I am a proponent for reduced screen time because of a brain injury. I suffered a debilitating concussion in 2018 after I was hit by a car. For over a year, I was unable to look at active digital screens without suffering vertigo, confusion, or seizures.
The only way to recover from a concussion is to rest. Initially I thought this referred to physical output alone, so I continued to read the news online whenever I was awake. After seeing that my condition was worsening, my neurologist explained to me that every time I looked at a screen, I was re-injuring my brain.
It was once believed that a traumatic brain injury required no more than three months of rest to heal. This was before constant media bombardment became a fact of everyday life. Engaging with media screens keeps the brain turned on and can lead to overstimulation, even when it is exhausted and craving sleep.
Too much screen time
Though most people are not walking around with inorganic brain injuries, the National Headache Foundation has reported increased headaches and neurological symptoms in tandem with the rise of screen time. Most pressingly, the time we spend on our screens has negative effects upon developing brains, while reducing that engagement has yet to yield anything but positive results.
There was great hope that summer would allow workers to cut their reliance upon video conferencing, but as outbreaks continue to surge, one fact has become clear: until a coronavirus vaccine is developed, Zooming and working from home is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
That is one reason why self-care is even more essential now than ever.
When self-care involves screen time
Unfortunately, for most people, transitioning from Zoom-reality and back into quarantine reality means trading one digital platform for another; eight hours of staring into a bright computer screen followed by four to six hours of staring into a mobile device or flatscreen TV.
According to Nielsen, the week of March 30, 2020 saw the total hours spent on DTV devices jump by 81% from the previous year. Video streaming to TV usage soared by 85% for adults, cable news ratings rose by as much 60% during March, spending on mobile apps increased by 23.4%, and Zoom app downloads jumped by a factor of 30 in March of 2020 while overall Zoom usage quadrupled.
The precise verdict on how much screen time usage has increased during the pandemic is not yet in. But when one considers that 2019’s total came in as high as 11 hours and 27 minutes per day, the prospect is alarming.
What does self-care look when it is not possible to go to the gym or to visit the bar with friends, and you’re also trying to reduce screen time? I spoke with Yolo Akili, the founder of BEAM–which advocates for mental healthcare and dispelling medical mistrust in Black communities–to find out.
How to do self-care without screen time
Set clear boundaries
For Akili, wellness is impossible within a grind culture in which employees have zero hope of recovering from nonstop eight hour shifts attached to their screens.
In this sense, self-care starts with communicating reasonable expectations about what is achievable, whether one is working from home or in the office. This includes taking actual breaks, rather than working through lunch, and checking in with your needs.
Check in with yourself
How often have you asked yourself, “How am I doing today? What do I need to feel whole?” It may feel silly, but give it a try. Carve out 10 minutes for yourself.
Write down the question on a piece of paper, turn off the lights, sit in a chair or lie down on the floor, close your eyes and breathe.
Count backwards from ten, ask the question aloud, and have a conversation with yourself about what you want (without judgment, even if it feels unrealistic).
Think of a few plans that can lead towards making what you spoke about a reality. Open your eyes and yawn. Slowly get up, and return to your day.
These check-ins can help one connect with their feelings and needs, according to Akili, which is a necessary step for discovering the type of care that you need.
Try sensory deprivation
During my concussion recovery, I learned to calm my brain down through sensory deprivation. I achieved this by running a bath of lukewarm water, putting in earplugs, turning off the lights, and then lying down on my back in the water until my ears were submerged.
While focusing on taking deep breaths, sometimes I’ll even raise my legs so that they are leaning against the bathroom wall. This elevation helps to alleviate swollen ankles and increase blood flow.
The purpose of this sensory deprivation is not to fall asleep. Rather, it replicates an angst-free, gestational state. Once I feel that the stress in my body has melted away, I hum a favorite song for a few minutes, bend my knees, slowly sit up, drain the water, take a warm shower, and step out of the washroom feeling refreshed.
Community care over self-care
“When it comes to practices that help sustain and nourish ourselves, having a community involved is critical,” says Akili. Rather than going for a walk or gardening by oneself, he encourages participants to consider collaborative and collective meditation–“engaging other folks around what those practices could be as opposed believing ‘I’ve got to figure it out myself’.”
In this way, the burden of isolation is reduced. Instead of going for a run by yourself, find a quarantine buddy, put on a mask and go for a socially distanced power walk around the block.
If gardening is more your speed, try working in different parts of a garden together with the understanding that you will trade sections every other session. You tend the garden faster and grow new bonds with your friend.
Nurturing over soothing
When tending to one’s needs, Akili draws a distinction between experiences that leave on feeling connected to our bodies and rooted within ourselves–which he calls nurturing–versus things that are soothing.
Soothing experiences can provide immediate satisfaction, but fill one with guilt afterwards. A soothing activity could be eating ice cream even though you are lactose intolerant, or watching a new movie after a day spent on the computer.
Rather than eliminate soothing practices–especially during a world crisis–Akili suggests limiting them while also accepting that what looks soothing to one person may in fact be nurturing to another.
I gave coloring and free-writing a try and found myself unconsciously working through a writer’s block. By allowing myself to think about something else, my creative energies replenished and a mental mystery resolved itself.
Embrace intention but work without a set goal
“Sometimes goal-oriented self-care is unhelpful,” Akili says. It can replicate the high-stakes pressure of a stressful job.
Consider the impact of setting unrealistic exercise goals such as “I need to lose 30 pounds!” or expecting a therapeutic painting session to end in the creation of a masterpiece.
Rather than allow that stress to derail your wellness practice, “Try doing a puzzle with a goal of putting it together for yourself or for your family,” says Akili. The intention is to alleviate anxiety, nothing more, nor less. With a puzzle, you can relax in the knowledge that eventually a solution will appear. Embracing that patience for oneself is an act of self-love that nurtures the soul.
Friends that dance together, stay together
Feeling isolated can be a drag, particularly when you don’t want to be by yourself. Akili notes that Debbie Allen has found a wonderful workaround for this dilemma. She livestreams Instagram dance parties to followers all over the world.
Inspired by Allen’s example, I arranged a virtual birthday dance party with friends. I picked a playlist and costume theme, and got everyone to agree to trade dance moves with me for at least one song. By the end of the night, we were all doing the electric slide and the wobble while laughing at how connected we felt even though we were not in the same physical space.
This does mean engaging with a digital interface. That may seem at odds with my call to reduce screen time, but as a former professional dancer and instructor, I believe that the gains from communal connection and physical exertion make this limited use of technology worthwhile. In addition, university researchers from York and Sheffield found that dancing for at least five minutes improved problem-solving skills and spatial awareness, a boost in endorphins, and a reduction in cortisol.
With that in mind, perhaps midday office Zoom dance parties should replace a few meetings a week.
A cookout and sip session
Restaurants, cookouts, and bars are shut down, but that does not mean that people are unable to enjoy delicious fellowship with one another. Taking a cue from his American Southern roots, Akili visited friends who set up chairs outside of their screen doors with pre-cooked plates of food and cleaning supplies waiting for him. The following week, he played host and prepared the meal.
Eating and drinking with friends is one of the most powerful ways to boost one’s spirit. It may not be at your favorite bar, but lean into community engagement and find a group of friends to share a meal with. Even if all you’re sharing is blue box macaroni and cheese and rum punch, the solidarity will restore your soul.
Akili is a Hatha yoga instructor. “A lot of people shy away from yoga because they feel like, I can’t do this pose in this particular way because of my body type or because of an injury,” he says, but adds, “yoga is not just about poses; it’s about connecting with your breath in your body.”
Lotus position–sitting upright with crossed legs–is a favorite position for Akili. It encourages alignment, healthy blood flow, smooth breathing, and opens the hips.
Because of my tight hip-sockets, it is not a comfortable position for me. Modification is key, according to Akili. Rather than try to fit myself into someone else’s version of lotus position, I do what I can with the understanding that I will get better with time.
Be open to change
According to Akili, we all have a tool belt and we “have to figure out what tool works for us.” Something that worked previously may stop yielding the same results later on. Don’t panic. That simply means that your needs have changed and you’re ready to move on.
Rather than holding onto something that no longer serves, be open to new experiences and embrace that change is natural, wonderful, and a sign of growth.
“I think being flexible is important.” Akili says. It’s just as important to understand that there is no need to rush into finding the next fix. “It’s really important to understand this is a journey. The journey will change; your body’s needs will change; your spirit’s needs will change.”
Checking in with your needs, finding community, setting boundaries, developing new interests, and embracing evolution are the keys to personal wellness and self-care. Give yourself a break with these activities, and take a rest from Zooming and falling down the rabbit hole of the latest streaming sensation.