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If it’s true that multi-tasking is only halfway doing a task, then we’ve all got a lot of unfinished work to do. We respond to emails while on the phone, check Facebook under the conference table, and keep tabs on our top sites while under deadline. In this week’s Wellness for the Real World, Dr. Veronica connects with Dr. Joanne Cantor, an expert on the psychology of media and communications, about how our technology glut has added to our stress, and sleep expert Dr. Steven Y. Park about how to get a good night’s sleep in spite of it all.

conquer cyberoverloadCount Dr. Veronica among the millions of multi-taskers around the nation. Her BlackBerry, Droid, MacBook Pro and Dell computer are always within arm’s reach. She’s too busy with her gadgets to watch television and refuses to shut off her phones at night. Yet, she feels overwhelmed when she can’t get through all her daily emails and text messages. Dr. Cantor, Director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was an award-winning professor for 26 years, empathizes.

The author of Conquer CyberOverload and a self-described “recovering cyber addict,” Dr. Cantor says, “Like you sound, Dr. Veronica, I was being controlled by my gadgets rather than being the master of my gadgets.”

The average teen has 3.5 gadgets, according to figures compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and provided to The Associated Press. Adults between 18 and 29 averaged nearly four gadgets, those between 30 and 64 just under three. And the average household owns about 24 electronic gadgets, according to the Consumer Electronics Association—a figure that includes TVs, mobile phones, computers, and home receivers.

Who or what is in control is what matters. Now that more is known about the brain, Dr. Cantor says it is possible for all of us to get the best out of our gadgets instead of drowning in technology. But what’s a person to do? We’re busy at home and work. We’re used to receiving answers to our questions within minutes, and we feel we need to give our boss similar results. The days of having a job that is only from 9-to-5 went out the window with panty hose. We need to be available 24/7. Easily bored, it’s more entertaining to turn our attention to the latest on TMZ while we chat simultaneously on the phone. If we didn’t answer emails while on the phone, then when would we get through them? And with high bandwidths, we can watch our favorite television shows and movies at the same time we tackle real tasks.

“It takes a lot more self-control to be the master of our time and have time to think and ponder and just relax than we ever did before,” Dr. Cantor says.

Multi-tasking is actually an illusion. Just like a laser beam, the brain is only able to focus on one thing at a time.

“Every time you go back and forth, you lose information and you slow down,” Dr. Cantor says. “You’re depowering your brain…therefore you’re not multi-tasking. You’re pulling your brain in two directions…. You can actually save time if you focus on one thing and then you go to the other thing.”

And if you think that all of the information available to us makes us more creative, think again. She says with so much input, we actually lose creativity and are unable to think outside of the box when it comes to solving problems.

She knows there are skeptics, including Dr. Veronica. Yet she recommends taking a few simple steps to get us started in making us the master of our gadgets.

  • Check email every half an hour as opposed to stopping a project every time a new email drops into the Inbox.
  • Make your computer less distracting by setting the home page something that doesn’t change, i.e. Google’s search box, rather than a news site that is constantly updated.
  • Turn off your cell phone and email for a specific amount of time to allow you to focus on the task at hand.
  • Make time when you’re not on call for everybody by not taking your cell phone to the movies, dinner and bed.
  • Check Caller ID and let calls go to voice mail if the person is not on your list of “drop everything contacts”

“I’m not saying that everybody has to completely change their lives around and give up their gadgets,” Dr. Cantor tells Dr. Veronica. “I’m just saying we have to decide what’s important to us then arrange our gadgets around our priorities rather than have our gadgets be the ones that determine every minute of our lives (and) what we’re paying attention to.”

sleep interruptedIf having more gadgets causes more stress, could your gadgets also be keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep? Judging from the ads for sleep aids, we are a country with a sleeping problem. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s  2010 Sleep in America poll, the majority of those surveyed report that they only get a good night’s sleep a few nights per week or less. As an ear, nose and throat surgeon, Dr. Steven Y. Park of New York City sees a link between people with chronic ear, nose and throat problems and difficulty sleeping.

“If you don’t breathe properly at night, you wake up multiple times and this is why people toss and turn,” he tells Dr. Veronica. “People wake up because they stop breathing, which is normal.”

Although there are an array of sleeping disorders, including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleepwalking and narcolepsy, Dr. Park says 80 to 90% of what sleep doctors treat is related to sleep apnea. Sleep apnea, one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness, is when you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and occur five to 30 times or more an hour. The result is poor sleep quality. People between the ages of 50 and 60 are affected most by sleep apnea, according to Dr. Park.

Sleep apnea is known to cause or aggravate a multitude of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, obesity and heart attack. Park says studies have also linked the disorder to seizures, urinary incontinence frequency, hormonal imbalances, headaches, migraines and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, Park notes that studies have shown that up to half of the children on medication for ADHD actually have a possibly treatable sleep disorder.

His book Sleep, Interrupted: A physician reveals the #1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired outlines a simple, rational explanation for what is making you sick, and provides guidance for treatment options that address specific health problems.In general, heavier people have more sleep problems and even gaining three to five pounds can make a difference because it narrows your throat, Dr. Park says. Not sleeping well in turn promotes weight gain and not because the sleep-deprived raid the refrigerator at odd hours but due to altering hormones and biochemicals, making us hungry, store fat easier and raise our cholesterol levels.

Just how much sleep do we need? For years we’ve heard that eight hours is the optimal number but Dr. Park says that between six and a half to eight and a half is sufficient; but experiment to find out what works best for you. “(Studies) have shown if you sleep less than five hours or greater than nine then you have a higher risk of having depression, heart disease and early death,” Dr. Park says.

He offers a few suggestions for ensuring a good night’s sleep: Don’t eat three to four hours before bedtime; only drink water or clear teas. Don’t exercise right before going to bed. Determine the best sleep position for you that helps you to breathe properly. Often times, it is the side or stomach, not the back.

And The National Sleep Foundation suggests the following to improve your sleep:

  • Go to sleep and wake at the same time every day, and avoid spending more time in bed than needed.
  • Use bright light to help manage your “body clock.”Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning.
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep to strengthen the association between your bed and sleep. It may help to remove work materials, computers and televisions from your bedroom.
  • Select a relaxing bedtime ritual, like a warm bath or listening to calming music.
  • Create an environment that is conducive to sleep that is quiet, dark and cool with a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
  • Save your worries for the daytime. If concerns come to mind, write them in a “worry book” so you can address those issues the next day.
  • If you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.
  • Exercise regularly, but avoid vigorous workouts close to bedtime.