If you check your phone throughout the day, or reach for it the moment you hear it ring, you might be surprised by the impact a simple notification can have on your brain. Whether you hear it or see it, the alert can trigger a whole host of emotions, chemical reactions, and resulting side effects. And that includes everything from stress and anxiety, to excitement, and even feelings of addiction.
"Alerts and notifications give us instant attention that make us feel good," Dr. Catherine Jackson, licensed psychologist and board-certified neurotherapist, tells Bustle. "However, while technology has its pros, too much of anything can turn into a bad thing."
Of course, there's nothing wrong with feeling excited about a text, checking for emails, or responding to notifications on social media. But it's important to also check in with yourself, to make sure all these alerts aren't doing more harm than good.
If it seems like the habit of reaching for your phone is getting out of control, it can help to set limits. For example, you might want to "turn off all non-essential notifications (desktop and mobile) so that [you're] not unnecessarily distracted," Alexis Haselberger, a productivity and time management coach, tells Bustle. "At first, [you] may have some hesitation or trepidation related to [...] not being up-do-date with [your] notifications. But as soon as [you] give it a try [you'll] feel an immediate sense of relief."
Once you've gotten your work done, studied, had lunch with friends, etc., you can always turn them back on. It's all about striking a balance, and figuring out what's best for you. Here are some shocking things that can happen to your brain, according to experts, whenever you get a notification.
You Feel Good
"We all want to hear the ding of someone responding to us, liking a comment or post, and getting an email we have been waiting for," Dr. Jackson says. But there's an interesting reason why you might feel a pang of excitement, too.
Notifications can trigger dopamine, the "reward" neurotransmitter, to be released in the brain, Dr. Jackson says. And that can make you feel good.
Your Brain Tries To Multitask
As soon as you see a notification pop up, you may be tempted to read it, even if you're already involved in another task. And that's when multitasking — or, at least, an attempt to multitask — can occur within the brain.
"Most people feel they can multitask but the brain is not meant to do so," Dr. Jackson says. "When you multitask you often do not give your best to both or all tasks you are juggling. And every time you switch back and forth from tasks you also get a rise in cortisol, a stress hormone."
Anxiety Can Creep In
Thanks to the rise in cortisol, it's not uncommon to feel stressed when receiving notifications. In fact, "people who constantly check their alerts have higher anxiety," Dr. Jackson says. "Cortisol levels rise and when this is the brain’s typical presentation [...] it may lead to other mental, emotional, and physical concerns."
You Aren't Fully Present
Even if you try really hard to multitask, it's not actually possible to do two things at the same time. So keep this in mind when you're out socializing, and see a message pop up on your phone.
As Dr. Jackson says, notifications divert your attention away from what's going on around you, and can make you seem (and feel) cut off. That's why you should "only respond to actual emergencies and step away to do so," she says. "When you return be fully engaged in those who are with you."
You Can Feel Angry
Notifications trigger a dopamine release, which not only feels good but can "train" you to take action and respond, psychotherapist Michele Paiva, tells Bustle. Add in serotonin, a chemical that makes you feel valued, as well as endorphins, which can provide a sense of excitement (or anxiety), and you might notice that alerts can cause quite the emotional response.
"You have a chemical reaction that becomes Pavlovian," Paiva says. "You hear the notification and based upon past responses, you feel a response that matches, regardless of the reality." And depending on what you were reading or chatting about, you might even feel angry for no real reason.
"For instance, if you’ve been in a heated political debate or online drama, you may hear a notification and feel anger and stress, even if the notification was that someone liked a positive quote or photo of dessert posted a year ago," Paiva says. "It’s amazing what sound and emotional response can do!"
Burnout Can Occur
With alerts coming through on a regular basis, "your brain's dopamine and cortisol pathways can become ‘worn out’ by the constant over-stimulation and you will find yourself more anxious and less happy," Elesa Zehndorfer, PhD, tells Bustle. And that's because cortisol responds most to feelings of uncertainty.
Since you never really know what a notification is for, you can start to feel stressed and burned out, especially if you don't give yourself a break from time to time.
You Can Become Addicted
Due to the release of all those aforementioned brain chemicals, and the rewarding feelings you can get from receiving notifications, it's not uncommon to experience tech addiction, Dr. Zehndorfer says. And as is the case with any addiction, this can open you up to some negative mental health implications, including a disruption to family and general life contentment levels and well-being, she says. So be on the lookout for signs you're relying too heavily on your phone, or spending too much time online. And if you need to, there's nothing wrong with reaching out for help.
It Can Mask Emotional Pain
Notifications can not only be used as a form of distraction, but they also provide a rush of excitement, which can be a way of masking emotional pain. And this works in a similar way to many other addictions.
"All addictions increase pleasure by acting on the brain’s reward system," psychotherapists Lin Anderson, LMHC, M.A., Ed.M and Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, tell Bustle. "Every time you get a 'like' on social media dopamine is released in the brain making you feel good." So if you suspect you're using your phone as an unhealthy coping mechanism, don't hesitate to reach out to a therapist.
Lots of things can occur within the brain when you get a notification, and not all of them are negative or a sign of a problem. But it is interesting to consider what a big impact notifications can have on you, especially since they come rolling in throughout the day — every day.