An evolutionary approach to re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world.
Covid-19 accelerated a shift of working in an office or worksite to working at home. Some seem trapped in a never-ending series of online meetings or Zoom calls, continuously looking at screens without taking any breaks. With little or no awareness we have become captured by screens. Unfortunately, by the end of the day many people experience Zoom/screen fatigue, eyestrain, back pain, neck and shoulder discomfort, exhaustion, stress, negative mood, depression, and/or work-related insomnia. Besides looking at the computer screen, we are continuously distracted by notifications from smartphones and other digital devices as we multitask. The digital distractions causing us to respond to twice as many devices with half of our attention—a process labeled ‘semi-tasking’- meaning getting twice as much done half as well.
To prevent TechStress is to begin with the foundation of having a correct ergonomic set up. However, even if all the equipment is correct for the individual, it is not a guarantee that no problems will occur. For example, a correctly adjusted chair gives the person the opportunity to sit correctly; however, the person can still lean forward and put his nose to the screen, raise his or her shoulders while mousing, or work continuously without taking breaks. On the other hand, a poorly adjusted chair does not give the person the opportunity to sit correctly and will be much more at risk for injury, just like shoes that are too big or small can quickly cause injury. The person can reduce the risk by listening to their own body and taking many breaks and apply various stress management interventions.
Maintaining and optimizing health at the computer means re-envisioning our relationship with technology—and reclaiming health, happiness, and sanity in a plugged-in world. It is helpful to know what factors contribute to developing discomfort since many people still experience symptoms after their office equipment (chair, desk, keyboard, mouse, or monitor) has been ergonomically optimized. That is, Technology-Associated Overuse (TAO) can occur even when you have the latest and greatest new equipment.
Consider evolutionary traps. Evolution has preserved a bias towards paying attention to changing lights and sounds that potentially represent finding food or the presence of a predator. Fast forward from the time of living in caves to living in modern jungles, filled with lights and sounds vying for our attention and there is little wonder why the content of digital media captures our attention. Companies want to capitalize on our human evolutionary tendency to react to and attend closely to light and sound cues that once may have meant our survival.
We are attracted to the shiny lights, beeps, and sounds provided by our ever-present smartphones, laptops, and other digital devices. The same strategies that developed to aid in our survival have become evolutionary traps, making it more difficult to avoid the constant call of digital content delivered to our devices. And we go down the rabbit hole of clicking one link after another.
The same attention patterns that set us up for success and survival can leave us vulnerable to feeling stressed out from continuous demands for attention. The result? Missed sleep, skipped meals, and accumulated aches and pains. No wonder we are exhausted by the end of the day.
So how can we avoid the evolutionary pitfalls programmed into modern technology use? Develop strategies for interrupting the constant demands on our attention. For example, moving your body more by practicing micro-breaks (1-30 seconds), mini-breaks (up to a few minutes) and, large movement breaks (a few minutes to a few hours) can help. The movement alone is necessary, however, paying attention to the effects of those breaks is equally important.
As you are reading this, reflect on what happens when you do the following brief break:
Get up from your chair now. Skip in place, and alternately reach up with your hands to the ceiling, smile and laugh out loud as you think how silly you look.
Now sit and check how you feel. Almost everyone reports that their energy and mood significantly increased.
Why is it that in less than thirty seconds you felt better? A major reason is that our bodies hold chronic tension and arousal without awareness. Normally, we are unaware that when we work at the keyboard, our neck and shoulder muscles contract and tighten. The more we work under deadline pressures the more likely these muscles will tighten, our breath become shallow and rapid and our heart rate increases. We also tend to stare at the screen, forgetting to blink and continuously focusing on the screen. As a result, our eye muscles do not relax by alternately focusing on more distant objects. The result is eye strain and sore neck and shoulder muscles that may escalate into headaches.
Observe how you and coworkers work with your computer, laptop or cellphone. Often we bring our noses close to the screen in order to see the text more clearly. We may also sit slouched or raise our shoulders towards our ears. Tension in our muscles accumulates or creeps up on us throughout the day. The ‘covert’ creep of tension means we are unaware of possible accumulated strain. Sometimes we become so captured while working that we forget to eat, rest or relax until discomfort or pain symptoms occurs. Fortunately, it is possible to measure the degree of muscle tension using instruments such as a muscle monitor (called an electromyograph or EMG). The unaware muscle tension can be identified by physiological recording of the electrical activity produced when they contract (electromyography). With biofeedback and coaching(1) people can learn to become aware of the covert tension and learn to reduce the tension.
A representative example of the unaware and unnecessary muscle tension and shallow breathing response is shown in Figure 1. The person was instructed to 1) rest hands on her lap, 2) rest hands on the keyboard, 3) type, 4) rest hands on keyboard and 5) rest hands on lap.
An extended reach to the mouse can place extra strain on the neck, shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Postural stress results from over-reaching to the mouse from the keyboard.
Even though the physiological recording showed increase tension when the hands were resting on the keyboard, the person reported being relaxed. She was also not aware that her neck and shoulder muscles stayed contracted without any momentary rest and recovery periods nor that her breathing rate and heart rate significantly increased. The covert muscle activity and shallow breathing will also interact with the person’s stress level, as well as ergonomic equipment use and the posture throughout the day. The methodology is described in the book, Muscle Feedback at the Computer(2).
To experience how discomfort and pain develop by maintaining low-level muscle tension, take a moment and do the following exercise.
Sit comfortably and lift your right knee a few inches up so that the foot is an inch above the floor. Keep holding it in this position for about a minute….Now let go and relax your leg.
Sixty seconds might have seemed like a very long time and you may have started to feel discomfort in the muscles of your hip. Most likely, you observed that when you held your knee up against gravity, you may have also held your breath and tightened your neck and back. Moreover, to hold your muscles in a static position for more than a few minutes would be very challenging.
Reasons for the discomfort
The discomfort occurred because your muscles were contracted, which inhibited the blood and lymph flow through the tissue. Also, excessive muscle exertion increased the release of lactic acid that can irritate the nerves around the muscle (e.g. sore muscles). When your muscles contracted to lift your knee, the blood flow in those muscles was reduced. Only when your muscles relaxed could enough blood flow occur to deliver nutrients and oxygen as well as remove lactic acid and other waste products of muscle metabolism. From a physiological perspective, muscles work most efficiently when they’re alternately contracting and relaxing. For example, most people can walk without discomfort since their muscles are contracting and alternately relaxing with each step. For the most part static, unmoving muscles, such as hovering your hand over a keyboard or mouse, are unhappy muscles.
From the evolutionary perspective, people typically shifted between sitting, walking, and moving in varied ways during specified forms of labor. To reduce static tension induced discomfort, incorporate a ‘dynamic movement’ perspective by taking many movement breaks every hour – just stand up, wiggle and move several times an hour. Consider installing a break reminder program on your computer or other digital devices(3). When people implement taking these breaks, they report having much more energy at the end of the day. As one participant stated: “There is now life after five.”
Similar to our skeletal muscles, our eye muscles converge and the very small ciliary muscles tighten around the lens to focus the eyes on the screen. We maintain this visual stress and reduce blinking as long as we look at the screen or the wall that is a short distance away. Only when we look away at the far distance can our eye muscles relax. From an evolutionary perspective, we continuously alternated looking between near and far objects. Interactions with digital devices reduce the frequency of looking at the distance which automatically relaxed the eyes. It is no wonder that more than 70% of young people in Singapore who spent their childhood predominantly looking at screens instead of playing outside develop myopia (near sightedness) and wear glasses.
Adapted from the book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, published by North Atlantic Press. Available from: www.penguinrandomhouse.com
About the authors
Erik Peper, PhD, is Professor of Holistic Health Studies at San Francisco State University and President of the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe. He received the 2004 California Governor’s Safety Award for work on Healthy Computing. He’s authored numerous scientific articles and books and publishes the blog, www.peperperspective.com, and has been featured on ABCNews.com, GQ, Glamour, Men’s Health, the San Francisco Chronicle, Shape, and Women’s Health.
Richard Harvey, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Health Education at San Francisco State University, served as president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback and the Western Association for Biofeedback and Neuroscience. He was recently honored in 2019 by the Biofeedback Federation of Europe’s Biofeedback Educator Award.
(1) (Peper & Gibney, 2006; Peper, Harvey & Tylova, 2006)
(2) Link to Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer that can be downloaded for free.
(3) A free StretchBreak app can be downloaded from: https://stretchbreak.com/