The cycle of endless scrolling that feeds my anxiety

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I stare at my phone.

That sentence sounds like it could be the first in a movie script or in an exciting story I'm about to tell. (Potential next sentence: An urgent text message appears.)

But that's not how I mean those words. Instead, I mean them as an identifying characteristic, a sentence that describes me: I work for ESPN; I play basketball; I love good coffee; I stare at my phone.

Now see what I mean? It's a response to the question, "So what do you like to do? How do you spend your time?"

It's also an admission and an embarrassingly accurate description of my nearly constant state. See me on the subway platform, head down, oblivious; or on my couch, attempting to read a book, but stopping every paragraph to refresh Twitter; or at dinner, asking a friend to repeat herself because I was reading an email; or at my desk, convincing myself I'll write after reading one more news article.

Or right now, writing this, fighting the urge to Google some random factoid -- any random factoid -- to avoid the discomfort that comes with actually thinking, with actually being -- with creating instead of just absorbing. There's long been a link between absorbing and creating (first comes one, then the other), but these days, I'm rarely doing the other. I'm like a sponge that never gets wrung out.

The bottom line: I'm concerned about the future of my brain. I'm also concerned about other peoples' brains -- including, potentially, yours.

There's no news hook that exists, nor one reason why readers should care about this right now, staking this story's rightful place in the news cycle. These thoughts exist not because of the news, but in spite of it. I'm writing this because I need to. It's all I think about. Which means that, maybe, other people have also thought it -- even if the thought is buried beneath the rubble of text and Twitter and the endless stream of headlines.

***

I have long struggled with anxiety, but it's usually only attached to work -- specifically to doing TV or speaking in public. Anxiety has never just buzzed inside me all day long. Usually, if a steady and persistent thought swims in my mind, I know I must sit down and write. Writing helps me process emotion. Whenever I felt confused or like I had something to say, I knew I could work through the feeling using just pen and paper.

For me, deep thinking feels like going for a run. It's a kind of detox.

But lately, I'm feeling clumsy. The good thoughts feel farther and farther away, and if I do manage to grab one, it's slippery and impossible to hold.

My view used to seem expansive. Now it feels claustrophobic.

And now I'm feeling like I can no longer control my anxiety. It's become my companion. Perhaps the scariest part is that this endless scrolling distracts me from the anxiety, even as it feeds it.

Consider the cycle: When I'm lonely and anxious, instead of sitting with the feeling, trying to process it, I launch my phone in hopes of dulling the sensation. And it works -- temporarily. But I've done nothing to cure the underlying loneliness and anxiety. So, an hour later, or a day later, the feeling will come back stronger. And how will I fix it that next time? And the time after that?

I think we both know the answer.

This cycle is an addiction masked as productivity, as connecting. When I was playing basketball at the University of Colorado in 2000, I didn't yet have a cell phone. And during my first year on campus, I had a reckoning of sorts: I wanted to quit and give up my scholarship. Did I even love basketball? Why was I unhappy? These thoughts swirled in my mind, without distraction, every day as I walked across campus.

When I think back on that year, I'm thankful that I was forced to sit in my uneasiness, process it and come out the other side, clear-eyed and committed. When muddled emotions or feelings of loss arise now, I do everything but sit with the feeling. I wonder what this kind of confusion must feel like for younger people today, who have answers at their fingertips, but perhaps not solutions.

Personally, I have no excuse for letting it get this bad. The year after we published Split Image, a story about the suicide of a student-athlete, I immersed myself in understanding how technology and social media affects us -- I actually wrote a book for Little, Brown about Madison Holleran and young people and rising rates of anxiety and depression. It's called "What Made Maddy Run," and it's coming out in August 2017. Here's a snippet from the book's manuscript:

I was reconstructing Madison, and simultaneously deconstructing myself. I was building her, her thoughts, her important moments, from the data on a screen, drawing ideas and conclusions from fragments of her thinking, from the sliver of herself that she dared actually introduce into the world. From what existed on that computer, I was curating to make a person alive again, to make her someone who is living and breathing and feeling - in this world, right now. To attempt this, I became, for varying lengths of time, someone who wasn't.

But then I realized: we're all doing exactly this, all the time now, except we're deconstructing and reconstructing just ourselves.

At night, for hours, I would rotate loading Twitter, then Instagram, Gmail and iMessage. I stopped reading books because I couldn't concentrate, because I would launch my phone after reading each page. I rarely called people on the phone, but sent thousands of texts, many with emojis. The point is, even before I lost myself trying to reconstruct Maddy, I had already lost myself to some hollow online version of me.

And consider this: throughout human history, we have soothed ourselves by creating, by mining our brains, our hearts, and turning pain into thoughts, then turning thoughts into ideas and ideas into art -- of whatever kind. Now we are tethered to a steady hum of superficial thought. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to disconnect from that buzz, to turn inward. Even the feeling of time has shape shifted, because everything can be had instantaneously. Through this lens, it's not hard to see how carefully considered responses are being replaced by knee-jerk reactions. Exactly what are the lasting repercussions to flawed and shallow thinking? It will be quickly carried away, tumbled ashore and scattered on the beach, as we all turn our eyes to the next wave, then the next, absorbing the toxins without knowing the effects.

I wrote that a year ago -- an entire year ago! While I would never spend a year drinking Mountain Dew, then puzzle at why my fitness had deteriorated, here I am, spending most days staring at my phone, reading each click-bait article and wishing I could have my brain back, wishing I could sit down and write and think the way I used to, with a kind of clarity and stamina I took for granted.

The solution is obvious: spend less time on my phone. The thought of that feels promising and clear, like driving with the top down. And, simultaneously, the thought is scary. I want to hang out where everyone else is hanging out.

And it seems like everyone else is in my phone.

But, then again -- are they? And what version of them -- of each other -- are we getting?

This is the part where I'm supposed to share my detox program. Or offer my hard-won solution, followed by encouraging advice. But I don't have one. Not yet, anyway.

Truth is, writing this essay was as far as I got.

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