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Tech is source of stress — and solution to address it

By Anna Li | 19 Aug 2013

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Laurel Leone checks her email every five minutes, all day long, every day. Whether she’s waiting for a flight at the airport, sitting at her desk or stopped at a red light, she is always scrolling through her inbox for the latest messages.

“I have an addictive personality,” she said. Founder and president of Leone Advertising, a web development and advertising company, she said she struggles daily with stress induced by technology.

Checking her emails all the time makes her “feel like a rat” in a psychology experiment, she said. But she “can’t stop doing it.” In fact, “the mental conversation I have going on, is very similar to that of an addiction.” (Story continues below.)

Leone isn’t alone. Silicon Valley is notorious for its hardworking engineers and powerhouse start-ups. Entrepreneurs flock to the area ready to pull all-nighters and risk their livelihoods in hopes of founding the next multi-million, if not multi-billion-dollar company.

These overachievers tend to be very driven. However, experts say their determination can lead to excessive pressure and stress – the tacit burdens that accompany high performance – which can eventually lead to negative health consequences.

Doctors see signs of stress in Silicon Valley

Dr. Stephanie Brown, the founder and director of the Addictions Institute, a treatment facility, in Menlo Park, works with “hundreds and hundreds” of patients “every day, all the time” who struggle with “addiction to the Internet.” These are people who can’t stop checking email and whose online activities are negatively affecting their lives. She also treats patients who suffer from substance abuse and find recovery more difficult because the ubiquitous Internet reinforces bad habits.

According to Brown, people learn in treatment and twelve-step programs that they have to slow down. However, once these people go back to their normal lives, “they’re feeling enormous pressure to become out of control again in their work,” she added.

Recovering Internet addicts aren’t the only ones who feel this pressure. The same expectations to work faster and more efficiently apply to the regular person working in Silicon Valley at a normal job that involves using a computer as much as they apply to Brown’s patients.

The problem is a mentality of “going as fast as you can,” because it’s “the most efficient way to live,” she explained.

There is a “chronic fear that people won’t be able to keep up anymore.”

Consequently, Brown witnesses frequent relapses among her patients. They turn to drugs, alcohol, food, excessive spending and purchasing to relieve stress.

“A lot of people are turning to marijuana with the idea” that substances can help them slow down or to go sleep, Brown said.

She blamed Silicon Valley’s frenzied culture. “It absolutely started here, and it’s more extreme in Silicon Valley,” Brown said. “We are now so out of control as a region and a culture” that pressure to overachieve has seeped into “in the elementary schools and high schools. You have to be focused on your success by the time you’re 4 years old.”

Leone agrees. Living in Menlo Park, one locus of the tech bubble, she claimed that the “gold rush mentality” makes it “really hard to unplug.”

In fact, “as a parent, sometimes I want my kids or my husband to stop paying attention to their device and pay attention to me,” she said. “But I’m guilty of exactly the same behavior.”

Young employees at risk

One factor that has insulated some high performers from immediate illness isn’t the new technology or the meditation techniques – it’s their youth.

Karen Gamow, co-founder of Clarity Seminars, a company that provides stress management training for corporations, said the “young population here” doesn’t suffer “trouble with blood pressure, but that is something people will see as they age.”

She argued that “the pace of new product development and release” is faster in Silicon Valley than in other industries or geographic locations. “On that level, most people here probably feel more stress than I would say most occupations elsewhere might” because of rapid technology changes and tight deadlines.

According to Gamow, 75 percent of the people in every class that she teaches say that they don’t sleep well at night. Some have chronic insomnia. About 35 percent of them have some kind of chronic pain. Many have digestive disorders and some suffer from sexual dysfunction and infertility due to stress from their fast-paced lifestyles.

Similarly, students in Stanford University, located in Silicon Valley also feel the effects of stress. Shingles, a contagious and painful rash from the chickenpox virus resurfacing in adults, has traditionally afflicted middle-aged 50 and 60 year olds who have compromised immune systems. Today, doctors at Stanford say they may see one or two student patients a month suffering from shingles — a phenomenon that was almost nonexistent 20 years ago. Stress is likely the culprit, doctors said.

Companies trying to address stress

Silicon Valley companies aren’t oblivious to the problem. Google is famous for its sleep pods and quiet rooms for naps and meditation. Facebook also has quiet rooms, a fitness center with free yoga classes and a health center on its campus that provides free flu shots. Netflix is known for its policy of open-ended vacation days – employees are encouraged to take as many, or as few, days as they need to rejuvenate.

In addition, Google has someone they call the Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan who teaches what he calls “Search Inside Yourself” classes for Google employees. Tan began as a software engineer at Google 12 years ago and built part of Google’s mobile search service. Today, Tan’s official job title is more than just a novelty. He teaches what Google calls useful mental habits, mindfulness and meditation practices to approximately 60 Google employees through his classes four times a year. He has worked with more than 1,000 people since he started the program in 2007. Even getting on Tan’s wait list is a competitive business: More than 300 employees are waiting for a spot. Tan declined a request to discuss his work.

Is more tech a solution?

The growing attention to stress and its effects on health has sparked new technological tools designed to calm down those who are stressed out. One such gadget, the size of an apricot, is attempting to change the way the world breathes. Neema Moraveji says he has dedicated his life to accomplishing this ambitious task.

The 34-year-old director of the Stanford Calming Technology Lab is also the co-founder of Spire, a company designing a personal device called Breathware. It allows users to track their breathing patterns on an iPhone application.

Moraveji said Breathware is “the world’s first clip-on-and-go breathing sensor.” It can monitor the user’s frequency of breath, depth of breath and size of breath as well as differentiate between breathing during laughter and talking.

Breathware illustrates an issue floating around the health and wellness questions in Silicon Valley: Can technology, seemingly a source of stress, be paradoxically a solution to reduce stress and boost health?

“I’m definitely in the camp of yes because that’s what my lab is about; that’s what my dissertation is about,” Moraveji explained. “That’s why I coined the phrase ‘calming technologies.’”

Moraveji who is also on the faculty of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, more commonly known as the d.school, said the amount of time spent “in a virtual environment” – such as time online and in front of electronic devices – is likely to increase in the next decades. “We can design that virtual world to be stressful or not just like we can design offices spaces to be stressful or not.”

Gail McNulty, student at Stanford, understands stress. She juggles raising three young children, a daughter, 7, and two sons, ages 5 and 18 months, with her husband, Bill who takes classes full-time at Stanford. McNulty is a student in Moraveji’s d.compress class, which teaches students calmness techniques. Students also work on projects to build calming technologies. McNulty and her team are working on an app to help people trying to form a meditation habit.

“People are definitely stressed out by technology,” McNulty said. “The people who are the most stressed out by it don’t realize it’s a problem. The computer can come to bed with you. That’s a very dangerous thing. It’s become so portable it’s difficult to put parameters around it.”

Another project McNulty worked on helped her organize her email account – something she constantly struggles with, much like Leone who checks her email every five minutes. “I had something crazy like 60,000 unread emails sitting in my Gmail box,” McNulty admitted. “I figured out how to make those go away and put things into folders” so the “experience is much, much less stressful than it was before.”

Moraveji notes that many apps exist to reduce stress. They work by reminding users of highly prioritized tasks, blocking pop-up ads and distractions, alerting the user to take breaks and regulating the color of his computer screen. An app called f.lux, for example, is supposed to help users synchronize their circadian rhythm with the natural times of dusk and dawn by removing blue light from the screen, a sign that nighttime is coming.

Even though Moraveji is an avid proponent of calming technologies, he still cautioned against relying too heavily on technology for stress reduction.

“Even calming technologies can become stressful” because people start “stressing out about having to use technology to calm down,” he said.

Many doctors still like low-tech approaches

When Leone asked her doctor for help to relieve her stress, instead of prescribing an app, he recommended a non-technological solution – a meditation class. She said that she saw a tremendous improvement in her productivity and is now better able to control her compulsive behaviors.

Across the board, it seems that even technophiles who experiment with stress-reduction technology still consult time-tested techniques to find calm in their hectic lives.

After all, technology works; but it also breaks and malfunctions. It is simply a tool. Whether it’s a source of stress or a stress-reliever depends on how the user interacts with technology.

Even Moraveji concluded: “There’s some responsibility on you and some of the responsibility on your environment or your technology or tools. Most of the responsibility is actually on you.”

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