The relationship between stress and heart disease has been well documented, with the behaviors brought about by stress (smoking, overeating, drinking, lack of sleep) being known causes of heart complications. These days we all seem to be under more stress than we would like to be. A great deal of this comes from the time many of us spend engaged with social media.
A 2016 Pew Report shows ⅔ (or 65%) of US adults use social media. Between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and how many others, we are constantly connected to our families, friends and the world at large. It’s the last one which seems to cause the most stress. We allow ourselves to be emotionally manipulated by complete strangers who post comments we may disagree with. This may cause changes in blood pressure, incite emotional instability, and affect our overall mood. It’s a hard habit to break, though.
Why are we addicted?
News outlets (both reputable and unreputable) know if they bombard us with headlines designed to pique our emotions, we will click through to their websites. For them, this equals increased advertising revenue. These headlines are usually alarmist in nature and use words which evoke an emotional response. Once fully engaged, we continue to the comments for validation of our emotional response from others. Sometimes we find that validation, sometimes we don’t. Many times we find ourselves in a verbal combat situation with complete strangers. Opinions which differ from our own, or are written as to be downright derogatory, inflammatory, and unsettling to our sensibilities can be upsetting. Do this all day, throughout your day, and it can be stressful, to say the least! Never before have people been so connected and so divided at the same time.
There is also the feeling of “missing” something if we are not plugged into the events going on in the lives of our friends, family and the world. We are more informed about the big and small then at any other time in history. We know almost instantly when a world leader has been killed, or when a world leader has said something incredulous. The accomplishments of our friends and family might make us feel inadequate. Vacation pics and scenes of seemingly idyllic lives posted by others could make us long for a life we cannot achieve. Following celebrities could give us a false view of image expectations.
Why break the habit?
The most compelling reason to at least reduce the time we spend on social media is all the adverse effects which can take a physical toll on our heart, our minds, and our overall physical well-being. Stress cues our “fight or flight” response, and most notably it releases a chemical known as cortisol. Cortisol can lead us into dangerous behaviors such as smoking, overeating, turning to alcohol, and losing sleep.
While the CDC reports a decline in smoking rates overall (from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2016), it is still responsible for 450,000 deaths every year in the united states. While many say smoking “calms them down”, it is only in large doses nicotine acts as a relaxant. In low doses, nicotine is a stimulant which can lead to the release of more cortisol in the body. Nicotine on its own is not the biggest risk of smoking, and the chemicals stored in the body as a result of smoking cigarettes is far more harmful than any potential positive effects of nicotine.
Cortisol also can cause us to crave comfort foods which contain sugar, salt, and fat because these foods release dopamine into our system. Dopamine is known as the “feel good” drug naturally released by our body during pleasurable activities. This, in turn, can result in obesity which has a strong link to heart disease. Add to this the fact it’s simple to eat while on social media – whether it’s while on our phones at a restaurant, in front of the home computer screen at 2 in the morning, or on our tablets while sitting on the couch, it’s too easy to snack and read.
When faced with increasing stress, some turn to alcohol for its numbing effect. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction, “Cortisol also has a role in cognition, including learning and memory. In particular, it has been found to promote habit-based learning, which fosters the development of habitual drinking and increases the risk of relapse. Cortisol also has been linked to the development of psychiatric disorders (such as depression) and metabolic disorders.” The biggest danger comes when people have prolonged alcohol use and abuse. This could result in Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy – an enlargement of the heart caused by weakened heart muscles. The weakened muscles are unable to move blood through the heart effectively and it pools in the heart, causing it to expand. Many times the symptoms are slight and it may not be diagnosed until it is too late.
A good night’s sleep is the body’s way to heal. Have you ever found yourself lying in bed before you turn out the lights (or maybe even after you’ve turned out the lights), phone in hand, scrolling through social media, watching YouTube videos, or chatting online? In an article posted by Harvard Health, Dr. Susan Redline, the Peter C. Farrell Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. noted “Sleep-deprived people have higher blood levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, a key player in cardiovascular disease. Even a single night of insufficient sleep can perturb your system.”
When you are up at night, scrolling through social media on a phone, laptop, or tablet, you are stimulating your brain with the blue light waves they emit and delaying sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends ending electronics use no less than 30 minutes, and preferably closer to 2 hours before lying down to go to sleep. Reading a good old-fashioned paper book (or using a device such as the Kindle Paperwhite if you MUST use a device) is a good alternative to help your mind and body wind down. Listening to audiobooks on low volume with the device turned face-down (so as not to emit light into the room) is another acceptable choice.
It has been shown a lack of physical activity definitely leads to heart conditions. Our bodies need to move to stay healthy! When we are tied to our screens, we are usually not moving. Moving also helps with stress relief as endorphins (aka pleasure hormones) are released during exercise.
The Bottom Line
When you cut down on device time, put down the cigs and bottle, make healthy food choices, go for a walk and then pick up a good book before bed, you will feel better. While this may be over-simplified, the idea remains the same. By limiting exposure to the manipulations of social media (real or perceived), you can also reduce your daily stress. It may be one of the few stressors we really can control.