Polyvagal Theory & Digital Minimalism
Digital Minimalism came into my life at a time when I most needed it. I was still living in NYC (occupied Lenape territory) and was quite literally going to movement classes just to have an hour a day where my phone was out of reach. I was so lost in the Digital Maximalism so many of us, especially those trying to run our own business or hustles, are basically required to be. Posting my work online was serving my career, but it was also hurting my nervous system. I had no time “offline” and it felt like work and my devices ran my life.
When we reach for our phones, we are often reaching for them because of something we are feeling, or something we don’t want to be feeling. Boredom, overwhelm, loneliness, validation, connection, information, and so on. We want to feel better, or feel distracted, and often those things are the same thing, as most of us are taught in this world that feelings are bad, or that boredom is bad. Our brains have a way out of an extremely normal part of human life, one that is full of color and dopamine and pictures of everyone you have ever known, or videos on how to learn anything you might ever want to learn.
For so many of us, technology has also created a lot of good in our lives. Through COVID we Zoomed to stay connected and for some of us it allowed us to continue our jobs from home. For small business owners, we can get our work out there and find clients. Social media has made it possible for so many people to run their own businesses who could of never before. Movements like BLM and Free Palestine are able to amass huge numbers of people at marches and demonstrations because we can get the word out. Surgerys and memorial funds are created online. It’s not all bad. But what about the time spent online that isn’t for this? Or what about when technology takes over your life, even when you are online to grow your business? What happens when we can’t unplug?
You are not unique in this scenario. Entire books have been written about Big Tech and Big Data, and how they are exploiting our very nature as humans to keep us locked into our devices.
What happens to our nervous system when we don’t get to complete our feelings or our survival responses? When we can always be working? What happens to our lives when we can distract ourselves with something, constantly, instead of sitting with what isn’t working about our life and doing something about it or feelings our feelings, or seeing what gets born from our boredom?
A common phrase in Polyvagal Theory is “Stuck not Broken” (there is even a podcast named that.) This perfectly sums up the beauty of the theory that dictates my psychotherapy practice, and honestly, my personal life as well. We get stuck. In patterns, on our phones, in bad relationships, in toxic jobs, and so on. That doesn’t mean we are broken, it just means that we have to get ourselves, and our nervous systems out of something, and bring them somewhere new. This could be a physical place, an emotional one, or it could be a nervous system state. Leaving sympathetic (fight or flight) or dorsal (numb and collapsed) behind, so we can live in the beautiful land of ventral vagal (safe and social.) For some of us, depression and anxiety are places we get stuck. For some of us, they are places in our brain and body that we will be unsticking ourselves from time and time again for our whole lives, because it’s how our brain and nervous system formed, or responded to trauma. I know for me, that this framework is not a quick fix. I have hundreds of years of trauma encoded into my nervous system, as literally every single one of my ancestors has withstood persecution and violence since as long as I know. I know that for me, getting unstuck is not something that I can do just once. It is an ever unfolding process, with the added layers of trauma from this lifetime. I also know I can’t heal, or get unstuck, when I am glued to my device.
For those of us with trauma, with traumatized lineages, who are neurodivergent, who struggle with pain that shows up psychologically and physically, who live at the intersections of identities that are devalued in this world, our devices are great distractors. If you are someone who is prone to dissociation, the scroll hole of social media provides the perfect highway straight there. For those of us who struggle with hyper arousal, i.e. being keyed up, anxious, stressed, it gives us something to do with all that energy building up inside of us.
But it often keeps us stuck. We may feel momentarily better after a scroll episode, after posting, after seeing messages pile up in our DM’s, but the original stressor is still there. The stress energy in our bodies might be quieted for a while, or we might of numbed out just enough to feel ok for a bit, but it’s what my teacher Dr. Janina Fisher calls, a false window of tolerance. We feel good, or ok enough, but it’s really mostly fake, and it doesn’t last.
There are some expectations to this with technology of course, as I mentioned above. Most of us feel true happiness after a call or FaceTime with friends and/or family. We get to see their faces (which our ventral vagal nerve of connection loves) and/or hear their voices. My nervous system loves tracking the birds I see on Merlin Birding App, or hunting down a little known campground on The Dyrt. Technology is not all bad. We just have to learn how to hack it for our benefit, not have it hack our brains for Capitalism. I am sure I’m not the first to bestow this information on you, but the more we use technology (specifically social media & Google) the more Big Data knows about us, and can market products specifically selected for us, better.
Digital Minimalism is a radical reclaiming of our time, in the sense that we take our attention away from Capitalism and towards other things, time with loved ones, nature, a good book, cooking, caring for ourselves, but it is also a radical reclamining of our awareness, and in return, our nervous systems, and our feelings. When we are able to stop ourselves from reaching for our phones mindlessly, and ask ourselves “what is happening inside me that made me feel like I need my phone?” , we are taking our power back. We are also learning to pay attention to our inner experience. For example, “I am feeling bored, which is why I reached for my phone. I know I feel bored because my body feels tired but my legs also feel jumpy.” We are watching ourselves, and then we can ask “so what do I really need right now?” Spoiler: it is very rarely our phones.
For boredom, I suggest clients carry a good book with them like they would a cell phone. Or, to learn to sit in the discomfort of boredom, which we often did as children quite often, and let the thoughts just happen. Turns out, many of us were so creative as kids because we were BORED.
For overwhelming emotions, carrying a journal and writing about what we are feeling instead of stuffing it down is helpful. Or, the psychotherapy modality Internal Family Systems, which helps us prompt questions to ourselves like, “Who is feeling overwhelmed?” meaning, what part of our psyche or what age of our many inner children. Then, we are able to give that part of that kid what they really need (love, compassion, kind self talk, food, rest etc.) instead of ignoring them, which is only more triggering!
For loneliness, we can write postcards to friends, schedule a time to see them or talk with them. We find a way to get human to human contact (sometimes through tech, see it’s not all bad!) instead of the shallow interactions that social media brings. Or, we can sit with that loneliness and repeat the skills above. This is what brings us out of that dorsal vagal state.
For anxiety, we move our bodies, or vent to someone or vent to our journal, to get ourselves out of sympathetic activation. We learn to get curious about the anxiety instead of trying to ignore it, all while it just grows and grows.
For dissociation, we learn to bring ourselves back into the present moment, crawling up our Polyvagal ladder. I even use the Oak app on my phone sometimes for a nice gong noise, and some guided meditation. We can orient ourselves to where we are, the time and day, who we are (it can be very powerful to just say your name out loud, write it, or repeat it in your head!), and notice ourselves come back into my body.
This is my version of getting unstuck, gifted to me by the framework of somatic trauma therapy, and deeply informed by Polyvagal Theory. It is obviously more complicated than the example above, and takes a lot of practice, but at the same time, it really is that simple.
As soon as I stopped being on my phone so much, the parts of my life that weren’t working became unbearable. I couldn’t continue on as I had been. I got unstuck. I made changes I would of never made if I had stayed glued to my device. I got to know my nervous system. I started listening to her. “Ok, you hate loud cities, I didn’t know that. Ok, you like cooking almost all of your own food, also didn’t know that. Ok, you have felt stuck in survival mode, that makes sense.”
Being unplugged and in the woods is my nervous system medicine. That, and my own therapy, my feeling of purpose when I get to work with my clients, and the meaning making I do around my trauma, and the trauma of my ancestors. This isn’t self help, this is having a body. This is listening to that body. This is making sense of your trauma, of being honest about the stress levels in your life, and understanding how to support yourself. Life is still hard, horrible things still happen, but when we aren’t lost in our devices, we have our connection to our body, to our feelings, to our lives. This is what guides us. It’s still technology, but it’s deep within us, it’s ancient.
So much of self help or somatic therapy is about “coping tools and advice”. This idea, of reconnecting with our bodies, nervous systems, and feelings, and putting down our phones, isn’t really a tool or a piece of advice. It’s just how we are biologically designed. We are meant to be responding to our nervous system, our body, our feelings, not ignoring them. We are meant to be expressing ourselves, in big, loud, creative ways, not silently scrolling. We are meant to be in deep relationship to one another and to this land, not stuck at our desks alone. We live as we were meant to when we are ignoring ourselves and being manipulated into being online, constantly. Or so disconnected from our ancestors' traditions, or our core needs as humans. Or always working. Capitalism only allows us so much, and we have to take what we can. Technology often robs us of the time we do have for us.
Maybe for you, it's not your phone. It’s over working, or drinking too much, or being in relationships that don’t support your authentic self. Maybe it's all of them. Either way, listening to our body, your nervous system, and being compassionate to all parts of yourself is how you get unstuck.
It’s time to start listening. It’s time to get free.
Resources on Digital Minimalism:
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
My workshop, Digital Minimalism
How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell
How to be Bored by Eva Hoffman