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Anxiety and phone use : The Chicken or the Egg?

We all have felt stressed once in our life: it could have been because of an exam, a short deadlineor just the feeling of being anxious without any specific reason. Some of us are more prompt tobeing stressed, but stress can be particularly triggered nowadays as society and the workplaceput an unparalleled level of pressure on people.

In psychology, anxiety can be defined as “a future-oriented mood state associated withpreparation for possible upcoming events” [1]. When anxiety becomes too frequent, it is calledan anxiety disorder [2,3]. Anxiety disorders are known to be the most frequent mental disorders[4] and their consequences on all aspects of life are numerous.

As it is very difficult to change the society we live in or our workplace, one concrete solutionwould be to elaborate strategies or use tools in order to help oneself to better cope with thisstress and anxiety. Some of us are using our phones, consciously or not, as a strategy in varioussituations of stress. What is then the link between stress and our phone use? Does our anxietytrigger our phone use, or our phone use induces stress?

Let’s have a look at what the cognitive psychology has to say about the impacts of anxiety inour everyday life.
Eysenck & al. [5], through their theory of attentional control, suggest that anxiety would biasthe balance of the attentional control system. Attentional control is an essential cognitivefunction in our basis life: every day, we face a lot of information, however, because our braincapacities are limited, it is not possible to process everything simultaneously. Therefore, it isnecessary to select the most relevant information in order to optimize our response to ourenvironment and achieve our goals. It is the functions of attention, and executive functions thatallows voluntary selection of information [6]. Anxiety would specifically interfere with theexecutive functions of inhibition and mental flexibility [5]; inhibition deficit would decreasethe ability to resist irrelevant distractors and reduced mental flexibility would decrease theability to adapt attentional control to the demands of the task.

As a result, anxious individuals would be more likely to allocate additional attentional resourcesto irrelevant or threatening stimuli, and would, for example, tend to use their phone instead offocusing on the task at hand. Moreover, this anxiety could lead to the use of maladaptive copingstrategies [7,8], such as avoidance, by using the phone as a tool to avoid stressful situation.

In their study, Panova & Lloras [9] describe mobile phone use as a “security blanket” effect,lowering the initial negative reaction to stress, but that doesn’t really help in the long run andmay even have a negative influence on mental health. On the other hand, phones induce the

impossibility of being ‘out of touch’ and can, for example, bring work into the home and thuscontribute to the creation of a stressful environment [10].
Furthermore, phones give you the possibility to connect to the World Wide Web, an open doorto an endless amount of information from multiple channels, which may lead to psychologicaldistress [11]. Think about your typical day: do you sometimes go on your phone just to scrollthrough the information, in a quasi-automatic and compulsive manner? Sensational andstressful information (war, pandemic...), especially these days, dominate the news ; people tendto seek for information when facing stressful or challenging situations to “reassert control overthe situation” [12], but the consumption of negative information lead to even more anxiety, asshown in a study where, compared to a group watching neutral or positive material, the groupexposed to negative news had an increase of anxiety after only 14 minutes of viewing time [13].On top of that, a significant bias in favor of threat-related stimuli in the environment has been

downward spiral.
The use of social networks can also promote anxiety: being exposed to other’s idyllic life canlead to negative comparison, with a feeling of inadequacy about life or appearance [15]; not to

mention cases of cyberbullying.

Finally, a phone can be considered an extension of the human self; a new term has been created,“nomophobia”, to describe the fear of being detached from mobile phone connectivity [16],which could be caused due to mobile phone addiction or an existing anxiety disordermanifesting through symptoms of nomophobia.

To conclude, anxiety and phone use are closely related, making it difficult to clearly state which one has an effect on the other. High anxiety, in the first place, may cause a high phone use, but high engagement with phone may exacerbate anxiety, leading to the deepening of a kind of downward spiral. established among anxious individuals [14], thus leading to a deepening of a kind of downward spiral.

Authored by Océane Pittet for Zario


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Thumbnail by Darya Sannikova:


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