The power of digital mindfulness: Q&A with Christina Malecka
It seems pretty obvious that most of us are addicted to our phones. Walking down the street, most of our heads are down, scrolling or texting. Yet, this is a brand new human behaviour. 20 years ago, most people didn’t have a cell phone and if we did, it wasn’t cool to be pulling it out all the time. Fast forward to today, there is an expectation and pressure many of us feel to be available and accessible. ALL. THE. TIME. Yet, if you step back from the buzzing and pinging, nothing is actually that important or groundbreaking to warrant constant scrolling.
We listened to this great interview on the Ships podcast with Seattle-based psychotherapist and digital mindfulness expert, Christina Malecka, who said something really wise: “We can gain MORE from disconnecting.”
So, we reached out to interview Christina to learn more about what we can gain, and how. For anyone who wants more flow and less hustle, you’ll get a lot from this conversation (we CAN’T wait to try her free, self-guided digital mindfulness retreat). Take a read and let us know how this lands with you!
Head + Heart: We know how we feel when we’re on our computers or phones all day (i.e. not amazing) but what is the science saying about how too much tech use impacts our wellness?
Christina Malecka: It’s important to note that most of the technology we use all the time is so new that research findings are constantly changing. Think about it: humans had hundreds of years to adapt to the massive cultural and neurological changes brought about by the printing press. Yet we have only had 12 years to adjust to smartphones!
The average American spends about 4 hours a day on their phone and 10 hours a day total on screens. And that’s not even counting time spent on screens for work or school! What we do know is that this time spent in the digital world optimizes our brains’ networks for information processing and gives us surface level connections to thousands of people. However, neuroscientists also know that when we spend too much time glued to our screens we weaken the neural networks needed for contemplation, deep thinking, sustained attention and emotional connection.
Staring at screens before bedtime exposes us to blue light that interferes with melatonin production and restful sleep, and research indicates that time spent communicating through machines decreases empathy. Bottomless feeds, notifications, 24-hour availability and “like” buttons keeps us in sustained adrenaline-fueled sympathetic nervous system states. This is the fight or flight stress state that can eventually lead to heart attack, stroke and other serious health problems. In addition, when we are always able to pick up our phones to distract ourselves we lose the benefit of deep emotional inquiry and boredom, which is key for creativity and knowing self and others.
But there’s good news: our brains never stop growing, and we can rewire our capacity for focus, creativity, contemplation and social connection by learning to work without distraction, tolerate boredom and connecting with people face-to-face in real time.
H+H: You already had a thriving psychotherapy practice before your launched DigitalMindfulness.com. What exactly propelled you to focus on digital mindfulness retreats and education?
CM: As a psychotherapist for 16 years, I’ve had a front row seat to the emotional impacts that an “always on” culture, smartphones and social media have on my clients: notably increased loneliness, anxiety, and alienation. I myself am just as negatively impacted by the constant, relentless distraction presented by my screens. In 2016, I took myself on a week-long tech free retreat: no phone, laptop, tablet or TV. It was SO MUCH HARDER than I thought it would be. For the first two days I was anxious, bored and irritable. But I committed to meditation, time in nature, self-reflection and connection with good friends and my partner. By day 3 I felt myself drop into my body and into a state of deep relaxation and contentment. I was flooded with insight and inspiration and felt joy and peace that I had not been able to touch for years.
What was happening on a physiological level? I was moving out of a tech-induced sympathetic nervous system state and into a parasympathetic state of relaxation, social connection and rest. I was also able to make commitments to myself to moderate my use of technology and have been able to stick with those commitments (for the most part – I AM human!) since that time.
In addition to being a therapist, I have a background as a social change maker, group facilitation and mindfulness practitioner and thought: “I could bring this experience to other people!” I booked a retreat center, got the word out and held my breath. People came! And they loved it! Digital Mindfulness Retreats were born.
H+H: How does our culture at large feed our tech addictions, and why is it so important for us to be aware of these factors?
CM: We live in an attention economy where every effort is made to distract us with the end goal of selling us products or influencing our behavior. Social media platforms, websites and other digital media creators intentionally manipulate two factors that are proven to encourage behavioral addiction: intermittent positive reinforcement and our drive for social approval.
We know from long-standing psychological research that rewards delivered unpredictably are far more enticing than those delivered consistently. With unpredictability comes a release of dopamine that keeps us constantly checking our phones, experiencing a compulsive state of both pleasure and anxiety. This is not by accident. Former Google executive Tristan Harris blew the whistle on this when he called smartphones “slot machines in our pockets.”
Additionally, we have a deep drive for social approval rooted at the bottom of our brainstems since Paleolithic times. For early humans, social approval meant survival. If we did not get along with our fellow hunters or gatherers, we ran the risk of being cast out and dying. Humans are wired for deep emotional connection with others, and we need it to survive and thrive. Social media in particular exploits this instinct with like buttons, platforms for social comparison, and performative “belonging.”
All of this is driving us to behavior that threatens our health, relationships and autonomy. It’s important to be aware of this and find ways to fight back to retain our humanity.
H+H: Can you say a little about your process working with people in the retreats you run? What do people walk away with?
CM: The retreats are dedicated to equipping people to practice mindfulness, and to take that practice home with them, to reap the many lasting benefits.
Screens keep us distracted and isolated. Mindfulness is the opposite of distraction and the key to a healthier relationship with technology. Sitting in the present moment reminds us of our humanity, presence, and capacity to connect with others.
In fact, mindfulness practice not only reduces stress, but research tells us that a sustained mediation practice can actually increase gray matter in the areas of the brain responsible for sustained attention, self-control, compassion and bodily awareness: all the things that tend to degrade when we spend a lot of time on our screens. In fact, mindfulness practice provides the best possible “re-wiring” for our tech-stressed brains and bodies.
Every element of Digital Mindfulness Retreats is intentionally designed to pull people out of those sympathetic states of fight or flight and into parasympathetic states of embodiment, presence, calm and social engagement. My retreats are not just tech free fun time (although we do have fun!). They are immersive experiences that include meditation, present-moment awareness, social connection, and self-reflection. This is much more than a “digital detox.” It’s about identifying your values and passions and getting support to put them front-and-center.
Every retreat starts with building community, creating group agreements and getting to know each other. I then ask participants to reflect on who or what they want to be more present for and to turn over their phone or other devices for the duration of the retreat. I serve as the emergency contact for loved ones to decrease participant’s anxiety about missing something important so they can release into the experience.
We spend time exploring the meaning of mindfulness and I offer many opportunities for guided meditation and reflection. It is important to me that we discuss the Buddhist and cultural roots of the modern mindfulness movement and embrace the perspective that Digital Mindfulness is not just about improving your life, but also looking up from your screens to be intentional about your relationships and how you can be of service to a greater good.
Nature heals: there’s nothing like spending time in the forest or by the ocean and focusing on your 5-senses to move you into present moment awareness. This is why Digital Mindfulness Retreats are held in beautiful natural settings. I encourage participants to get outside and awaken their senses through guided exercises and lots of free time.
Folks deeply connect with other participants to understand the cost of constant connection and explore your emotional relationship with social media. Through group and one-on-one discussions, we get real about the emotional needs we are seeking to meet through social media and make sure that those needs are also met off-screen. I teach participants about Sympathetic Joy and how it can help us to have a more embodied and less envious experience with social media.
Helping people remember and develop skills for social connection is one of the primary purposes of these retreats. I provide options for introverts and respect boundaries, but this is not a silent meditation retreat where people stay in their self-contained bubbles. I want to give participants an experience of deep connection to remind them it’s worth pushing through awkwardness to know each other.
I share concrete strategies for tech-life balance to empower people to set intentions and goals to stay electronically connected on their own terms. We support each other to do the hard work of transforming our relationships with technology to one of intention and balance. I want to help participants reclaim their time for joy, meaning, connection and purpose and to leave with action steps they can put to work for them immediately.
Digital Mindfulness Retreats are trauma-informed and social justice-oriented and much effort is put into creating as comfortable a space as possible for people of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, abilities, sizes and spiritual traditions. It is my hope to serve not just people who are typically comfortable attending retreats (often white women), but to be accountable to all communities.
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To learn more about Christina Malecka, digital mindfulness, and see what some of her retreat participants have said about their experiences in these retreats, click here. Christina’s got two retreats coming up! One in Mexico in March at the stunning Present Moment Retreat Centre, and another in Washington in June at the gorgeous Whidbey Island Institute.