What is the impact of being connected – Our tie to technology

Front page banner from Marathon bombings

It is time to look at the impact of digital connectivity

WESTBOROUGH, MA  January 12, 2014  Elevated stress and tension are sometimes the price of technology.  When human beings become fixated with having all the updated information there becomes an overload of sensory stimuli including images, text and integrated multimedia.  In times of national emergency people stay connected to sources of information like CNN, the Washington Post, or other national media source.  Arguably, this can save our lives and bring us valuable information and needed instruction at times of national crisis.  At the same time, the tethered tie to technology reinforces adrenaline junkies like never before.

Prior to culmination of last years terror attacks in Boston, readers and television viewers alike may have been glued to their internet devices waiting on every new post of information.  Meanwhile thousands of people took to the twitter feeds and other social media to post their impressions and notify the world that their tiny digit footprint was alive and well in cyberspace and on the ground.  All the while, they white knuckle their smart phones posting and tweeting with hope of reaching someone who might regard their importance and be mindful.  Unfortunately, there is a price to be paid when this type of sensational event occurs.  The human  body reacts each time a flurry of tweets is released with alarm, threat, grief, and satisfaction.  The human interpretation of these stimuli have the power to create dramatic physiologic changes in the autonomic nervous system.  These lead to insidious, heightened autonomic arousal, increased blood pressure, anxiety and perhaps burn out.

Pavlov had it correct when he described how rewards shape human functioning and how frustrated animals become neurotic trying to gain some fickle reward.  Behavior is molded through a series of subtle reward and punishment protocols.  Rewards result in an increase in behavior.  Punishment will cause a behavior to become less frequent and eventually extinguished. In 2014, the  ‘need to know’ is rewarded by having immediate access to information.  This is a good thing.  Web sites that falter or offer old news are forsaken for the more instantaneous text and images – like old magazines.  Media outlets have taken to social media to access this demand by offering immutable news snippets in the form of tweets or other posts.  If this information is accurate and reliable people will listen (or read) in great numbers.  But this can go too far when people overdose on social media.  For a variety of health reasons it is often a good idea to turn off your digital ping and allow yourself some old fashion quiet.  Relaxation is something that comes when the body quiets itself and slowly resets the baseline axis of rest.

The fight/flight mechanism that keeps us on guard plays a primary role on how people feel after episodes of high stress.  Feelings of frustration, lack of focus, chronic fatigue, and even depression can result from an over reliance social media stimuli like an unfed addiction.  Each time information about the Boston Marathon bombing was released people began filtering a barrage of data being generated – some reliable and accurate and some distorted and confabulated.  How many times did we refresh the screen on our smart phones only to see that same header and feel frustrated or angry at the snail’s pace of new information?  

People asked “what should we tell the children” when referring to the bomb blasts in Boston.  Television had taken over the airwaves with live broadcasts.  For several days before the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev the Boston metropolitan area was closed down making it seem like a ghost town.  Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick asked for a voluntary closing of business including the shut down of public transit, buses and trains.  People began to feel the loss of freedom so common in other places on the globe like the West Bank, South Sudan, and now Syria where people live in perpetual fear of violence, torture, and persecution.  But this was occurring on U.S. soil in a vibrant city on a day where thousands of visitors were running a race for as many causes as you can realize – and perhaps some personal cause of freedom.

Experts finally agreed that the best response would be to turn off the television and allow kids to process what they may have seen.  There come’s a time when the technology begins to overwhelm.  Too much stimuli results in the over abundance of stress hormones that can trigger physical discomfort and interfere with sleep, cardiac rhythms, mood, and needed rest.

The long-term consequence of technology is unclear.  The human cost is measurable in terms of information overload and digital dump.  Some believe our brains adapt to the instant gratification of social media and develop a graving for the deluge of tweeted stimuli or some instagramed image.  Slowly, the body learns to habituate the barrage of stimuli selecting only that which is most novel or unique using a form of cognitive triage.  In the process of habituation people seek more and more stimuli to raise the digital threshold for avoiding boredom, stagnation, and falling prey to yesterday’s news.

People who grow up in war zones demonstrate a similar malfunction in their system of arousal marred by hyper vigilance due to perpetually imploding stress hormones.  This is the result of chronic exposure to unpredictable chaos and the stress associated with a lack of control.  Neuroscientists can now pinpoint the impact of stress on hardwired changes in the brains of children growing up in places without lasting peace.  Social scientists attribute similar developmental mechanisms to the cognitive behavioral underpinnings of children exposed to severe domestic violence.  Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health.  Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional Molotov created by chronic stress.  Why would healthy people create an unhealthy lifestyle in the absence of uncontrolled calamity?  If the dynamic of 24/7 connectivity adds to our health woes than its seems intuitive that we would cut down on our hunger for apps and need for the unending adrenaline dump created by this technology.

What will become of quiet space, solitude, and the capacity to be alone?  There is nothing more irksome than someone walking through a grocery store while chatting on a cellular phone as if she were alone in a comfortable study – laughing, telling personal stories, perhaps arguing with a detached spouse.  As much as I glare at that person – willing them to choke on the gum they seem compelled to chew, they seem totally oblivious of my overt distaste for them.  This person can not be alone even for the time it takes to procure items for the nightly supper or the few needed toiletries for an upcoming trip about which we shoppers heard tell.

To be alone and to experience alonness is a healthy function.  The loneliness felt by many can drive the unquenching thirst for data, information, and the pseudoconnection that comes with a digital age and the feelings of angst at not getting pinged.

Uploading the Rhythms of Life

Cardiac monitoring may be an ‘event’ unto itself

Listening to the fountain in Washington DC

The debate over life and death often focuses on the heart and the brain.  Some believe life ends when the brain ceases all activity – a term called brain death.  Others believe death results when the heart ceases to beat.  In a blog published in January 2014, the mind-body dialogue was discussed by Michael Sefton.  He described the rudimentary force of life as the heart’s beating “which begins and ends with the inimitable squeeze of the cardiac muscle.”  For patients who are being monitored the experience is highly stressful and often evokes fear and dread.

The link between what happens to our body and its effect on our mood and feeling state is well documented.  Just as we must adjust to the early developmental changes of our children so must we adapt our own thinking and lifestyle to the changes brought about by the empty nest.  Events such as having children leave home and head off to college and other events associated with empty nesting require flexibility and adaptation of roles for success.  These important transitions signal an advancing age that sometimes accompanies physical decline in health and body.  With that said it is important to note that many American’s are living healthier lifestyles and thus preserving physical health well into the eighth and ninth decades of life.

“Don’t ever get old”

Retirement was once described as a period of “golden years” and was thought to represent the final stage of one’s life during which the experience of freedom and contentment proffered a whimsical enjoyment of lazy, carefree days.  It meant taking time to share one’s wisdom with those who are younger and pass on the stories of family, culture, and life itself.  This is often not the case and I have had patients suggest that I should never get old.  Retirement is frequently a time of unbearabe loss and despair.

One factor affecting quality of life is the sense of physical well-being.  Retirement sometimes triggers an erosion of physical health and cognitive stamina choking all remaining time with recurring, monotonous doctor’s visits and tests.  In truth, what may be a glorious time is now marred by fear and trepidation about one’s health, financial stability and declining physical longevity.

Poor cardiovascular health is an underlying cause of many chronic disease processes like stroke, diabetes, and auto immune disease.  Heart attack remains among the leading precursors to early death and researchers are racing to uncover treatment options including early identification of those most at risk and life saving surgery to open clogged arteries.  Meanwhile, people should take greater responsibility for their own health by eating better and building exercise into their changing lifestyle.  Things like moderating use of alcohol, 7-9 hours of nightly sleep, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables become the specter of truth and failure to an ever-growing problem with obesity.  This is an important lesson for young adults to discover but is easier said than done.

The mind-body dialogue is one that matches wits with any great debate.  What are the best methods for identifying ‘problem’ hearts before they reach a penultimate, fibrillating finale?  Some doctors ask their patients to wear special monitoring devices – little boxes attached to the skin that permit the ongoing monitoring of life threatening changes in rhythm.  Patients sometimes wear the monitor for a month or more.  These monitors have the potential to catch irregular heart beats and allow physician’s to see a patient’s electrocardiogram on a minute to minute basis.  The monitor requires that the person wearing the device to upload his data via a telephone line each day sometimes with little to no training.  Each recording represents a cardiac event that the person wearing it is asked to chronicle in terms of action and feeling state when the device is active.  The events are uploaded via telephone land lines in real-time that seems almost tortuous to those bearing the burden of wearing the device.  The rhythms are quickly edited, analyzed and more often than not result in nothing more than a friendly vote of confidence – “you’re all set”.

Event Monitoring

Greater thought and training should be afforded to patient’s wearing event monitors.  As time goes on most patients become accostomed to the vagaries of the heart and the sound it makes – lub dub, lub dub.  The event recordings come in one after another and become part of the month-long survey of heart activity.  Some people call two and three times daily worried that they are having a serious cardiac event.  After 30 days the monitor is turned in for analysis by the cardiologist.  These daily rhythms go on to become the underpinnings of a cardiac care regimen that may offer treatment alternatives that can save a life.  The clinicians go on to new patients and new rhythms and new reports.  But each person who wears a monitor is brought to bear the feelings of their own life force beating in his or her chest sometimes wildly out of control. For those with irregular heart beats it can be 30 days of fear, impending doom, and personal paroxysm that seems to go on forever as skipping beats and palpating rhythms.  And even those with a normal EKG, the fear and worry of not feeling well can be just as agonizing as the beats are uploaded one at a time with not so much as a “job well done” and encouragement to call again tomorrow.

The fundamental appetence for living is shaped by the relationships made during life.  Those relationships that nurture and sustain may extend ones years of viability.  Some believe the force of life is the beating heart.  For without a healthy heart the quality of life may become desultory and life itself may become nothing more than a daily upload of irregular beats on the telephone, in real time.

To read the former blog click on the link below.