Whether it's a buzz, bell, or ding, getting a phone notification can be pretty exciting. Is it your best friend messaging you back, your mom ringing you for the eighth time that day, or your super cute crush DMing you? Despite not knowing what awaits you in the three short seconds it takes you to lift up your phone and look at your screen, we know that the notification will spur some sort of exhilaration. But do we know exactly how getting a phone notification affects your brain?
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that smartphone notifications impact your brain on a daily basis. "It sends our brain into overdrive, triggering anxiety and stress, and at the very least, hyper-vigilance, which is meant to protect ourselves from predators, not the phone," Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD, a licensed psychologist and professor at Columbia University in New York City, tells Bustle. "The alerts from phones or even the anticipation of them, shuts off the prefrontal cortex that regulates higher-level cognitive functions, and instead, forces the brain to send emergency signals to the body." This means that every time you get a notification, your body gets a rush, but not necessarily a good one.
You might not think that phone notifications are that harmful or stress-inducing, but we often overlook how badly we get the urge to check our phone notifications as soon as we get them. "Imagine receiving a text from a significant other when you are fighting or going through a crisis," Dr. Hafeez says. "You may be driving, but the urge to look at the phone and read the text is overwhelming. Your heart may race, your palms may get sweaty, and your body feels like it's on fire, all because you don't know if the text awaiting you says 'honey, pick up milk on your way home,' or 'we should see a divorce lawyer.'" Dr. Hafeez goes on to say that phone notifications can interrupt driving and other everyday tasks that require our full attention, raising risks in our lives.
But if getting these notifications is so stressful and risky, why do we enjoy getting them so much? Dr. Hafeez explains that a reward center is activated whenever we text or receive phone notifications. "It's similar to feeling gratified, such as feeling a rush of winning at a slot machine, or eating a chocolate cake," she says. "The brain does not differentiate where the reward comes from, but the dopamine triggered reinforces the behavior the same way."
It's OK to check your phone and browse your social media, but recognizing the effects it may have on your brain is an important step in learning to set boundaries for yourself. Dr. Hafeez emphasizes that despite the concerns, each individual should have the autonomy and control to check whatever notifications they want. But if you are looking for a way to give your brain a break, there are small steps you can take to get your notifications under control and quiet your phone (and your head).
"While you may not be able to turn off phone calls or texts, you can put a 'Do Not Disturb' for everyone or allow selective persons to get through," Dr. Hafeez suggests. "This way you know that certain loved ones can reach you, but you are not unnecessarily pulled in other directions when working, eating, or sleeping."
Everything is better in moderation. So if you feel like your phone notifications may be stressing you out or overwhelming you, take a little break. Your brain will thank you for it.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, licensed psychologist and professor at Columbia University