What Email Does To Your Brain

Posted on March 27, 2017

Photo: flickr

For many of us, one of the first things we do in the morning, or once we get to work, is to check our emails. Often, we find a whole laundry list of things that we have to complete; words such as ‘URGENT’, flagged messages and exclamation marks all sound alarms in our heads. With the onslaught of tasks waiting for us to handle, it is unsurprising that the simple act of reading emails can have a huge impact on our emotional state of mind for the ensuing day.

For one, research has proven that the everyday task of scrolling through our inboxes can give us undue stress. Put simply, stress is the experience of feeling overwhelmed, by having too many or too great a task to complete, and being unable to meet those demands. Email overload is a common stressor in our lives now, because the act of checking our emails has often rendered us buried under piles of to-do lists and assignments. In one study, it was found that email overload is significantly related to the body’s response to stress: our blood pressures and heart rates skyrocket, and our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) go up.

However, it is not just the amount of emails that affects us negatively, but also the emotional impact of the emails we receive. Every taxing email has the potential to add just a little more emotional stress to our lives, unlike the in recent email-less past in which we would probably only experience one emotionally taxing event a day, such as an argument or confrontation with someone. Only those of us living unusually high-stress situations - such as warzones - would experience a higher load of emotionally stressful situations every day. The increased frequency of stressful events as caused by the deluge of emails we receive does have a negative impact on our well-being. To put things in perspective, 30-300 different instances of emotional stimuli can be delivered to us within the short span of half an hour. Such a high frequency of emotionally upsetting triggers definitely affects our mood, as we can be taken through an emotional rollercoaster of different feelings and reactions to the emails after a mere hour of reading them. This does not mean that all the emails we receive induce anger or other negative emotions; we do get happy emails as well, but research shows that our brains choose to remember and harp on the negative ones, a phenomenon otherwise known as negativity bias.

What effects does this deluge of electronic mail result in us? Unfortunately, the effects are many. Our stress response system works by activating the parts of the brain that respond to situations with fear and anxiety. However, these are often located in the less developed parts of our brain, such as the amygdala. An increased use of these weaker parts compromises the brain’s ability to use its more highly evolved parts, such as the prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, these well-developed parts of the brain are responsible for our ability to rationalise and to think logically; in other words, it becomes harder for us to make rational choices. Ultimately, our emotions will affect our actions; not only will we be stressed out by the emails, but we may act differently, and perhaps even for the worse.

Research also shows that our self-control takes a hit when we are stressed and overwhelmed. This may cause us to send emails on impulse, only to regret them the very next moment. We may take unnecessary risks and generally become less cautious. Answering a bunch of emails with different subject matters will also cause people to be in a situation of overwhelmed multitasking, which has been known to lower productivity levels and hence waste lots of precious time during the day.

While email now seems like a destructive force on its own, this does not mean that we should abandon our electronically-governed jobs and stop using email altogether. We have to learn to cope with the emotional stresses emails can put on us, and to control our body’s reactions to these mini stresses that are now part of our lives.

Category(s):Stress Management

Source material from Psychology Today

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