Why You Should Seriously Consider a Digital Detox

Everyone knows we’re on info overload, but how bad is it, really? 

We spend a lot of time these days talking about how to unplug—whether it’s forest bathing or good old-fashioned fun, like tie-dying. Our culinary director, Lish, takes a boot-camp class; Ashley, who works for my production company, listens to ball games on the radio; and the e-mag’s managing editor, Sally, gardens—the part she likes most is digging holes. Our publisher, Pam, has to remove herself to a beach where there’s no cell reception to be truly off the grid, and her house out on Long Island, which she refers to as Le Shaque, is free of computers, televisions, and any sort of fancy cooking appliances (though I’m a little confused as to how she still manages to shoot off emails).​

We’ve got a whole slew of ideas for tech-free fun in this week’s Hotlist, but I think it’s just as important to address the why of unplugging as it is the how. What does this constant data stream of information and perpetual connectedness do to us—mentally, physically, emotionally? To answer these questions, we chatted with Dr. Holly Phillips, a Manhattan-based physician and the author of The Exhaustion Breakthrough: Unmask the Hidden Reasons You’re Tired and Beat Fatigue for Good. Her book, which came out last month, is full of tips on how to balance the demands of this crazy, modern, tech world we’re living in. She covers everything from diet and exercise to topics like how to build a sleep sanctuary. Here’s what she had to say about why unplugging is essential.

Related: Want more Giada? Subscribe to GiadaWeekly!

Giada Digital Weekly: Why do we need to unplug every once in a while—or more than every once in a while? What are the potential downsides if we don’t?

Dr. Holly Phillips: Living in a wired world that never fully shuts down contributes to stress. It’s not just the 24/7 aspect of being constantly accessible by cellphone, texts, and email that is stressful; the visual stimuli affects our sleep patterns and emotional health. The constant exposure to light on the devices stimulates brain activity, which is why checking your cellphone before bed can make it more difficult to doze off.  Artificial blue light can suppress the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.  There’s also the ever-present threat of the device ringing or dinging.  A 2011 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 20 percent of people between the ages of 19 and 29 are awakened by a call, text, or email at least a few nights a week.

Physically, working on a laptop or heavy handheld device for long periods of time leads to neck stiffness, headache, and fatigue.  And checking your phone often may contribute to mental drain. Research suggests that the average smartphone user checks her phone every 6½ minutes, which adds up to 150 times per day.  Meanwhile, a 2012 study by McKinsey & Company found that high-skill knowledge workers spend 28 percent of their time reading and answering email.

GDW: Your book is called The Exhaustion Breakthrough. Can you talk about how technology comes into play in terms of exhaustion? 

 HP: Rest isn’t a substitute for sleep, but the converse is also true as well. Your body needs plenty of sleep and periods of mental and physical rest on a daily basis, called “active rest.”  If you’re constantly connected to your digital devices, you’re not able to fully enter an “active resting” state (this could be social rest by spending time with friends, mental rest through calming and focusing your mind, or spiritual rest through prayer or contemplative thought).   Without taking time to recharge with active rest, we’re more likely to experience feelings of depletion, depression, and suboptimal functioning of our central nervous system and emotional circuitry.

Related: Yoga Stress Relievers

GDW: How much tech is too much tech? How often should we think about stepping away from the computer?

HP: A psychiatrist I know suggests people put down all electronic devices for a period of time every 2 hours to give themselves a mental break from all this tech stress. This includes walking away from your computer for even brief periods throughout the workday.  My recommendation is to also take regular email vacations by silencing or deactivating your mobile email account for at least a few hours after work. Taking steps to protect yourself from digital drain will pay off mentally and physically.

GDW: Do things like listening to music or having the television on while you cook count? In other words, what are the requirements for being unplugged?

HP: Ideally, anything that produces sleep-disrupting blue light should be shut down at least an hour before bedtime, including the TV. Often we’re unaware of how wired our bedrooms are—I’ve had patients tell me that once they unplugged, they realized that even when their TV sets were powered off, the constant subtle buzz of the devices was disruptive to truly winding down.

One exception: Numerous studies have found that listening to music lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and improves mood. So use it strategically, put on a favorite soundtrack while making dinner or soaking in the tub, then unplug before heading to bed.  

For more on Dr. Holly Phillips, visit hollyphillipsmd.com, follow her on Twitter @HollyPhillipsMD, and pick up a copy of her book, in stores now.

GiadaWeekly is the digital food and lifestyle magazine from cookbook author and Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis. To get a new issue each Thursday, download the app or subscribe at www.giadaweekly.com. And follow GiadaWeekly on Instagram and Facebook.

Read This Next: Tabletop Tie-Dye Project