We’ve always got our phones on us. Which means we’re always available.

And this state of “always being on” is causing us stress.

The non-constant phone checkers are experiencing average stress levels of 4.4 out of 10. And the constant checkers among us are experiencing even higher levels of stress of around 5.3 out of 10, according to the American Psychological Association.

But why are phones increasing our stress levels?

Virgin Care Clinical Psychologist and National Lead for Positive Psychology, Dr Vikki Barnes, thinks our smartphones are stressing us out for two reasons:

- We’re constantly on our phones, and it means we’re not engaging as much with the world and people. This means we’re becoming more isolated, and as human beings, we benefit from social and relational interactions, because they make up a big part of our wellbeing.

- The content we have coming through on our phones has the potential to be quite negative, and as we’re hard-wired to focus on the negative and find it difficult to shake off, this can affect our mental health.

We asked Vikki some of the questions we all ask ourselves at some point or another when it comes to how much time we’re spending on our phones, including how our habits are affecting our sleep, and how to enjoy social media in a way that doesn’t have a negative effect on our mental wellbeing…

We always have our phones on us, and it’s so easy to turn to our newsfeed, emails and messaging apps when we’re commuting, walking or in-between tasks. And we don’t ever really experience what it feels like to be bored. How can this affect our stress levels?

If we’re constantly getting notifications and flitting between apps and always being distracted, we’re never really being mindful.

Being mindful means fully focusing on one thing at a time, giving it all our attention. And if we’re constantly being distracted, then we’re never really living in the moment. If we never live in the moment, then we can’t experience the state of “flow”, which is so beneficial for our wellbeing. Flow is that state of complete engagement in what you’re doing, losing track of all else, and it helps to reduce stress.

When we’re stressed out, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. Stress is normal and even helpful at times, but we don’t want too much of it. Our body also needs to rest and digest, so we need to let our parasympathetic nervous system get a look in too – this is the calming system.

Even if we’re enjoying our phone time, this is still creating a form of stress in us as our bodies experience spikes in physiological and emotional activity. Things like seeing how many people “like” us on Facebook can be exciting - but it can also make us feel like we need to constantly check and update, to not miss out on anything.

A bit of stress is OK and it has its place, but we need to get the balance right.

We’re spending more time socialising digitally through social media and communication apps like WhatsApp instead of having face to face conversations. And sometimes, we even cut ourselves off from the person in front of us for a virtual conversation. How can this affect our stress levels?

Having a text conversation with someone is good for keeping in touch, and it is better than nothing if we don’t have any other option. But we don’t want to lose our ability to socialise with other people in person.

We find a lot of support in sharing our stories or problems – this helps us boost relationships, and having a face to face conversation is physically different because we experience things like eye contact, touch, body language, smiling or laughing.

All these things help us to feel good, and activate that parasympathetic nervous system that’s so important. We just don’t experience them as intensely through virtual conversations.

Positive face to face interactions also increase our levels of oxytocin (the love hormone that we associate with positive experiences). This can help us relax by counterbalancing the effect of cortisol (the stress hormone).

Spending quality time with friends over a coffee can help relieve stress

We often have emails coming through on our phones, and a lot of the time these are work emails, which means we can find it hard to get a good work/life balance. How can this affect our stress levels?

Most people like to separate their work and personal life, because it improves their wellbeing. We can become increasingly stressed if work starts to seep into our personal lives.

If our phones interrupt us with work notifications when we’re at home, then this will add more stress to our lives and our relationships.

We shouldn’t really have a device that means we can’t switch off from work when we’re not at work. Ideally, to work or play should always be a conscious choice that we make.

We’re bombarded with notifications from social media and other communication channels, and this can leave us feeling like we need to reply to every notification straight away. How can this affect our stress levels?

Before mobile phones, if somebody wanted to contact us, they had to knock on our door! It seems old-fashioned but it meant we had our personal space, where we could close the door on the things we didn’t want to see or the people we didn’t want to hear from.

But having our mobiles on us all the time now means we’re always reachable, and we can’t get away for that much needed downtime.

If our phones alert us, we instantly check them. In fact, we touch our phones around 2,617 times every day according to dscout’s qualitative research platform.

It’s good to create a sacred space where we’re not being constantly disturbed, and we’re turning off our mobile notifications at when we can.

Our smartphones are starting to affect our sleep – BMC Public Health found that 23% of men and 34% of women’s sleep had been affected because of their mobile phone. And we’re always hearing how the blue light from our screens stops our body from producing the sleep hormone, melatonin. How can this affect our stress levels?

Not getting enough sleep can cause chronic stress. Even missing just one night of good sleep can affect things like our ability to communicate and make decisions, and it increases our stress levels in the long run.

We need to try and get into a routine where we’re not checking our phones last thing at night and first thing in the morning.

And if we do need to check our phones late at night, then there are apps that put an orange haze on our screens to help cancel out the problems of blue light. 

A man using his phone in bed late at night. This can cause problems with sleep.

We all question the effect social media has on our wellbeing. How can this affect our stress levels?

We can’t help but make upward and downward comparisons when we’re on social media. We see everybody seemingly having a great time, lives that appear better than our own, having lots more fun – and we do end up comparing.

If we judge our lives as not going as well then we become miserable and stressed because we don’t have those things we see others having.

The best thing we can do is to notice when we’re making these comparisons, and realise that social media only displays one side of people’s lives, which isn’t always accurate. Everyone goes through tough times and happy times and in these ways, we’re just like everybody else, no matter what the screen says. Focusing on just one thing that’s positive about our day, every day, can have a profound impact on how we view our own lives and what we have to be grateful for.

We’re so used to having our phones on us and being connected, and sometimes smaller problems like not having any Wi-Fi, running out of battery or losing our phones can bring about stress. How can this affect our stress levels?

Obviously, losing something like a phone or a wallet is stressful because we spend a lot of money on these things and it is added hassle to sort out.

But we lived without mobile phones for a long time. So we can survive. It’s rarely a threat to our survival to not have a working mobile phone for a short time.

If we don’t have Wi-Fi, or our phone runs out of battery (and if it’s not an emergency situation, of course), we can reframe the situation and put things into perspective. Take it as an opportunity to fully connect with the world and the people around us, and do something else that we enjoy.

How do we make sure we’re spending a healthy amount of time on our phones?

One way is to ask the people we’re closest to if they think we’re spending too much time on our phones. Do they ever feel neglected of our time with them, or as though we’re not really listening?

We can all try to do one thing that helps cut back on screen time. Some ideas are: not checking our phone until we leave the house, having a cut-off point for screen time one hour before bed, looking where we’re going when we walk and engaging with people and the world around us as we go, or checking each social media site just once a day.

A couple cooking a meal, which can help relieve stress and minimise screen time

Is everybody likely to get stressed out by their smartphone or are some people more likely to become stressed?

Of course, different people will experience different levels of stress related to their phones. However, most people find technology stressful in some way, because we feel frustrated when things don’t work properly. And we do find it mentally draining to be constantly distracted from what we’d otherwise be focused on.

Can changing the way we think about our phones change how we use them?

We could try thinking about our phones as we would a real person in our lives.

How much time and energy do we invest in it? Would we invest that same amount of time and energy in just one person? Are we happy with the amount of time we spend on our phone compared with seeing people in person?

It might make us rethink how much time we’re spending on our phones and how reliant we’ve become on them.

Why do you think we’re so attached to our phones?

Our phones used to be something we used when we needed them to make a necessary call.

But with technology advancements, there’s so much more available to us now. We can pretty much contact anybody, anywhere in the world. We have multiple social media channels. We can even “follow” celebrities on Twitter, and all of this has become the norm.

We’re excited by everything new that’s offered through our technology, and it’s natural not to want to miss out. The problem comes when new sources of engagement with our phones don’t replace old sources, they just get added. Meaning more and more time is spent interacting with our screens rather than with our immediate surroundings and our loved ones.  

A couple walking out in the countryside, which can help relieve stress and minimise screen time

It’s important to remember that phones can be fun, and the apps and content we engage with on them can be educational and inspiring. Social media, keeping in touch and connecting with people in these ways can all be really positive.

If your phone isn’t having any negative impact on the rest of your life, then great, there’s no need to change anything! But when your phone causes negativity and stress, that’s when you need to become aware of the effect it’s having on your emotional wellbeing. Our emotional wellbeing specialists can help you find a healthy balance.

So now you’ve spent the past five minutes reading this article (most likely on your phone!) take a bit of time to restore the balance. Put your phone away, and catch up with a friend in person. Read a book. Have a bath. Go for a walk.

Enjoy some screen-free time.