Weekly roundup: 5 ways to fight “Nomophobia”—the fear of not having your phone

You probably already know you reach for your phone a little too often. But it’s your choice, right? You can stop anytime you want.

Maybe not.

Researchers have claimed that cellphones are “possibly the biggest non-drug addiction of the 21st century”.

According to research firm dscout, the average user touches their phone 2,617 times a day, while last year Apple revealed that iPhone users unlock their phone around 80 times every 24 hours.

We’re hooked. It’s gotten so bad that there’s even a name for our need to be near our phones: Nomophobia (for “No-mobile-phone phobia”).

While Nomophobia isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) yet, multiple studies say it could affect up to 50% of phone users.

When separated from their phone, Nomophobia sufferers face reactions ranging from panic and fear to anxiety, depression, trembling, and perspiration. It’s a serious problem. But as we’re not going to be ditching our smartphones any time soon, we need to find better ways to interact with them.

Let’s look at a few ways you can make sure you don’t succumb to Nomophobia and build a healthier tech life balance.

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Adjust your notification settings

One of the reasons we feel so attached to our phones is that they were specifically designed to steal our attention. Think about what goes through your head every time you receive a buzz or ping. What is it? A text? An important email you’ve been waiting for? Someone tagging you in an Instagram photo?

These “variable rewards” as they’re called are what gets us hooked to our phones. When you phone buzzes, it creates a knowledge gap. Our brains hate not knowing, and so we dive in and see what’s summoned our attention.

Now, you might just say “Ok then. Notifications are bad. Let’s kill them.” Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Research has shown that going cold turkey with notifications can actually cause more anxiety than having them all turned on. Instead, we need to change our relationship with our phones and edit what gets access to our attention.

One suggestion, from designer and writer Davide Casali is to break up your app notifications into 3 groups:

  1. Instant: Anything you want to know about as soon as it happens
  2. Relevant: Anything you want to know about at your convenience (but not immediately)
  3. Kill: Anything you really don’t need to know about

For example, any app in your instant category would have notifications set as usual. This could be things like texts, phone calls or other messages that are timely.

For apps in the relevant category, you can turn off all notifications except for icon badges. This way you won’t be disturbed when something comes in, but can instead check in at your leisure.

For apps in the final category, you guessed it, all notifications or even the app itself should be turned off.

Start by moving a few apps into your kill or relevant lists and then go from there. Simple adjustments like this can help lower our need to constantly check in on our phone and help make us more comfortable with not having our phone constantly attached to us.

Physically separate yourself from your phone

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“Convenience is the mother of addiction — the quicker you can get a hit back on the technology, the faster the intoxication,” explains Dr. David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction.

Whether in your pocket or out on the table, our phones are never far from reach. This constant availability fuels our addiction and can even add more phone-induced anxiety.

Studies have shown that up to 90% of people suffer from Phantom vibration syndrome or ringxiety— the feelings of mistakenly thinking your phone is vibrating in your pocket.

When our phone is always physically near us, it becomes almost an extension of our body. (The same way people who wear glasses can forget they’re on). This causes us to assume that any twitch or vibration must be coming from it.

Studies aside, we’ve all experienced that knee-jerk reaction to pull our phones out of our pocket while in a lineup, sitting at our desk or even the slightest lull in conversation.

However, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, explains how a small change can help quell Nomophobia and break this learned behavior:

“Not carrying your phone right against your body but carrying it in your bag can help ease some of that sense that you always need… to have a little of your attention turned toward your phone.”

Try putting your phone in your bag instead of your pocket. Leaving it in your coat when you sit down for a meal. Or leave it in your car when you run into the store. A small separation can reduce anxiety and even boost your cognitive abilities.

Don’t rely on willpower

It might seem that to fight Nomophobia we just need to be mentally tough and put our phones away. However, willpower alone isn’t enough to save us from the grip our phones have.

Every choice we make during the day from what to wear to what coffee we’re going to order takes up a certain amount of cognitive energy. And those choices add up. Researchers estimate that we make nearly 35,000 choices every day.

As we get further into the day, something called “ego depletion” takes place, where using up willpower on one task or decision leaves less available for a future one. (Or, as I like to call it, the “I don’t care where we eat for dinner. You choose!” effect).

When it comes to reducing Nomophobia, constantly making choices to not check your phone can burn you out quickly.

Instead, try to get rid of the actions that require you to make a choice. This could mean adjusting your notifications as we talked about before, deleting apps that require your attention, or, my new favorite trick, moving apps you’re most likely to “give in” to all the way to the last page of your homescreen.

nomophobia Instagram

Oh there you are Instagram…

If you’re using an Android phone, RescueTime’s FocusTime feature is a great option as you can use it to block notifications and sites when you’re trying to get focused work done.

Take time to focus on reality

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One of the reasons we’re so addicted to our phones is that they’re portals to other realities. Want to see what your friends are up to? Or daydream about some travel blogger’s latest trip?

Your phone can take you out of your seemingly boring reality and transport you to other places. It’s a form of escapism—and one we’re almost all guilty of.

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior is incredibly bad for us, mentally speaking.

A new survey found that Instagram especially is the worst form of social media for our mental health. While respondents gave the platform points for self-expression and self-identity, they also associated it with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”

Like the ads in a fashion magazine, most Instagram accounts are curated to show ideal versions of our lives—the nights out, lavish trips, and post workout selfies. Even though we know what we’re looking at is fake, we still get sucked in.

Last year alone, brands spent nearly a billion dollars on social media influencer campaigns, with the majority going to Instagram influencers.

To break Nomophobia, we can shift our perception using a technique called “reality therapy”.

Reality therapy is based on the idea that, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are always trying to meet our essential human needs. And not just your basic food, water and shelter. But rather, the need for things like fun, social interaction, autonomy, meaning, and purpose.

To use reality therapy then, there are 2 parts:

  1. Start by accepting that what you’re seeing on your phone isn’t a part of your reality. Or, in some cases, any reality.
  2. Ask what needs scrolling through Instagram (or other social media on your phone) are solving? Is it a need for more social interaction? Feeling stuck at work?

With this information, you can start to focus your behaviors away from you phone and in reality.

Replace your phone with something more positive

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When it comes down to it, Nomophobia is just another bad habit we’ve picked up. And habits are hard to break.

As we’ve talked about in the past, habits are made up of 3 things:

  • A trigger that sets off the behavior (in this case, a ring, notification, ghost vibration, or other)
  • An action (checking your phone, scrolling through social media, reading a text)
  • A reward (seeing a funny photo, talking to a friend, getting invited to an event)

While changing notifications or moving your phone away helps distance you from the trigger, in order to really break our Nomophobia we need to replace the action we take when triggered.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Instead of having social media and news on your front page, put more productive apps like a note-taking or writing app. Journaling has been shown to have huge mental benefits, so why not make that the action you take when you reach for your phone?
  2. If you want to go a step further, try replacing the action of reaching for your phone entirely. When I noticed myself mindlessly grabbing my phone while waiting in lineups, I started carrying a small paperback with me. Now, when I feel that urge to occupy my mind I read instead.

While doctors haven’t recognized Nomophobia as a mental disease, I’m sure we could all benefit from less screen time. Hopefully you’ve found a few techniques here that will help break or lessen your addiction to your phone.

Have you found anything else that works for you? Let us know in the comments.

Photos by Jacob Ufkesrawpixel.comTony Lam Hoang, and Ben White

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. I was aware of addictive possibilities when I first bought my tablet. I “arranged” with myself to use it only while on exercise equipment, like the treadmill, Nordic track or elliptical trainer. It worked! And it’s the best motivation for regular aerobic exercise I’ve ever found!

    1. What a great strategy! I love how you turned a potentially bad habit into a positive motivator to work out.

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