a deeper and calmer state of mind than you may be able to achieve by yourself. Second, apps can cut through the noise of a busy day by helping pull you out of the stressful grind at key times.
For example, you can turn on a guided meditation in the morning to help set a focused and calm mindset for the day, or at night before bed to relax your nervous system and prepare for sleep. Guided meditation apps can help you learn how to relax, focus and meditate so that you can eventually hold your own and practice without the support. Some resources we recommend are Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer and the self-compassion downloads offered by Dr. Chris Germer on his mindfulselfcompassion.org website.
Technology can help you understand your body and physiological processes in order to better optimize them and operate within a healthy range. Sleep trackers include your smartphone, apps, smart watches and the popular — but expensive — Oura rings. These trackers can help you understand the duration and quality of your sleep cycles and how much deep sleep you’re getting.
Deep sleep improves memory, increases emotional resilience and reduces anxiety. Technology that can help you track and manage anxiety include pulse oximeters, HRV (heart rate variability) monitors and neurofeedback. If you would like some support learning how to track anxiety and stress, you might seek out a professional that can orient you as to the best options.
While technology can help us lead healthier lives, it is important to remember that our nervous systems evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and are not yet fully accustomed to the information age. Every now and then — perhaps once a day — you might carve out time to be still, quiet and just do nothing in a peaceful environment. By reducing stimulation, you help train your brain to adjust to a slower and calmer pace of living, which has health benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety and increasing contentment and clarity of mind.
Sometimes, we don’t notice how much stimulation we’re exposed to until we unplug. If you’re able, it can be helpful at times to give yourself extended breaks from the typical media-soaked environments we live in. You might try camping in the woods for a few days, or engaging in a retreat through your place of worship.
There are other emerging technologies that support mental health, such as genomic testing, remote digital consults, VR (virtual reality) coaches and AI-based therapy tools. While the future will likely make use of many of these to assist in promoting our physical and mental health, there is no substitute for the presence of real, compassionate, humans in your life. Our brains are far too complex to rely on apps and digital communication alone as support to navigate life’s twists and turns. Our minds and our health reap tremendous benefits from building an engaged, caring friend group and relying on loved ones for emotional support on a regular basis. With that in place, some of these tech tools might be able to further assist you in reaching valuable health goals.
*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling and Presence Wellness, a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to helping you heal, grow, and thrive at life with the latest approaches to physical, mental, and relationship well-being.