Reader Q&A: I Need To Break My Internet Addiction

Whether it’s news or cat videos, you may find you just can’t stop. Are you addicted to the internet? 

Let’s step into our reader’s experience to see how living with chronic pain and fatigue is connected to his internet news addiction. 

Also, our reader has tried to establish a daily meditation practice, to no avail! Have you ever set the goal of meditating every day, and repeatedly failed? What’s going on? Why is it so hard? 

Let’s start with the reader’s question.

READER Question

I am struggling with burnout since 2016 and have many headaches, am easily overwhelmed and struggle to do the practical stuff to keep my life afloat.

I’ve tried almost all healing modalities regular and alternative, but to no avail. Just in the past few weeks I thought I had found a piece of the solution, but a second treatment threw me back physically and now I’m in a dark spot.

I don’t want to live the rest of my life in near chronic pain and am concerned about finances etc. On top of it I have a very ominous feeling about the whole vaccination business and the unexplained excess mortality in my and other countries. If we have mass-mortality and I’m in the midst of it without health, that is not a situation I want to be in.

Ok, back to my personal situation: besides the physical impairment I also find that I spend way too much time on the internet

You probably guessed it from my previous sentence. It is an addiction, but I cannot change it somehow. I looked into why it is so compelling for me, and what I find is fear, interest in figuring out the world, and I like to retreat in the mind so I don’t have to feel the physical pain.

It is also habit. Often I just lack the energy to make another choice than getting behind the ipad, and sometimes I feel so tired that the only thing I can do is do some reading of another news site. I know, this is poisoning my mind, but just knowing it doesn’t change a thing in my experience and my energy is just too low.

I’ve been very active in spirituality, personal development and all kinds of emotional healing and psychotherapy in the past 22 years. For many years I almost lived like a monk with a full time job. I feel like an encyclopedia with tons of experience, practices and of course reading, but it just doesn’t seem to yield much. Not in happiness in life, nor in waking up.

Of course I’ve had plenty of transitory experiences, but what good does it do besides being able to tell an interesting story?

Another frustration is that I’m just terrible in establishing regular practices like a daily meditation routine.

Not that I tried a zillion times, but usually it falls apart after a few months or so. Despite attending many meditation retreats I never felt I got a lot out of it, and sometimes tried so hard that I hurt myself (back and knees).

Two positive results I can mention though: I used to struggle with depression and suicidal ideation, but nowadays that is mostly a thing of the past (although the physical setback last week threw me in a fear- and discouragement driven funk). I also met a wonderful and supporting woman to share my life with and can tell that the stuff I learned on my journey is making our relationship so much better.

Recently I found out that my desire for enlightenment (whatever it may be) is not so great as my desire to find my health back, and some control over my mind so that I can rid myself of my news addiction. It was freeing to get that kind of honesty and clarity with myself.

STRAND Answer

The word you don’t mention: Anxiety. 

You are aware of your struggle with depression, even with suicidal ideation. So you are obviously knowledgeable and self aware when it comes to mental health issues. But you don’t mention anxiety. And anxiety can be tricky because it often hides behind a façade of legitimate concern. 

I mean, wouldn’t anyone be concerned, considering everything that’s going on?

You have your list of things you are concerned about, and they seem fairly legit — after all, you’re not worried about off the wall stuff like an alien invasion. 

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between our normal state of concern — our state of being alert and attentive to potential dangers — and suffering from anxiety. Scanning our environment for potential dangers or rewards is how we are built, biologically speaking. We are wired to pay more attention to anything perceived as a possible threat.

So, how do we know when our threat-perception system has kicked into an unhealthy overdrive?  

Anxiety grinds down the mind and body. 

I understand that you have some mysterious chronic health symptoms, and that is distressing on its own. But I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that people with headaches and low energy are more likely to die of covid. 

I’m not sure where you are in the world that has such a high level of unexplained excess mortality. I spent 2020 and half of 2021 in SE Asia, and we did not see high rates of unexplained mortality. I am now in the United States and people are not dropping dead in unusual numbers here either. People are catching covid, and some of them are dying. But that’s neither unexpected nor unexplained. 

I understand feeling uneasy about the vaccines, but it’s not clear why you are anticipating mass mortality. Certainly, we could see an even more contagious or deadlier variant, one that is able to evade current and even future attempts at a vaccine. It’s possible. But is there any reason to be expecting it? 

And more importantly, how does it help you to do so? 

Our threat detection system is there to alert us to danger so we can do something about it. 

If you can’t do anything about the perceived danger, what is the point of making it the object of your continual attention? 

You remain in this very passive state of consuming, not creating. Just consuming. Consuming information is an important part of the action cycle too…you gather information before making a decision and then taking action. After the action, you gather more data to refine your understanding before taking another action. 

But in this case, you replace all the action in the sequence with worry. You consume passively and then you worry or have anxiety. Rather than build through the gather/decide/act sequence, the mind tricks you into believing worrying about a thing is equivalent to action. 

In this distorted sequence you gather/decide (come to conclusions, which may actually be catastrophizing)/worry. And then the worry generates a certain amount of motion that only propels you to gather more information. 

Now, this distorted sequence is further skewed when you start thinking that gathering information (passively consuming) is also taking the place of action. You gather information (via news addiction) and feel like you’ve done something. You think about it and come to some conclusion (which may or may not be sound), and this kind of feels like you’re doing something. And then you worry about it, which really feels like you’re doing something

All the time, you’re not doing anything. And yet, in your perception, it’s all registering as action, a substitute for taking action. 

But unlike the healthy sequence where you actually do take action, there is no real feeling of moving your life forward, of having accomplished anything, of having moved the dial, even a little.

There is a natural satisfaction that we get, chemicals released in our brain, when we move that dial. You expended your precious energy and you created some actual change. Your brain gives you a chemical reward that makes you feel good, hopeful, optimistic. 

When you spin your wheels, but don’t move that dial at all, you feel drained, pessimistic and hopeless. Stuck. Ominous. Oppressed by forces you can’t control. And your brain does not dole out any “satisfaction” chemicals as a reward.

What you put your attention on has consequences…and it can cost.  If you think of your threat detection system like a car engine, just imagine revving your motor while you’re in park or neutral. You’re not going anywhere, which is the whole point of the car in the first place. You’re just expending resources, taxing your engine and creating all kinds of waste exhaust in the process.

This is similar to what happens when you misuse your threat detection system, or when it’s not functioning properly. In your case, you may be catastrophizing: giving high probability to worst case scenarios. This is often accompanied by illogical thinking that skews your perception. 

Go back and read what you wrote to me. Try to step outside yourself and be as objective as possible. Do you feel the anxiety threaded through it? Can you detect concerns that may be built from making illogical connections between ideas? Do you see how much you look into a future that you assume to be bleak or even fatal? 

Can you feel how exhausting it is to think this way? How much it taxes your system? 

Now look at it again. Read it again. But this time write out your concerns, and then mark which ones you can realistically do something about, right now. 

People who have chronic pain or fatigue, or suffer from anxiety or depression are more prone to catastrophizing. 

And catastrophizing has been associated with increased intensity of pain in those who suffer from chronic pain. It has also been linked to increased fatigue — people who catastrophize tend to report feeling more fatigued. 

You barely have the energy to get through your day, and yet you expend energy grinding your gears predicting terrible things in the future. Thinking this way costs. Can you afford to continue? 

I’m not a mental health expert, so if you want to know more about catastrophizing, and what you can do about it, you can look it up or talk to someone with credentials in mental health. But the first step is to even be aware that you are doing it.

Until then, I would suggest being very suspicious of the negative futures you are predicting. Are these things even true? Even if they are true, can you realistically do anything about them (besides worry…which of course, is not related to doing anything useful at all)? Are you aware of how taxing it is to host these kinds of thought loops? Can you afford to pay that cost? 

Because you will have to pay…out of the “account” of your mental well being, your energy levels, your physical pain. It creates a negative spiral that just leads to more anxiety. 

Your internet/news addiction is common, and getting worse than ever these days, so you’re definitely not alone in this. You obviously know how corrosive it is.

You’re in pain, afraid, and anxious. What you need is something to soothe your nerves, something comforting, supportive and reassuring. But instead you reach for another online news article or video that inevitably tells you something negative or irrelevant to your immediate needs (or most likely, both).

So back to our threat detection system: remember, we are wired to allocate more attention and focus to anything that might be dangerous to us. But this inbuilt system is not sophisticated, it’s actually very primitive. It can easily be hijacked or thrown into overdrive by many aspects of modern living, especially the online environment. 

The currency of the internet world is attention, and everything is designed to capture and hold your attention. How can I get you to click on this? How long can I keep you on this website? How can I keep you on a loop?

When you enter the online environment, you basically become a prey animal. Our human threat/reward circuitry is so very primitive, it’s easy to design systems to capture and consume our attention. 

So you already enter this arena at a disadvantage. We all do. And every single person needs to develop keen self awareness and digital discipline/mental hygiene in order to use the internet, rather than being used by the internet. 

Here are the reasons you said you are drawn back to your internet news addiction:

Fear
Yep. It’s your threat detection system on overdrive. We’ve discussed this already. 

Interest in figuring out the world
Okay, but I’m not really buying this. I was insatiably curious too, and I often listen to history or geology or economics audio courses while I’m doing housework. There are different ways to investigate the world that are much less draining, much more complete and balanced and way more enriching than being glued to a screen. And most importantly, there are options that are not designed to consume/capture your attention…they are purely educational. 

You’ve admitted it’s poisoning your mind, so you can’t really say you’re doing it because you’re interested in figuring out the world (ie: expanding and enriching the mind). These two statements are not compatible. 

I like to retreat in the mind so I don’t have to feel the physical pain
And yet, it likely is causing you to feel more fatigued, is encouraging negative and catastrophic thinking, which is associated with increased levels of…pain

Consider this: When you’re indulging in your internet addiction, you’re not actually “checking out” from the pain. You’re logging in to top up on fear and negativity, draining your energy, your creativity, your ability to follow through with forward motion.

You are going around in a circle: pain, fatigue, negative and fearful thoughts of the future, which lead to feeling drained and more fatigued, pain, then login and top up again. Your internet addiction is part of that cycle. And all the while, your valuable attention is being captured and consumed. 

Again, there are other ways to retreat into the mind that are actually enriching and creative and soothing. They don’t generally require screen time. 

When you know something is unhealthy and destructive, and you give reasons why you do it, those reasons are really excuses. You already know this, so just dispense with the excuses and be completely clear and forthright with yourself. 

You admit that it poisons your mind. Let’s go with that. If you had to drink one teaspoon of bleach (straight up!) every twenty minutes you were online (excluding essential tasks), how long do you think you’d keep up this internet news habit? And how valid would your stated reasons be: fear, wanting to figure out the world, checking out from feeling pain? Imagine measuring out a teaspoon of bleach after a 20 minute non-essential internet session. Would you be able to state those “reasons” with a straight face? 

The online environment is a dangerous place for people who want to maintain their sanity and wellbeing.

I want you and everyone else reading this to read it again, and sit with it.

There is nothing casual about browsing or device usage. You have entered the Digital Savanna…as a prey animal. There are all kinds of very sophisticated predators trying to capture and consume your attention. They know how valuable your attention is, even though you don’t have a clue.

You seem not to value your attention at all, nor do you know what to do with it. You don’t realize your attention is currency, it is a limited resource, it is used for magic, and you are spending it.

To enter this environment casually, ignorantly or lazily is to concede to being fed upon, used and diminished. 

You’ve entered this domain in ignorance, and you are seeing the result. It’s not your fault, and yet, you’ve got to do the hard work to get yourself out of this trap.

There are two issues here:

  • your actions (including your choices)
  • your willingness to unequivocally accept authorship of your choices and actions. 

It starts with cultivating awareness and radical honesty. 

Take a clear eyed assessment of your mental state: What is your current state of mind? Do you suffer from anxiety? Are you prone to catastrophic thinking? Are you thinking clearly? Are the “reasons” for action/inaction in your life actually excuses? What are you hiding from? Where in your life have you given up responsibility and authorship? Do you think you can control your feelings? Do you believe your thoughts are real, and that you are the one thinking them? Do you think thought loops or thought habits can be changed, and that you can change yours? Do you think you can make changes in your life? Do you think you can improve your life? Do you think you are worth the effort?

Make a real, true and compassionate assessment of how you feel right now. How you think and how you feel are not always (or even often) the same. Do you feel you can improve your life? Do you feel in control of your actions? Do you feel you can control your thoughts? Do you feel it’s worth the effort? Do you feel you are worth the effort? 

How much do you value your sanity and wellbeing? Honestly? And how does that translate into your actions? You can look at your actions and choices and they will tell you what you value. It’s a true measure. What are they telling you?

Make a clear assessment of your mental and emotional state. Get a clear understanding of how much, or little, you value your sanity and wellbeing. Where does your sanity and wellbeing rank in your life, in terms of importance and priority? What are you willing to do to cultivate and defend your sanity and wellbeing? 

After making your assessments (and this should take time, really sit with it), go back and read your initial questions. What do you notice, what do you hear in your own writing? 

The thing is, you have to love your sanity and wellbeing above all, or else you’ll always take the easy way out. 

You’re up against some fierce predators who never sleep, never get tired, never waver in their quest to capture and consume your attention. They are focused and intentional. And here you are, already at a disadvantage, because your wiring is so primitive and easy to hijack. Plus, you ARE tired, confused, in chronic pain.  

You have to value your sanity and wellbeing very highly, or else you won’t be able to generate the effort to resist. And to make yourself feel better about giving in, you’ll have to lie to yourself about it. Lying to yourself is more corrosive than the addiction itself.  

“I just lack the energy to make another choice than getting behind the ipad”

Yes, I understand that you are exhausted and feel you have very little left, but you are telling yourself your fatigue makes it impossible to choose anything else. Is that true? Or have you conveniently crafted a statement that makes an excuse for not taking responsibility for your choices? 

“I feel so tired that the only thing I can do is do some reading of another news site.”

Do you really believe this? Is this truly the only possible choice when you feel very tired? Or is this another excuse for giving up responsibility for what you choose to give your attention to? There is a reason it’s called paying attention. You only pay for things with something that is very valuable.

You are saying you’re in a state of extremely low personal resources, and so all you can do is give up the very valuable resource of your attention as a means of escape. Does that make sense to you? 

This isn’t meant to be confrontational, but I want you to get very clear on what you’re telling yourself: I am not responsible, there is no other possible choice I can make. You may not want to make another choice, you may not be willing to make another choice, but I assure you…there are other choices and you are capable of making them. 

Changing your statements to I’m not willing rather than I can’t isn’t just a nitpicking matter of semantics. It’s honesty. It’s being truthful with yourself and taking back your essential authority. 

I’m not asking you to be superhuman, I’m just suggesting you get better at being human. 

We come into this human life with so many deficits, blind spots, primitive basic systems, cognitive vulnerabilities and no operating manual. We spend a lot of time in a kind of remedial mode.

Awareness, discipline, authorship, sanity and clarity seem like super human abilities, or skills that only monks who meditate 12 hours a day on mountaintops can master. But it’s not true. 

And it’s not true that conditions in your life have to be optimal for you to cultivate these qualities. Your current physical debility is no barrier to developing these qualities, in fact, in can be the catalyst. 

There is nothing preventing you from taking control of your own behaviors and thought patterns. There is nothing preventing you from making your own choices. You are doing it all the time, only not claiming authorship of all your your choices, your state of mind, your thought patterns.

Yet you are surely choosing and cultivating them. You are hosting thoughts. You are affirming and reinforcing habits. You are choosing. To wiggle out of the responsibility of choosing, you generate the fiction that you are not choosing. That your ability to choose has been erased by your fatigue and pain.

Indeed, your choices may be limited by your fatigue and pain, but you still have choices. And perhaps because of your physical ailments, it is even more important that you exercise your choices honestly and wisely. 

Bodies suck, one sympathizes. 

For years, the bones in my hands and feet would break for no reason. I’d be putting lotion on my hands, and my finger would break. I’d be walking in my house and my foot bones would break. My bone density and bloodwork came back normal. There was no explanation. 

There was almost never a time when I didn’t have a broken bone. I might get three weeks at a time without nursing broken bones. And there was nothing I could do to avoid it, since they broke without any apparent trauma. I often had so many splints on my hands that I couldn’t drive, cook, clean, bathe or use my computer without assistance. 

All my work was done online, so this was devastating. Sometimes I couldn’t even comfortably hold a book. I could no longer pursue the joyful activities of cooking, gardening, hiking, photography…and travel. I used to travel all the time, for months or even years in a stretch. Forget that. I had to give up riding my motorcycle, too. And the pain. The sudden helplessness and limitation…with no answer, no cause, no way to fix it. 

Bodies can really suck. Even so, we still choose. We choose our perspective. We choose which thoughts we are willing to host. We choose our mental posture. We choose what we value and prioritize. We choose to be honest or to deceive ourselves. We choose where we invest our attention. 

I love myself. I love my sanity and wellbeing. I love being rooted in clarity and strength and sovereignty…regardless of external conditions. I choose these things, above all. Above despair. Above “the end is nigh.” Above identifying with fear and loss and victimhood. 

We go through phases in our lives when we have very little control of our circumstances — those circumstances bear down on us, whether that’s a mysterious illness or war or a pandemic. But we do have dominion over our inner domain.

It is our responsibility to make it a welcoming, comfortable, safe and nourishing place to rest. There are WOLRDS inside of me to which I can retreat…nothing on Netflix can compare! It is the same for you, but you must build it, cultivate it, discover it, choose it, endow it with your attention, love and…magic. 

It’s not perfection we’re striving for. It’s choosing moment by moment to not add to an already difficult situation by inviting and hosting thought loops that make us more fearful, more helpless. Choosing not to imprint our highly impressionable minds with a lot of useless trash that’s designed to keep us hooked.

You will die. Whether it’s alone, slipping and falling in your bathtub or along with a billion other people in some mass mortality event. The question is not how you are going to die, it’s how you are living, right now, and in all the now-moments until your inevitable end. 

Choose. 

“I can’t establish a daily meditation practice!”

I love this! This always tickles me. You can’t even fathom how often I hear this. And also the stories about how hard a person has tried, how many classes or programs or retreats they’ve gone to, how their knees or butts are permanently calloused from the effort!

First of all, you could do it.  Once again you are using the word can’t when you really mean you are not willing to. If I led you to believe without doubt that I would cut off one of your fingers every day you did not sit in meditation for 20 minutes, you would do it. Every day. So let’s drop this fiction that you are not able to do this. You are able.

The question is, do you want to? Your actions say, no.

Maybe you think you should, which is very different from wanting to.

Seriously inquire as to why you think you should. Really look into this. Write it out. Do you think it’s generally good and everyone should do it, like flossing? Or do you believe it will solve a problem specific to yourself? When you say “meditate”…what does that even mean? What does meditation mean to you? What are you meant to get out of it? Why do you believe this? Investigate. 

Next: why do you believe sitting meditation or whatever kind of meditation you’ve been struggling with is the kind of meditation you should be doing? Just because some men a couple thousand years ago did it and it worked great for them doesn’t mean it is a) the only way to “meditate” and b) right for you (or everyone). 

Get clear on the following:

  • Your unexamined beliefs about meditation.
  • Whether you want to do it, or think you should.
  • What do you expect to gain from doing it? Are you trying to get vague general benefits or specific results to a problem you have? 

Once you really understand these things, you can figure out if you need to meditate at all, what you are trying to accomplish, and what kinds of meditation (or other activities/practices that are not called meditation, but would actually give you the results you are after) would work for you. Then you can decide if you want to (are truly willing to) establish that practice. 

If you are trying to clear your mind, soothe your nerves, clear your space…there are many ways to do that that are easy and don’t require you to be physically uncomfortable and may look nothing at all like “meditation.” 

Congratulations for growing beyond your quest or fascination with enlightenment. Very well done. For most people, the earnest pursuit of mental stability and wellbeing, learning to be your own best friend, financial literacy and learning to laugh, lighten up and love will improve a person’s life infinitely more than any attempts toward enlightenment. 

Stop decieving yourself. 

Whether or not you continue with your internet habit is less important than continuing a pernicious habit of deceiving yourself by not taking full responsibility for your choices. Telling yourself you can’t stop when you evidently can. Telling yourself you can’t make any other choice, when you obviously can. It’s not honest, and being internally dishonest is the real problem. 

Whether or not you establish a daily meditation practice is not as relevant as the habit of telling yourself you tried this and that and even ruined your knees…but you can’t do it…when of course, you can

Next time you choose to indulge in your internet addiction, make the clear statement that you could choose something else right at that moment, but you are actively, knowingly choosing to indulge your internet addiction. Then…indulge.

Because you are in control. Yes, you are tired and in pain and just want to check out. Believe me, I get it. No one is going to deny your suffering or fault you. In fact, no one is watching. No one cares. No one is judging. It’s just you, alone, so why lie to yourself? Be completely honest and live with the consequences. Because you own both the choice and the outcome. 

Snap out of it.

If you want to investigate various methods of breaking an internet/news addiction, you can easily find them. Personally, if I want to stop doing something, I stop. Sure, that sounds ridiculously simple. And it is. It may not be easy, but it is simple. Don’t do the thing. 

Investigate other options, things you can do and enjoy when you are feeling very tired and low and just need downtime. 

To me, the internet addiction is just a symptom of a wider rut you’ve fallen into, and I’m asking you to wake up from your somnambulance. Snap out of it.

The pain and fatigue and not knowing how to cure yourself and not knowing if you’ll have to be this way forever has ground you down so that you’re not fully conscious. Your vision has blurred to the point where you can’t see the sharp edge of your own power, authority, clarity and responsibility. You only see the dullness of the very real limitations and uncertainties, but you’ve numbed to your own magic, potency and brilliance. 

Breathe in the light of the stars and let that cleansing fire burn away your torpor. I know things are hard, but for that very reason…because you are living through big challenges, you can’t afford to forget who you are.

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