You might have a case of mobile madness: Being unable to answer your phone—even when it’s right in front of you—can spike stress and anxiety, finds new research in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
In the study, iPhone users were working on a mentally demanding word-search puzzle when they heard their phones begin to ring just a few feet away. But the participants weren’t allowed to get up from their seats, so they couldn’t answer their devices. As a result, their heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety levels spiked.
People’s performance on the puzzle also plummeted compared to when they completed the task with their phones safely in reach.
“Smartphones put us in an ever-increasing state of hyper-vigilance, where we’re always feeling compelled to check our calls, texts, social media alerts, email, and more,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “This keeps the adrenals constantly activated and cortisol levels elevated.”
And that spike in cortisol—known as the stress hormone—helps explain your increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety, as well a dip in mental performance.
This, of course, doesn’t mean you should keep your phone attached to your hip and never let a text go unanswered, Greenfield says.
“We only have a limited amount of time each day, and heavy use of technology eats away at it,” he says. In fact, once you’re distracted by an alert or a ring on your phone, it can take nearly a half hour to get back to your original task, the researchers report.
You might hate to hear it, but Greenfield suggests blocking off some phone-free time so you can actually get stuff done. That means turning your phone completely off—the buzzing of a vibrating phone can have the same effect as a ringing one.
Start with times when you don’t actually need your phone for productivity purposes, such as when you’re eating meals, spending time with your family or friends, and especially while you’re sleeping. (In fact, stash it in another room for shut eye.)
“At first you may feel some anxiety, but the more you do this, the more that will lessen,” Greenfield says.
Once you feel less uneasy during these times, you're ready to move up: Turn off your phone for several hours at a time during your workday when you need to focus on a specific task, like cranking out that quarterly report.
Finally, schedule certain times of day when you’ll tend to alerts. “If you don’t do this, you could end up checking your phone several hundred times per day,” Greenfield says.
For example, you could plan to view social media during your 10 am coffee break, check your email every 3 to 4 hours, and respond to texts once or twice per day. You will be shocked at how much “extra” time you have.