addiction

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Freeing Ourselves From Avoidance

By Dr Jasmine Pang

As human beings, we are encoded to survive by avoiding things that are likely to cause us pain, which we have learnt in the past to induce pain or which is stressful or unpleasant: be it that giant spider sitting on the clothing line, that shoulder pain that has been ongoing for a while, or an article that you have promised to write for your upcoming practice newsletter.

In the initial phases, avoidance can work very well. By just using the part of the clothes line that the spider has not occupied, by not thinking about the article I need to write or by working around my sore shoulder, I can pretend that everything is ok and continue on my merry way. We work around it. The problem is that things very seldom remain the same. My resident clothesline spider decides to expand his territory and take up more and more of my clothesline, my shoulder pain worsens to a point that I cannot reach up beyond my shoulder and my practice manager starts sending me “reminder emails” that I cannot avoid anymore. Whilst some avoidance can be a very successful strategy to keep us safe from stressful situations, unpleasant experiences or threats, it can also become counter productive

So what have I learnt about avoidance?

1. Avoidance can be helpful when threats are real. If that spider on the clothesline turns out to really be that gastly dangerous “it’ll kill a grown man within an hour” species that Australia seems prone to having, avoiding it is probably a good idea. We can never totally avoid all the things that we want to avoid. It is seldom that avoidance makes things go away. The spider is still on the line, my shoulder still hurts and the looming newsletter article deadline is still there.

2. Avoidance feeds fear and is an all consuming voracious creature. The more we avoid the greater the problem often becomes. This is particularly so with anxiety. The more anxious I feel, the more I avoid. The more I avoid, the more anxiety I feel. As time goes by, our world becomes smaller and smaller and we feel more and more trapped.

3. Avoidance prevents us from learning that something different can happen or that what we were so fearful of is not as bad as we expected it to be. It prevents us from really experimenting and checking it out, to determine if something is really a threat or not.

What have I learnt to do about it?

1. Acknowledge the problem. We cannot do anything about a problem until we acknowledge it. For me, it was acknowledging that I had a problem in my shoulder (and in all likelihood had torn a ligament), that I was frightened of that spider and that the thought of having to sit down and write an article brought back traumatic memories of writing my thesis.

2. Start small. Be it writing notes on what you’d like to include in the article, finding out about physiotherapists or reading up about whether your resident spider is indeed as dangerous as you imagined it to be. Keep pushing yourself to be at the edge of your comfort zone. Don’t try to aim for the big wins. Small sustainable goals are more likely to get you there. Remember the tortoise and the hare.

3. Get support and help. Having someone to walk you through the journey can be invaluable. It helps give you perspective, keeps you accountable and gives you someone to whine to at the end of the day. This is particularly so if you have been avoiding a situation because of traumatic experiences. Until you stop avoiding, it will continue to intrude in your life and limit you. It might be uncomfortable but keep practicing and trying. Eventually it becomes the new normal.

To quote loosely from Vivian Greene, perhaps life is not about trying to avoid the storms but learning how to dance in the rain. Now excuse me whilst I get a broom to try to relocate my eight-legged friend for the fifth time before I head out for my physiotherapy appointment.

Freeing Ourselves From Avoidance2019-06-11T12:54:47+10:00

Five Screen-Time Life Hacks

Written By Dr Tania McMahon

It’s 9pm. You’re exhausted. You’ve just finished dinner, maybe putting the kids to bed, tidying up around the house and vaguely thinking about what you have on tomorrow, and you have approximately one hour before you drag yourself, bleary-eyed, into bed to get some sleep and do it all again tomorrow. It’s time for some ‘you’ time! What about checking social media for a few minutes before figuring out what you could do to relax?

It’s 10:15pm, you realise with a start, as you peel your eyes up from Instagram and check the clock. “A few minutes” has turned into over an hour, and any time that could have been spent tinkering on that craft project, strumming on the guitar, or pulling a new book off the shelf has now been sucked up by the black hole of your digital device. While you have a vague sense of being mildly entertained over the past hour, you can’t remember exactly what it was you were looking at, and your brain is in a strange state between buzzing with alertness and feeling strangely fatigued. As you scramble to get ready for bed, you can’t help but notice a strange feeling of discomfort, a low-level frustration that something hasn’t been tended to, or you didn’t finish something; a feeling of being left unsatisfied.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Our devices embody an almost perfect solution to temporary boredom: brief, instant entertainment, on demand. Yet when we find ourselves turning to them at every idle moment, day after day, night after night, we start to realise that they are taking us away from all those things we’d “love to be doing more of”, but that take a little more time and effort to get into. And when we do less and less of those activities we value, we fall more and more into the same trap of turning to our digital devices whenever we have a moment of boredom.

So, how do we hack our way out of this digital ditch? Here are five quick tips to get you started:

1. Categorise screen time into ‘work’ and ‘leisure’.

We all know that some screen time is unavoidable – emails, online banking, checking the bus schedule, and so on. However, this ‘necessary’ screen time need not get mixed in with checking social media, playing games, and browsing the web. By mentally categorising each function, app and activity on your device as ‘work’ or ‘leisure’, you can start to build awareness of your use, and then start to make decisions about how much ‘leisure’ time you really want to spend on it.

2. Track your use

Devices have a funny habit of ‘warping’ time while we’re on them, making it seem like only 10 minutes has passed, when it’s actually been much longer than that. It follows, then, that all of us are rather poor judges of how much time we’re spending on them. By downloading an app that tracks your use (popular options include ‘Quality Time’ for Androids and ‘Moment’ for iPhones), you’ll be able to analyse your use over days, weeks and months, as well as look at patterns of use across the different apps on your device. By knowing when, were and how you use your device the most, you’ll be able to set your own personalised goals for what you’d prefer your use to be like.

3. Set regular screen-free times

While everyone’s screen time rules are ultimately going to be different, a good general rule for everyone to apply is to set at least one regular screen-free time. Some choose a screen-free breakfast, so they can connect meaningfully with their family first thing in the morning; some choose the train or bus trip to work, so they can use it as ‘thinking time’; many choose the hour before bed, because of the strong evidence linking screen use before bed to sleep difficulties. The options are numerous!

4. Change your notification settings

Notifications are designed to catch our attention – a red badge here, a blinking light there. The more we see, the more we feel the compulsion to check them, irrelevant of how important or urgent they actually are (and let’s face it, how many times have those notifications been utter time-wasting distractions??). A simple solution to this is to change your Notification settings so that you only receive Push notifications for things you feel are absolutely necessary. Or, be daring and change them all to Manual!

5. Make your leisure screen time as goal-directed as possible

Get into the habit of asking yourself ‘what am I wanting to achieve by looking at my device right now?’ and ‘is this my preferred use of my time right now’? More often than not, you may find that mindlessly scrolling through social media is not your preferred use of your time. Sure, the answers might be ‘I want some quick entertainment’ and ‘yes, as long as I start making dinner in 10 minutes’, but at least it means that you are consciously making that choice, and that you have defined a meaningful limit to your use. That way, if more than 10 minutes go by and you realise you haven’t started making dinner, you know it's no longer a good use of your time.

Dr Tania McMahon is a clinical psychologist with a particular passion for helping people manage their screen usage. Tania often treats internet and gaming addictions at Benchmark Psychology.

Five Screen-Time Life Hacks2019-03-27T16:13:36+10:00

10 Signs That It’s Time For A Digital Detox

Do you find yourself constantly tethered to your devices? Compared to one or two decades ago, you’ve probably noticed that a large portion of your waking life is now spent connected to technology and the Internet. Whether you’re sifting tirelessly through work emails, Googling energetically for an assignment, slaying giant dragons in an online game, or endlessly scrolling through social media on the commute home, you feel continually connected.

The digital revolution has been incredibly beneficial for us; there is more entertainment, more ways to connect, more information and more ways to share it. However, for a growing number of people, use of this technology is becoming difficult to control - and you might be one of them. You might have told yourself “I can stop anytime I want”, or “it’s just something for me to do when I’m bored – at least I’m not drinking or taking drugs”, but then time after time find yourself absorbed in online activities for far longer than you intended.Turn off the internet

Having said that, the amount of time you spend online, in and of itself, does not always indicate whether you have a problem or not. In fact, it can be quite difficult to determine whether your Internet use is problematic, given that so much of your daily life is likely dependent on the Internet; most of your work activities probably require email and Internet access; you might regularly do banking, insurance and other errands online; and social media and instant messaging are often the quickest ways to communicate with your family and friends. For most of us, ‘switching off’ completely would be simply impossible. With so much Internet use being ‘necessary’, how do you know when it’s time to make a focused effort to cut back? When is it time for a ‘digital detox’?

The most important warning sign that something needs to change is when your internet, technology or gaming use starts to interfere with your relationships, work or daily life; in short, when you start to experience negative consequences. Below are 10 signs that indicate that your use might be turning into a problem you can no longer control:

1.     You often find yourself thinking about going online.

Whether you’re waking up in the morning, commuting home, watching TV, or at dinner with friends, you find your mind constantly switches to what you could be doing online. ‘What’s happening on Facebook?’ ‘Has that blog been updated yet?’ ‘What could I post next?’ ‘I wonder if any of my friends will be online to run that dungeon when I get home.’ Online activities start to take up all of your head space.

2.     You find yourself spending longer and longer periods of time online.

A few years ago, you might have sat online or games for 30 minutes to 1 hour before you felt satisfied enough to do something else. Now, 3 hours seem to go by without you even noticing, and you still crave more. You might also notice impatience with Internet speed – anything even slightly slower than what you’re used to causes you the utmost frustration. Think of it in a similar way to the rewarding feeling of substances – if you were a smoker dependent on that instant ‘hit’ from your cigarette, you’d get pretty frustrated if it occasionally took ten times as long to kick in.

3.     You go online to lift your mood or escape your problems.

You probably have a range of ‘coping strategies’ for when you’re feeling low or going through a tough time. However, if you find that you’re constantly turning to the Internet as your primary source of comfort, this may be a sign that you’re becoming reliant on it. Again, think of it in a similar way to substance use – you might pour yourself a stiff drink if you’ve had a pretty trying day, but if you find yourself having a drink every time you feel low, this might be a sign of dependence.

4.     You feel cranky, sad, annoyed or irritable when you’re not online.

Try resisting the urge to go online or game for a day (or even a few hours!) and see how you feel. If you find yourself struggling with any of the emotions above, AND if going back online gets rid of those feelings, it might be a sign that your use is becoming a problem.

5.     You’ve lost interest in activities and hobbies that you used to like.

What things did you used to do before you spent so much time on the Internet or gaming? How much do they feature in your life now? Has the Internet become your sole focus? If you were a bookworm who hasn’t read a book in a year, an avid guitar-player whose guitar is gathering dust, or a budding cook who now relies on microwave meals, this might mean that the Internet has slowly begun to take over.

6.     You neglect your health and sleep because of your Internet or gaming use.

Unlike alcohol or other substance use, Internet and gaming use frequently involve extended sedentary sessions sitting down, often with poor posture. If you find yourself continuing to go online despite being sleep deprived, skipping meals, or suffering back, neck or other physical problems, this strongly suggests it’s time for you to cut back.

7.     You’ve lost or jeopardised your relationship, job or studies because of your Internet or gaming use.

Whether you were given an ultimatum by your partner, you were fired or given a warning at work, or your university or school marks have dropped significantly, putting any of these important domains in your life at risk is a strong sign that it’s time to make some changes to your use.

8.     You’ve covered up or lied about your Internet or gaming use.

You can’t bear the thought of disappointing your friends or family yet again, so you find yourself ‘minimising’ or flat-out deceiving them about how much you’re actually online. For example, you might come home and complain wretchedly about your busy day at work, when you know you spent most of the time browsing websites and YouTube clips. Or, you might say you only stayed up till 1am gaming the previous night, when you know full well you only finally crawled to bed at 4am.

9.     You continue going online or gaming despite it causing problems in your relationships.

Your husband might have complained that he hardly sees you in the evenings anymore; your kids might constantly nag you for attention; or your friends might be fed up that you always turn down their social invitations; yet you still find yourself choosing to go online time and time again. You might find yourself constantly making excuses for your behaviour, e.g. “I’ll be down soon!”, “Everyone should be allowed time to themselves”, or “I’ll say yes next time”.

10.     You desperately want to cut back your use, or you’ve already tried (and failed).

If you’re already at the point where you’ve tried (or frequently thought about) cutting back, this can be a pretty clear sign that your use is becoming difficult for you to control.

Similar to gambling and alcohol use, overuse of Internet, technology and gaming starts to become a serious issue when it interferes with other areas of your life. Whilst Internet use is simply a ‘hobby’ or 'interest' for many of us, a prominent researcher in the field once put it very succinctly saying:

"Hobbies add to your life, and addictions Internet Addictiontake away."

If you feel that your Internet, technology or gaming use is becoming (or already is) the latter, it’s important to seek help. Behaviour change can be difficult on your own, and a qualified psychologist can help you to build your motivation and give you practical strategies to change.

10 Signs That It’s Time For A Digital Detox2019-05-14T11:20:40+10:00

Rat Park – challenging pre-conceptions about addiction

 Many of us remember the addiction story from our under-graduate Psychology 101 class. The story goes that drugs like heroin and cocaine are so addictive that when rats are exposed to them, they will continue to take the drug over food or water until they literally starve to death. So […]

Rat Park – challenging pre-conceptions about addiction2019-03-26T20:10:36+10:00