brainEMO: Stress connects, technology isolates?

brainEMO is a fresh BRAINetwork venture centered on emotional well-being and mental health. This is the third entry in the series, where features will take multiple forms and approaches. 

Our previous entries touched on stress and emotional neglect in society, issues that are intricately linked. Society is more stressed than ever, despite better education, income, medical advancements, amenities, nutrition and machines that simplify labour. Logically, this should leave us with more time, more freedom, more control. So why does the opposite appear to be true?

Stress is almost always viewed in a bad light. Most research highlight cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and its detrimental effects. There is less attention on oxytocin (the “love/bonding hormone”), which is also released during stress. Besides inhibiting the stress response, oxytocin stimulates us to seek support and connection (e.g. misery loves company), which further reduces stress through confiding, sharing and thus creating a social support system. After all, how many of us have bonded over grief (e.g. MH370), heartbreak or work stress? Under normal circumstances, we are less likely to do so at the risk of appearing weak, incompetent or dependent. Perhaps the solution lies not in eliminating, but rather effectively managing stress. Stress can be positive (eustress), like preparing for a promotion or a wedding – to a certain extent, it can depend on how one views it. Well-adjusted individuals do not necessarily have less stress, they could be just better at reframing and dealing with it, often buoyed by a strong social network of family and friends.

This leads to how technology (in some ways) have become a convenient surrogate for relationships and connection. While social media has revolutionized and made communication more accessible globally, it has also blurred traditional boundaries. Its instantaneous, 24/7 availability and global nature is highly compatible with our busy lifestyles. We are able to control how we appear in our profiles, when and how we interact a lot more  – a world where highly polished, edited and perfect images reign supreme. Indeed, most millennials are more comfortable interacting via social media. This can be an issue when social media replaces (rather than supplements) real life interactions, which is becoming more common. Many are guilty of being glued to our phones during communal meals, meetings or daily commutes – thus, tuning out when we are supposed to be bonding. Friendships, dating or breaking up over text is quicker and easier, relieving us from dealing with its emotional trappings. Is it any wonder then that we gradually become more emotionally stunted or socially awkward over time?

Is it ironic that stress promotes bonding while technology inhibits it, contrary to their typically accepted roles? Not really. By and large, it boils down to if we control it, or if it controls us. Learn more by listening to these inspiring TEDtalks by sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle (Connected, but alone?) and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal (How to make stress your friend), then decide for yourself.

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