In a world that is always switched ‘on’, nutritionist Clare Backhouse urges us all to learn to unplug regularly
I wonder if you’ve ever experienced this. You’re on holiday, or it’s the weekend, and you are trying to relax but then you see a message on your phone. All of a sudden you’re thinking about the content, or the sender, and you’re not relaxed anymore. Any restfulness has disappeared.
This is an example of a rhythm that got hijacked, causing your peace to be interrupted.
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course, but it’s certainly a more pervasive one since we all got smartphones. Work, social media and general busyness seem to have permeated all aspects of life.
As a result, true rhythms – the regular shifts between rest and work, between night and day, between solitude and connection – require more care than ever to preserve.
But what if there were ways to combat the ‘social media steal’, not with anxious effort, but with love? What if we could hold our boundaries with joy and without any fear of missing out (FOMO)?
The impact of unhealthy rhythms in our lives
First of all, let’s consider the rhythms of work, social media and consumerism and what they do to us. The word ‘rhythm’ isn’t a particularly good description for these, because the unspoken ‘ideal’ seems to be: ‘always on, always present, always responsive’.
These phrases may be good descriptors for God, but they’re impossible, exhausting goals for us humans. We’re not God, and we’re not designed to be ‘always on’.
Social media, work and buying things are not intrinsically wrong. They’re just aspects of life. But the rhythms of our social media accounts and our work are not set up to love us. Like all human creations, left unattended, they’ll begin to use humans for their own benefit.
Hence our social media and work life do not usually celebrate the concepts of ‘enough’, ‘rest’ or ‘relaxation away from technology and work’. Rather, they’re programmed to addict us, hold our attention and take our time or money.
What does this do for our health? It paralyses our nervous systems in the ‘sympathetic’ mode, which is rather like our body’s fifth gear. It organises our systems to be ready for ‘go’, sending blood to the brain more than the digestive tract, favouring the stress hormone cortisol over balancing the sex hormones, and getting the heart to beat faster.
So the sympathetic mode keeps us focused, and ready for action. But staying too long in ‘sympathetic’ mode can ruin our rest, and then create yet more problems, by reducing the effectiveness of digestion, interfering with sex hormone balance, and reducing the quality of sleep.
Therefore, the way you manage your iPhone can, for example, directly impact whether you gain benefit from your lunch.
God’s idea of rhythm
Unlike the rhythms of work, media and money, the rhythms described in scripture have been set up to love us. As Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2:27, NRSV).
The balance of day and night, work and rest, solitude and connection and the seasons all follow a pattern of ebb and flow, like the tides of the sea. In these rhythms, it’s paradoxically the absences that make the presences more effective.
In nutrition terms, the migratory motor complex (MMA) of the gut serves to illustrate this beautifully. In the period after eating, waves of muscle movement in the small intestine help to move food forward and at the same time ‘house clean’ the gut.
So having a clear rhythm of separate meal times (instead of constantly grazing) supports nutrient absorption and gut health.
But it’s not always easy to preserve these kinds of rhythms, because they always require a clear contrast. And since our world is ‘always on’, that usually means turning off, being absent, stopping what you were doing before. When we try to do this, however, we immediately face that cliché: FOMO.
It can feel scary to turn off phone notifications, to ignore work and work colleagues for a day, to trust that an email-less holiday is OK.
I have clients aged from 17 right through to 70 who all say how difficult it is to turn off their screens and give themselves a peaceful evening before bed. But as Jesus followers, we have a specific gift to help us here.
Where technology promises connection, we have constant connection with God’s loving presence. Where attachment to work promises control, we have a Good Shepherd who cares for us when we step away from the action.
The benefits of learning to unplug
It might take a little courage, but once we’ve plunged into the loving rhythms of God, we can feel the benefits.
As we unplug, our minds think more creatively. As we disconnect from technology, we reconnect with the real people and experiences in front of us. With our holidays as ‘holy-days’, we recharge and realign, returning to work later with clearer vision and motivation.
My top holiday tip is to turn off absolutely all notifications, and hide social apps on the last screen of your phone, so you can’t even tell how many messages are accumulating.
My wider family can call if there’s an emergency, but that’s basically it. Suddenly, the holiday stops being a mere continuation of ordinary life, and becomes a safe haven for actual rest.
And back in ordinary life, we can enjoy the micro-rhythms of rest. Like choosing to talk, or read, or listen to something enjoyable, instead of phone-scrolling over lunch. Or going outside a bit more in the daytime. Or simply taking one complete day off – really off – each week.
Because in our anxious world, peace is a super power, and loving rhythms can be harnessed to preserve it.
For more information, contact Clare through her website:
Follow her @transformationnutritionuk