Driven to Distraction

Among the things I’m anxious about in the world today, the prospect of technology advancing beyond our ability to control it ranks pretty high.  I guess there’s an argument to be made that “technology,” broadly defined, has already done irreparable damage to the planet, and that the present is just as worthy of our anxiety as the future.  I mean, the oceans are currently full of plastic garbage, we’ve decimated wildlife populations and wiped out entire species, and then there’s the fact that the guy with his finger on the nuclear button is, well… you know.  Everybody knows (or should know) about these things, and it doesn’t take someone with an anxiety disorder to succumb momentarily to terror over each of them.  But for me, with my OCD, just the new technology that’s available to the consumer in the 21st century, used even in its intended manner, jacks my anxiety way up before you even get to the scary thoughts about those other scary things.

With the advent of smartphones, the sheer volume of information available to me instantly, always waiting for me in my pants pocket, has created a situation where my tendency to “research” my OCD thoughts, and to be hyper-vigilant about every possible threat, can lead to either an all-consuming swirl of terrible angst, or just a feeling of general disconnection and numbness.  Neither of which are helping me live my best life.

When I was young, and the internet was of limited utility, my “research” around my Pure O thoughts had to take place at an actual library, where I’d have to actually read books of philosophy or history to “help” me answer the unanswerable questions that plagued me.  It goes with out saying that these questions are unanswerable for a reason.  I suppose someone who studies history or philosophy because they have a genuinely inquisitive nature could find this experience enriching, but if you’re like me, and your only goal in all your studying is to desperately find a way to ward off horrific anxiety, and this effort always fails, then it’s just bad news all around.  Of course, once we approached the turn of the century, and the nature of my “research” went from analog to digital, and I no longer had to leave the house to find myself stuck in an OCD loop…. well, that was really something.

My pattern of Pure O anxiety was pretty straight forward.   1) I’d stumble on to a piece of information that was scary and made me feel like I wasn’t safe.  2) My autonomic nervous systems would send a burst of adrenalin shooting from what felt like the base of my neck down into my extremities, which felt like hot lava was burning my body. 3) I’d try to revisit the original upsetting thought and convince myself it wasn’t true.  4) I’d fail to do that.  5) I’d search for “proof” that I don’t need to worry.  6) I’d never find it.  7)  Now I’m sporadically re-triggering myself and experiencing another burst of lava.  It was always rinse, lather, repeat, usually for several days.  Sometimes weeks.  Sometimes months, although rarely a whole month would go by without some sporadic intervals of peace.

Anyway, now that I’ve identified my propensity to “research” as the incorrect way to ease my OCD doubts, (and the perfect way to keep them churning), I’ve been able to hold off on some of the more frantic internet research that was driving me insane in the early part of the ‘aughts.  I know to short circuit this cycle early by just feeling the lava from being initially triggered, but then assigning no specific meaning to this particular bodily response, and to resist my urges to “prove” the thought that triggered it wasn’t real, knowing that process is always a fool’s errand that will only make the thought harder to vanquish.

But, even stepping back from the brink of the more extreme effects the internet has had on my condition, I’m still faced with the fact that my strategy around anxiety, and the way I engage with life in general, has always been to eschew actual face-to-face interaction with people (which involves vulnerability and risk), and to just retreat into a cocoon where I’m passively absorbing information, (news, sports, politics, pop culture, trivia) and dancing through all of it in my mind all day, every day.  Obviously giving me a smart phone put this impulse on steroids.

My therapist says this is one of two strategies people with anxiety disorders can use to soothe themselves.  Another one would be to wall yourself off from any source of potentially disturbing information, and block out the news completely so as not to stumble onto anything scary.  Many people do this.  Of course, the strategy I use is to take in a constant stream of information all the time, drawing it in and collecting it the way a baleen whale filters plankton out of the ocean.  The idea is that if I “know” everything already, and if I’ve already anticipated every bad thing that could happen through relentless study of the environment, I will be prepared, and able to avoid the worst things that might happen.

Anyway, both of these strategies are garbage ways to go through life, but I’m stuck with my specific one.  And when you’re me, and you have a smart phone that can give you that hit of sweet, soothing, “research” dopamine, anytime, anywhere, as I and everyone else do now, you will find that a kind of hyper-vigilance and permanent distraction, and the complete emotional exhaustion that results, will quickly become your new normal.

Obviously, for these reasons, I have a love-hate relationship with my phone, the internet, social media, tech companies, and the news media.  These things bring me lots of pleasurable self-soothing in the short term, but in the long term they’re making my synapses fire like an AR-15 all the time, and making it hard to spend long stretches of time in the world that I don’t experience through a screen.

In theory, there’s a future that we could build where the tech companies were not incentivized to have us “maximize engagement” with our devices, and the world’s information intake could return to a pace that anxious and neurotypical people alike could handle more comfortably.  And I can’t always be 100% enraged at the internet as a whole for what it’s brought to my life, either.  It was the act of reading someone’s blog post on the Psychology Today website that led me to find out that what was actually going on in my head was a manifestation of OCD, a mental illness I had previously only associated with people who compulsively count or wash their hands.  I learned I was sick, not someone with the deep, shameful character flaw I had previously believed myself to be.  That was a pivotal moment in my life, courtesy of the internet, and I’d never give it back.  Also, the internet allows me to write this, and to (hopefully) reach out to others who have this condition and to network with them.  These are good things that I can’t deny, and don’t want to overlook.

Still, these things all come with a cost.  And it’s a cost I’m increasingly wondering if I want to keep paying.



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