By Aliza Dinerstein, LMSW
With mental health awareness on the rise, many individuals are beginning to become more mindful of their internal experiences in day to day life, and the number of adults recognizing feelings of anxiety and depression has reached an all-time high. According to the National Institute of Mental Health 18.1% of the American population suffers from anxiety, and 6.7% of adults in the United States face depression. Even though these statistics are high, there is an even greater number of people with no formal diagnosis or professional treatment who are actually experiencing their own volumes of anxiety and depression every single day.
Multiple theories have been hypothesized as to why today’s society engenders such pathological responses to reality, some suggesting that the bombardment of social media, constant connection to technology, and a fast-paced culture are the antecedents that cause people to respond to life with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and/or depression. These theories may give us a glimpse into certain contributing factors, but no single explanation seems to be leading us directly toward a direct cure. Thus, the question must begin to shift from what has happened in the past to understand what is happening in the present; and from why we became a culture with so much anxiety and depression to how we will begin to fix it.
In psychology, there is a common understanding that thoughts, feelings, and actions make up an interrelated triad of human experience. This notion has led cognitive and behavioral therapists to treat psychological disorders by targeting one specific area, such as a series of thoughts or a pattern of behavior as a means of activating positive change in all other areas of the individual as well. One such technique used in behavioral therapy is called behavioral activation or self-activation and is a highly effective method of treating depression. Simply put, behavioral activation is based on the premise that in order to improve one’s mood and recover from depressive symptoms, one must take active steps, no matter how small, to slowly re-engage in his or her own life. The model of self-activation proposes that when one succeeds in activating or changing a small behavior that allows him to re-enter his own world in a meaningful way, eventually the rest of his thoughts and feelings will begin transforming as well.
So although the aforementioned theories about our present-day society cannot give us direct causational reasoning for the pervasive mental health challenges of today, they all have a very relevant commonality: a root that lies in the engagement with others and disengagement from the self. Perhaps our connection to media, ever-present technology, and our rapid culture is not the issue; rather the problem lies in our inability to turn off the externalities and re-engage with ourselves, even for a few moments a day.
In 2017, the idea of completely rendering one’s self-unavailable to the public for the sake of engaging in his or her own world seems nearly impossible. Rarely any pockets of time remain when it is socially acceptable to be completely offline and unresponsive to the barrage of social media, colleagues, and even friends. With internet connection on almost every street, aircraft, and even subway, there is no longer a feeling of sweet escape when boarding a plane or getting onto the train for work, knowing that when internet service disappears, there is every excuse to take a breath and shut off the outside world for a while.
This brings me to my favorite smartphone feature. Sometimes it only takes one button to trigger a pattern that will re-engage a person in his or her own life, and there’s an app for that. The tiny little switch on my iPhone labeled ‘airplane mode’ has been my ticket to self-activation (and perhaps sanity), every single day for the past two years. It takes a lot of courage to tell the entire universe that you need some time to shut off their requests, opinions, and stresses in order to focus on the area of life that tends to become the most neglected: the self. The theory of self-activation states that it is disengagement from one’s life that perpetuates negative emotional states and the way to remedy these very feelings is to take the tiniest step towards deactivating the world around and reactivating the world within. The choice to deem one’s self-unavailable (even for 10 minutes at a time) may seem insignificant, but it could actually spark the chain reaction that may be the best therapy you’ve ever had.