Want to Live Longer and Be Healthier? Put Down Your Phone

Well if this doesn’t encourage you to embrace digital minimalism, I don’t think anything will.

According to Catherine Price writing in The New York Times, our phones are threatening our health and potentially shortening our lives.

“By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives,” she writes.

This goes beyond the dopamine addiction often cited as a reason for our addictive behavior toward those little chunks of technology in our hands. Price is talking about a primal biochemical reaction relating to cortisol.

“Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone,” she writes. “Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.”

In our modern world, most of us aren’t faced with daily physical threats. The tiger lurking around the next tree is more likely to be digital in nature.

“… our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss,” Price continues.

The problem with our always-on culture is there is no escape from these bio-chemical effects as long as we are engaged with our phones. And even when we aren’t, just having them nearby triggers a compulsive stress reaction to check them.

Your cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear it or even think you hear it,” David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, said to Price. “It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away.”

And the cycle begins.

“Any time you check your phone, you’re likely to find something else stressful waiting for you, leading to another spike in cortisol and another craving to check your phone to make your anxiety go away,” Price explains. “This cycle, when continuously reinforced, leads to chronically elevated cortisol levels.”

Is this simply the price we pay for being digitally “enhanced” humans? Given the serious health implications of elevated cortisol – and its role in depression, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, even fertility, dementia and stroke – the risk is massive. The price is far too high.

“Every chronic disease we know of is exacerbated by stress,” said Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Hacking of the American Mind.” “And our phones are absolutely contributing to this.”

“Impairment of the prefrontal cortex [one of the physical impacts of cortisol in our brain] decreases self-control,” Price notes. “When coupled with a powerful desire to allay our anxiety, this can lead us to do things that may be stress-relieving in the moment but are potentially fatal, such as texting while driving.”

That’s the bad news. Fortunately, Price offers some solid suggestions for breaking the cycle, but it takes awareness and willingness to make it happen.

“Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to create healthy boundaries with devices that are deliberately designed to discourage them,” she concludes. “But by reducing our stress levels, doing so won’t just make us feel better day-to-day. It might actually lengthen our lives.”