Ari Sytner

There’s no Such Thing as a Phone Addiction. Is There?

Posted by in Addiction, Relationships & Marriage

The traffic light turns red and the row of cars slowly crawl to a stop. It turns green and then red once again, but strangely, not a single car moves. As each driver is looking down at his or her phone, squeezing in just a few extra seconds of email or social media time, the world around them remains paused. Nobody has noticed the passing clouds, the ticking clock, the children’s laughter, or the changing traffic light.

This unfortunate reality has become the new normal. 

Yet, many ask, “so what?” If a person is sitting in their car, waiting in an airport, or standing in line at the store while looking at their phone – why does it matter? If anything, they are increasing their productivity by multitasking in real time! The truth is that in most cases being drawn into one’s phone does not directly hurt anyone. However, it causes us to miss out on life, people, and opportunities which continue to unfold whether one notices it or not.

John Bowlby is the father of psychology’s well-known Attachment Theory. The underlying idea behind this approach is that people form primary attachments in their lives, and the paradigm for that one relationship will be applied to all future relationships. When a person forms unhealthy attachments, the rest of their relationships will have the same flaws and will remain troubled or compromised.

This model need not only apply to our relationships with people, but even with objects! For those people who suffer with the painful disease we know as addiction, they live with a constant inner turmoil, which is most easily settled by giving into the addiction. That one drink for the alcoholic becomes the primary relationship in life, and breaking free from it seems insurmountable, despite repeated attempts to quit. Why would an intelligent and accomplished individual take another drink if the last one led to a fight, divorce, or D.U.I.? The answer is because the object of the addiction has become the primary relationship in the life of the addict – and that is not something one can easily walk away from.

One might say, “I can quit anytime,” but their track record may say otherwise. Being unable to put down the drink (or the phone) demonstrates the extent of one’s reliance upon it – and magnifies the unhealthy relationship one has with the object.  

Today’s cell phone usage has introduced a new relationship paradigm. No longer do people put their health, safety, or loved ones first – instead, the phone has become our first and primary attachment. While we have more connections than ever before, the quality of our relationships are being reduced dramatically, as the phone has become our go-to relationship for comfort and self-soothing.

While many are apt to quote the addicts mantra of, “I can stop at any time,” it is something easier said than done. I am fascinated when in the middle of a counseling session a client looks down to respond to text message. As they continue talking about important issues in their lives, their voice slowly trails off and stops in mid-sentence. A moment later, once the text is sent, their voice bounces back and continues talking as if nothing strange just happened. They are unaware of how their relationship with the phone is impacting what is happening in physical space they occupy.

Undoubtedly, this same scene repeats itself on dates, at business meetings and during precious family time. Yet, ironically, they sit in my office with tears flowing, trying to understand why they struggle to maintain happy and healthy relationships.

Utilizing Gestalt Therapy, I can often help clients to develop a self-awareness that enables them to identify that was is happening during our sessions is likely happening outside as well and negatively impacting their relationships. Many people will initially deny that one has anything to do with the other, much like the line of cars that are oblivious to the green light before them. But only when putting the phone down, or even better, shutting it off, can one regain their full mental and psychic energy to be fully present and aware of the world and the people around them.

Not only is the relationship with our phones robbing us of enjoying the connections with the people in our lives, but it in many cases, it prevents us from maximizing our mental abilities. Recently, I was out running errands when I noticed that I had forgotten my phone at home. It was a moment of pure panic. Shortly after, I felt a sense of calm as I realized that I was actually OK and not missing out on life. I was enjoying the scenery, the quiet, and my thoughts when I soon noticed new ideas that popped into my mind. Ordinarily, I would have immediately taken out my phone and made a note or sent an email, text or Tweet. I don’t like sitting on ideas when I can run with them. But then something happened.

The longer I sat with my ideas, unable to do anything about them but think, the more the ideas started to grow. Before long, I noticed that my previously half-baked idea was developing into something far greater.

It was that moment that I realized the importance of embracing a primary relationship, first with myself above all others. If I could only spend more time building a better relationship with me – my thoughts, ideas and dreams, only then could I work to enhance the relationships with the people in my life.

While I absolutely love my phone, there are other priorities which are truly far more important.

Thus, rather than live a beholden existence, where we are primarily attached to our phones, we should not be afraid to set ourselves free from time to time. By disconnecting from this virtual relationship, we will be able to better focus and fully embrace the truly meaningful relationships in our lives.

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Self-Improvement 101: How to Fill the Negative Spaces

Posted by in Addiction, Relationships & Marriage

Change is hard. Who doesn’t enjoy settling into a comfortable routine? However, when a person is finally motivated to break their mold and strive for self-improvement, the shackles of our habits can be debilitating.

It is for that reason that I look forward to the Jewish High Holidays, which give me an opportunity to look at my habits – both good and bad take a personal inventory of how I can improve.

However, beware the trap of the negative space!

When a person digs deeper and deeper, chiseling away at the parts of themselves they wish to change, they will eventually be left with a gaping hole. For example, if a person decides to reduce their laziness and increase productivity, they may find themselves successfully cutting out TV, movies, Facebook and other distractions. However, if they are not filling that extra time by focusing on meaningful tasks and goals, they will likely fail altogether when the boredom takes hold and catapults them back to their previous ways.

To illustrate this phenomenon, imagine your dentist discovers a pretty nasty cavity in your molar. After drilling, scraping and hollowing out the tooth, the dentist proudly reports that the cavity is gone. However, let’s be honest, until the hole in your tooth is properly filled, you’re just not out of the woods.

The same idea applies to self-improvement. It is insufficient to simply cut out the negative behaviors if we do not replace them with positive ones.

Consider how many intelligent and determined people have failed at diets for this reason. They decided it was time to get healthy, banished all fried foods, butter, trans fats, red meat, eggs, salt, sugar, mayo and of course, ice cream. Yes, they had the right idea, “cut out all of the bad stuff”. However, if there is no an alternate plan to substitute healthy menus for every meal, they will likely crash and burn when hunger gets the best of them.

Research on addiction has pointed to the same conclusion. People who wish to quit smoking, drinking, gambling, gaming, shopping, pornography, overeating – all have the same challenge. They will put 90% of their self-control and energies towards NOT engaging in a particular behavior. However, instead of only focusing on the negative, if they were to also expend a great deal of energy pursuing positive behaviors, they would more likely succeed simply because they are busy chasing their dreams and ambitions.

It is for this reason that Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step programs, put such an emphasis on the many levels of personal growth beyond just the value of “quitting”. By discovering and pursuing one’s spiritual self, a person is more likely to engage in meaningful relationships and seek life-goals that are inherently motivating, fulfilling and rewarding.

Sure, becoming a better person can be a huge undertaking! However, if overcoming my challenges compel me to focus positively on my dreams, then my weaknesses actually become the greatest of life's gifts! (Think about it).

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Technology Overload: What is Real Anymore?

Posted by in Addiction, Parenting, Relationships & Marriage

twitter reality

It was a beautiful Labor Day weekend and I decided to take my children fishing. As I stood with them at the water’s edge, I tried to let go of all of my responsibilities, work and social media connections. I proudly watched my children as they were trolling for sunfish and feeding the geese. It was truly a beautiful moment in time.

Then it happened!!

I heard the chirp. That high pitched tweeting sound that pulled me right back into the world of social media. For a moment, I felt angry. It was that stupid app, which was now robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy life, family and nature. No longer could I appreciate the sites of the children, birds and the water. I suddenly found myself traveling down a technology black hole, as I was eager to check my phone. I tried to resist the urge to take out my phone and look to see who tweeting. However, before I knew it I heard the tweeting sound again and could not resist.

As feelings of guilt took hold of me, I reached into my pocket and looked at my phone. Surprisingly, the screen was blank. I checked again, only to realize that there were no tweets, messages or alerts. I was baffled.

We’ve all experienced phantom vibrations from our phones, where we can practically feel the phone vibrating and we often jump up to answer it, only to realize that it's actually plugged in to the wall in a different room!

But who has ever heard of phantom tweet sounds?

Was I losing my mind!? Was I so addicted to technology that my brain was imagining it? Then I heard it again and I looked up.

I saw a magnificent nest in a tree just a few feet away from me. It was filled with the most beautiful family of birds, all chirping and whistling away. It was at that moment, that I realized how terribly skewed my reality had become. Instead of hearing a chirp and thinking of the obvious, my mind was in a far-off place. I had become disconnected from the present moment and part of my mind was living in an alter digital reality.

In the medical profession, there is a diagnostic concept, framed by Dr. Theodore Woodward, known as “The Zebra”. In other words, if you hear hoof-beats, think horse, not zebra. Thus, when a patient presents with obvious symptoms, consider the obvious diagnosis, rather than the exotic. Yet, in today’s world of technology-overload, the distracting zebra has now replaced the ordinary horse. It is both funny and quite sad that, when I hear chirping today, I think Twitter and not birds.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for technology! I even yearn to one day call myself by the esteemed title of Geek. However, this particular incident was a wake up call. It reminded me of just how aware I must be to separate between my digital world and my actual reality which is filled with countless amazing moments with my wife and children.

How often are couples, coworkers or parents guilty of being drawn into their devices at the expense of enjoying and interacting with one another? Psychological research has demonstrated that even when a phone is nearby, a portion of our minds are distracted by their presence. Consequently, our cognitive abilities become compromised. The research shows that the closer the phone is to us, the greater the cognitive impairment. The only solution is to give oneself the gift of powering down from time to time and recalibrating.

By disconnecting our devices, even just for dinnertime, or while on a date, it frees up more cognitive ability to allow us to enjoy each moment and really make our life experiences into more meaningful ones.

Hopefully, the next time you hear the sound of a birds chirping, think life, nature and real birds – not @Twitter.

For a Free Guide on how to Overcome Digital Distraction Click here4 tips

 

To Contact Ari for Therapy, Interventions, Public Speaking, or just to say hi - please click here!

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4

Indulgence or Addiction: Where is the Fine Line?

Posted by in Addiction, Relationships & Marriage, Stress & Adversity

Today’s world offers a smorgasbord of enticing gateway drugs that can appeal to virtually anyone. That’s right, no longer does a person have to be a full-blown heroin addict to struggle with substance abuse. Addictions and dependencies can be connected to virtually anything – not only addictive chemicals such as nicotine. Consider that things such as ice-cream, coffee, TV, internet, shopping, music, Netflix and exercise are generally not considered to be inherently harmful, yet, when they are used in a maladaptive or compulsive manner, they can develop into full-blown addictions.

The reason for this is because addictions are rooted deep within a void that exists in the mind of the addict. Often, it is a disturbing or traumatic early experience in childhood which created an insecurity. Maybe it was a bad experience with a parent, teacher or friend, but it left a void that never healed. Later on, as an adult, when a person hits a wall, he or she will subconsciously confront those same uncomfortable feelings. As a coping mechanism, the brain begins to crave something soothing, an escape of sorts, which allows the addict to fill the emptiness that lies deep with in them.

For some, the escape can be alcohol or drugs, for others it could be withdrawing to the couch to eat an entire pie of pizza. Interestingly, most people assume that the object of addiction – such as the cigarette or whiskey, is the primary attachment, as if to suggest that the alcoholic is drawn to alcohol. However, in most cases, the attachment is not to the object, but actually, to the act of self-soothing. For the alcoholic, they happen to have chosen whiskey; but it just as well could have been video games, sex, work or chewing tobacco. The common thread is that they are all being used as instruments of escape and ultimately, become the single most important relationship in the addict's life.

As the brain is the most complicated organ in the body, it can be difficult to understand addictions. However, keep in mind that the brain is perpetually producing and balancing chemicals that help maintain emotional equilibrium. However, when one finds an addictive substance or routine (such as binge eating or watching Netflix all day and night) to serve as their primary form of soothing and escape – it replaces the brains need to regulate itself chemically. Thus, whenever a person feels a “low”, instead of the brain producing the needed chemical regulations, the addict’s brain flags that feelings as a “craving”. It is at that point that the addict starts looking; searching for a fix to regulate their equilibrium and pick themselves up artificially.

While it provides a temporary relief, the problem with this solution, is that it is maladaptive. Ultimately, it will deteriorate a person’s health, wellbeing or relationships. Addictions are certainly enjoyable as they provide a temporary escape from reality, pain, loneliness or suffering. However, what happens afterwards?

Often, a person is left in a state of shame, depression, lack of funds, or perhaps, deeper emptiness – which for the addict only has one solution – further indulgence in their drug of choice. It is in this context, that a mere "innocent" indulgence, such an extra piece of desert (or two) can start to get out of control, and like the flip of a switch, turn into an addiction.

It is this uncontrollable spiraling, which requires intense support from friends and family and the help of a properly trained therapist to teach the addict new coping mechanisms which are healthy. On a positive note, over time and through recovery, the inner void can be filled with new and more productive habits. The brain itself can be slowly weaned from the addiction and can be “recalibrated” to once again regulate itself in a healthy manner, without the need to seek the soothing of an addiction in order to cope with the stress of everyday life. While anyone can be susceptible to developing an addiction, the good news is that they are also capable of recovery!

To contact Ari Sytner for counseling, interventions or feedback, please click here.

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When Does an Addict Seek Treatment?

Posted by in Addiction

There tends to be a significant barrier to therapy for many addicts. Consider the road that the addict travels. They manage their secret as long as possible, slowly sinking deeper and deeper until one of two things happen. Either they are discovered and face the shame that comes with it – forcing them to seek treatment and rebuild their lives.

Alternatively, they reach a point where their secret is too much for them to handle and the addiction has taken over their life to the extent where they simply can no longer function. In this case, the addict is in the pre-contemplation stage. This is where they he or she knows that an intervention is needed and something has to change. They feel ready to make a change, however, they still need to cross the giant chasm that is moving from thoughts of recovery toward action.

There are a number of avenues for recovery including the renowned 12-Step programs, which can be invaluable to support the addict and their family. The primary barrier for many people this case, however, is being “found out”. To walk into an open meeting, one faces the fear of bumping into their neighbor, pastor pharmacist or child’s teacher.

“How can I seek treatment if it means that word is going to get out?

This might cost me my marriage, job or standing in the community?!”

The important thing to realize in these settings is that it is a safe and confidential environment. The meetings are built upon a fellowship which is aimed at embracing and supporting each other, as everyone else at the meeting has the same secret and is equally trusting you with it. Many have reported that by sharing their addiction with others, it has been liberating, as if a weight has been lifted from them. This is particularly true, in an environment where they feel that others understand them, and without judgment, support them.

Furthermore, in today’s tech environment, those with busy schedules who may otherwise not be able to attend daily meetings can participate in online and phone meetings throughout the day. Though they are absolutely helpful and effective, they still do have the same impact as face-to-face meetings.

Finally, having a properly trained therapist can make all the difference, whether in addition to, or in place of 12-Step meetings. It should be someone you feel comfortable with and are willing to open up to honestly. The types of modalities which have been proven to be particularly effective includes a combination of Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and psychotherapy. The support that the addict receives will be most effective, when in conjunction with therapy or support for one’s family members. Since the recovery process can be a long road which impacts the entire household, thinking about the bigger picture will produce stronger results.

To contact Ari Sytner for counseling, interventions or feedback, please click here.


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