Is Your Smartphone Ruining Your Memory? Rise of Digital Amnesia

Help! My mind has gone blank: What happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device?  Photograph: Ilka & Franz/The Observer

‘I can’t remember anything’ is a common complaint these days. But is it because we rely so heavily on our smartphones? And do the endless alerts and distractions stop us forming new memories? Last week, I missed a real-life meeting because I hadn’t set a reminder on my smartphone, leaving someone I’d never met before alone in a café. But on the same day, I remembered the name of the actor who played Will Smith’s aunt in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 (Janet Hubert).

Memory is weird, unpredictable and, neuroscientifically, not yet entirely understood. When memory lapses like mine happen (which they do, a lot), it feels both easy and logical to blame the technology we’ve so recently adopted. Does having more memory in our pockets mean there’s less in our heads? Am I losing my ability to remember things – from appointments to what I was about to do next – because I expect my phone to do it for me? Before smartphones, our heads would have held a cache of phone numbers and our memories would contain a cognitive map, built up over time, which would allow us to navigate – for smartphone users, that is no longer true.

Our brains and our smartphones form a complex web of interactions: the smartphonification of life has been rising since the mid 2000s, but was accelerated by the pandemic, as was internet use in general. Prolonged periods of stress, isolation and exhaustion – common themes since March 2020 – are well known for their impact on memory. Of those surveyed by memory researcher Catherine Loveday in 2021, 80% felt that their memories were worse than before the pandemic. We are – still – shattered, not just by Covid-19, but also by the miserable national and global news cycle. Many of us self-soothe with distractions like social media.

Meanwhile, endless scrolling can, at times, create its own distress, and phone notifications and self interrupting to check for them, also seem to affect what, how and if we remember. So what happens when we outsource part of our memory to an external device? Does it enable us to squeeze more and more out of life, because we aren’t as reliant on our fallible brains to cue things up for us? Are we so reliant on smartphones that they will ultimately change how our memories work (sometimes called digital amnesia)? Or do we just occasionally miss stuff when we don’t remember the reminders?

Neuroscientists are divided. Chris Bird is professor of cognitive neuroscience in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex and runs research by the Episodic Memory Group. “We have always offloaded things into external devices, like writing down notes, and that’s enabled us to have more complex lives,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with using external devices to augment our thought processes or memory processes. We’re doing it more, but that frees up time to concentrate, focus on and remember other things.” He thinks that the kind of things we use our phones to remember are, for most human brains, difficult to remember.

“I take a photo of my parking ticket so I know when it runs out, because it’s an arbitrary thing to remember. Our brains aren’t evolved to remember highly specific, one-off things. Before we had devices, you would have to make a quite an effort to remember the time you needed to be back at your car.” Professor Oliver Hardt, who studies the neurobiology of memory and forgetting at McGill University in Montreal, is much more cautious. “Once you stop using your memory it will get worse, which makes you use your devices even more,” he says. “We use them for everything.

If you go to a website for a recipe, you press a button and it sends the ingredient list to your smartphone. It’s very convenient, but convenience has a price. It’s good for you to do certain things in your head.” Hardt is not keen on our reliance on GPS. “We can predict that prolonged use of GPS likely will reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus. Reduced grey matter density in this brain area goes along with a variety of symptoms, such as increased risk for depression and other psychopathologies, but also certain forms of dementia.

GPS-based navigational systems don’t require you to form a complex geographic map. Instead, they just tell you orientations, like ‘Turn left at next light.’ These are very simple behavioural responses (here: turn left) at a certain stimulus (here: traffic light). These kinds of spatial behaviours do not engage the hippocampus very much, unlike those spatial strategies that require the knowledge of a geographic map, in which you can locate any point, coming from any direction and which requires [cognitively] complex computations.

When exploring the spatial capacities of people who have been using GPS for a very long time, they show impairments in spatial memory abilities that require the hippocampus. Map reading is hard and that’s why we give it away to devices so easily. But hard things are good for you, because they engage cognitive processes and brain structures that have other effects on your general cognitive functioning.”

Hardt doesn’t have data yet, but believes, “the cost of this might be an enormous increase in dementia. The less you use that mind of yours, the less you use the systems that are responsible for complicated things like episodic memories, or cognitive flexibility, the more likely it is to develop dementia. There are studies showing that, for example, it is really hard to get dementia when you are a university professor, and the reason is not that these people are smarter – it’s that until old age, they are habitually engaged in tasks that are very mentally demanding.”

(Other scientists disagree – Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychologist who wrote the seminal Seven Sins Of Memory: How The Mind Forgets and Remembers, thinks effects from things like GPS are “task specific”, only.) While smartphones can obviously open up whole new vistas of knowledge, they can also drag us away from the present moment, like it’s a beautiful day, unexperienced because you’re head down, WhatsApping a meal or a conversation. When we’re not attending to an experience, we are less likely to recall it properly, and fewer recalled experiences could even limit our capacity to have new ideas and being creative.

As the renowned neuroscientist and memory researcher Wendy Suzuki recently put it on the Huberman Lab neuroscience podcast, “If we can’t remember what we’ve done, the information we’ve learned and the events of our lives, it changes us… [The part of the brain which remembers] really defines our personal histories. It defines who we are.” Catherine Price, science writer and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, concurs. “What we pay attention to in the moment adds up to our life,” she says. “Our brains cannot multitask. We think we can. But any moment where multitasking seems successful, it’s because one of those tasks was not cognitively demanding, like you can fold laundry and listen to the radio.

If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to anything else. That might seem like a throwaway observation, but it’s actually deeply profound. Because you will only remember the things you pay attention to. If you’re not paying attention, you’re literally not going to have a memory of it to remember.”

The Cambridge neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian has evidence of this, too. “In an experiment in 2010, three different groups had to complete a reading task,” she says. “One group got instant messaging before it started, one got instant messaging during the task, and one got no instant messaging, and then there was a comprehension test. What they found was that the people getting instant messages couldn’t remember what they just read.”

Price is much more worried about what being perpetually distracted by our phones – termed “continual partial attention” by the tech expert Linda Stone – does to our memories than using their simpler functions. “I’m not getting distracted by my address book,” she says. And she doesn’t believe smartphones free us up to do more. “Let’s be real with ourselves: how many of us are using the time afforded us by our banking app to write poetry? We just passively consume crap on Instagram.” Price is from Philadelphia. “What would have happened if Benjamin Franklin had had Twitter?

Would he have been on Twitter all the time? Would he have made his inventions and breakthroughs? “I became really interested in whether the constant distractions caused by our devices might be impacting our ability to actually not just accumulate memories to begin with, but transfer them into long-term storage in a way that might impede our ability to think deep and interesting thoughts,” she says. “One of the things that impedes our brain’s ability to transfer memories from short- to long-term storage is distraction.

If you get distracted in the middle of it” – by a notification, or by the overwhelming urge to pick up your phone – “you’re not actually going to have the physical changes take place that are required to store that memory.” It’s impossible to know for sure, because no one measured our level of intellectual creativity before smartphones took off, but Price thinks smartphone over-use could be harming our ability to be insightful. “An insight is being able to connect two disparate things in your mind. But in order to have an insight and be creative, you have to have a lot of raw material in your brain, like you couldn’t cook a recipe if you didn’t have any ingredients:

You can’t have an insight if you don’t have the material in your brain, which really is long term memories.” (Her theory was backed by the 92-year-old Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist and biochemist Eric Kandel, who has studied how distraction affects memory – Price bumped into him on a train and grilled him about her idea. “I’ve got a selfie of me with a giant grin and Eric looking a bit confused.”) Psychologist professor Larry Rosen, co-author (with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley) of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, also agrees: “Constant distractions make it difficult to encode information in memory.”

Smartphones are, of course, made to hijack our attention. “The apps that make money by taking our attention are designed to interrupt us,” says Price. “I think of notifications as interruptions because that’s what they’re doing.” For Oliver Hardt, phones exploit our biology. “A human is a very vulnerable animal and the only reason we are not extinct is that we have a superior brain: to avoid predation and find food, we have had to be really good at being attentive to our environment. Our attention can shift rapidly around and when it does, everything else that was being attended to stops, which is why we can’t multitask.

When we focus on something, it’s a survival mechanism: you’re in the savannah or the jungle and you hear a branch cracking, you give your total attention to that – which is useful, it causes a short stress reaction, a slight arousal, and activates the sympathetic nervous system. It optimises your cognitive abilities and sets the body up for fighting or flighting.” But it’s much less useful now. “Now, 30,000 years later, we’re here with that exact brain” and every phone notification we hear is a twig snapping in the forest, “simulating what was important to what we were: a frightened little animal.”

Smartphone use can even change the brain, according to the ongoing ABCD study which is tracking over 10,000 American children through to adulthood. “It started by examining 10-year-olds both with paper and pencil measures and an MRI, and one of their most interesting early results was that there was a relationship between tech use and cortical thinning,” says Larry Rosen, who studies social media, technology and the brain. “Young children who use more tech had a thinner cortex, which is supposed to happen at an older age.”

Cortical thinning is a normal part of growing up and then ageing, and in much later life can be associated with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as migraines. Obviously, the smartphone genie is out of the bottle and has run over the hills and far away. We need our smartphones to access offices, attend events, pay for travel and to function as tickets, passes and credit cards, as well as for emails, calls and messages. It’s very hard not to have one. If we’re worried about what they – or the apps on them – might be doing to our memories, what should we do?

Rosen discusses a number of tactics in his book. “My favourites are tech breaks,” he says, “where you start by doing whatever on your devices for one minute and then set an alarm for 15 minutes time. Silence your phone and place it upside down, but within your view as a stimulus to tell your brain that you will have another one-minute tech break after the 15-minute alarm. Continue until you adapt to 15 minutes focus time and then increase to 20. If you can get to 60 minutes of focus time with short tech breaks before and after, that’s a success.”

“If you think your memory and focus have got worse and you’re blaming things like your age, your job, or your kids, that might be true, but it’s also very likely due to the way you’re interacting with your devices,” says Price, who founded Screen/Life Balance to help people manage their phone use. As a science writer, she’s “very much into randomly controlled trials, but with phones, it’s actually more of a qualitative question about personally how it’s impacting you. And it’s really easy to do your own experiment and see if it makes a difference. It’s great to have scientific evidence.

But we can also intuitively know: if you practice keeping your phone away more and you notice that you feel calmer and you’re remembering more, then you’ve answered your own question.”

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Source: Is your smartphone ruining your memory? A special report on the rise of ‘digital amnesia’ | Memory | The Guardian

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Why Your Most Important Relationship Is With Your Inner Voice

As Ethan Kross, an American experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, will cheerfully testify, the person who doesn’t sometimes find themselves listening to an unhelpful voice in their head probably doesn’t exist. Ten years ago, Kross found himself sitting up late at night with a baseball bat in his hand, waiting for an imaginary assailant he was convinced was about to break into his house – a figure conjured by his frantic mind after he received a threatening letter from a stranger who’d seen him on TV. Kross, whose area of research is the science of introspection, knew that he was overreacting; that he had fallen victim to what he calls “chatter”. But telling himself this did no good at all. At the peak of his anxiety, his negative thoughts running wildly on a loop, he found himself, somewhat comically, Googling “bodyguards for academics”.

Kross runs the wonderfully named Emotion and Self Control Lab at Michigan University, an institution he founded and where he has devoted the greater part of his career to studying the silent conversations people have with themselves: internal dialogues that powerfully influence how they live their lives. Why, he and his colleagues want to know, do some people benefit from turning inwards to understand their feelings, while others are apt to fall apart when they engage in precisely the same behavior? Are there right and wrong ways to communicate with yourself, and if so, are there techniques that might usefully be employed by those with inner voices that are just a little too loud?

The psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross: ‘Avoiding our emotions across the board is not a good thing, but let’s think about distance instead.’

Down the years, Kross has found answers to some, if not all, of these questions, and now he has collected these findings in a new book – a manual he hopes will improve the lives of those who read it. “We’re not going to rid the world of anxiety and depression,” he says, of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. “This is not a happy pill, and negative emotions are good in small doses. But it is possible to turn down the temperature a bit when it’s running too high, and doing this can help all of us manage our experiences more effectively.”

According to Kross, who talks to me on Zoom from his home in a snowy Ann Arbor, there now exists a robust body of research to show that when we experience distress – something MRI scans suggest has a physical component as well as an emotional one – engaging in introspection can do “significantly” more harm than good. Our thoughts, he says, don’t save us from ourselves. Rather, they give rise to something insidious: the kind of negative cycles that turn the singular capacity of human beings for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing, with potentially grave consequences both for our mental and physical health (introspection of the wrong sort can even contribute to faster ageing).

Does this mean that it’s not, after all, good to talk? That those in therapy should immediately cancel their next appointment? Not exactly. “Avoiding our emotions across the board is not a good thing,” he says. “But let’s think about distance instead. Some people equate this word with avoidance and repression. But I think of it as the ability to step back and reflect, to widen the lens, to get some perspective. We’re not avoiding something by doing this, we’re just not getting overwhelmed.”

Those who are able to quieten their inner voice are happier; their sense of relief can be palpable

According to one study, we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute (by way of comparison, the American president’s State of the Union address, which usually runs to about 6,000 words, lasts more than an hour). No wonder, then, that listening to it can be exhausting, whether it takes the form of a rambling soliloquy, or a compulsive rehashing of events, a free-associative pinballing from one thought to another or a furious internal dialogue.

But if such noise can be paralysing, it can also be self-sabotaging. What we experience on the inside can blot out almost everything else if we let it. A study published in 2010, for instance, shows that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones – something that, as Kross notes, speaks to the fact that once a “ruminative” thought takes hold of us, it can ruin even the best party, the most longed-for new job.

Why do some people have a louder or more troubling inner voice than others? “That’s harder to answer,” he says. “There are so many ways it can be activated, some genetic, some environmental.” What is certain is that these experiences cannot be discounted: “The data is overwhelming when it comes to the connection between anxiety and physical health conditions.” Those who are able to quieten their inner voice are happier; their sense of relief can be palpable.

‘Our thoughts don’t save us from ourselves,’ says Ethan Kross.

What is interesting about the science involved in all this is how it both backs up, and goes against, intuition. Much of Kross’s book is devoted to what he calls the “toolbox” of techniques that can be used to dial down chatter, and while some of these seem to contradict all that we think and feel – “venting”, for instance, can do a person more harm than good, because talking about negative experiences with friends can often work as a repellent, pushing away those you need most – others confirm that when we act on certain instincts, we’re right to do so.

To take one example, if you are the kind of person who slips into the second or third person when you are in a flap (“Rachel, you should calm down; this is not the end of the world”), you really are doing yourself some good. What Kross calls “distanced self-talk” is, according to experiments he has run, one of the fastest and most straightforward ways of gaining emotional perspective: a “psychological hack” that is embedded in “the fabric of human language”. Talking to yourself like this – as if you were another person altogether – isn’t only calming. Kross’s work shows that it can help you make a better impression, or improve your performance in, say, a job interview. It may also enable you to reframe what seems like an impossibility as a challenge, one to which, with your own encouragement, you may be able to rise.

Some of his other techniques are already well known: the power of touch (put your arms around someone); the power of nature (put your arms around a tree). Activities that induce “awe” – a walk in the mountains, say, or time spent in front of a magnificent work of art – are also useful, helping with that sense of perspective. Writing a daily journal can prove efficacious for some (something that felt terrible one day physically becoming old news the next), while neat freaks like me will be thrilled to discover that what he calls “compensatory control” – the creation of exterior order, better known as tidying up – really does have an impact on interior order. Reorganise your sock drawer, and you may find that your voice quietens.

Research shows, too, that superstitions, rituals and lucky charms can be useful, though most of us will draw the line at, say, taking our milk teeth with us when we fly, as the model Heidi Klum is said to (she keeps hers in a tiny bag, which she clutches during turbulence). Placebos have been found to work on chatter, just as they do in the case of some physical illnesses. In one study in which Kross was involved, a saline nasal spray acted as a kind of painkiller for the inner voice: data from brain scans showed that those who’d inhaled it, having believed they were inhaling a painkiller, displayed significantly less activity in their brain’s social-pain circuitry compared with those who knew they had inhaled only a saline solution.

No wonder, then, that Kross believes children should be taught the science behind all of these ideas, and in the US he has already begun working with teachers to make this happen: “We want to find out if knowing this stuff influences how they regulate themselves.” Does he make use of the toolbox? (Physician, heal thyself.) “We should probably ask my wife,” he laughs. “But yes, I do, absolutely. I’m human, too.” In particular, he is “very selective” when it comes to friends from whom he seeks “chatter support”.

Everyday feelings of sadness are elevated for many, but there is also a lot of resilience – we often underestimate that

Kross finished his book long before the outbreak of the pandemic, let alone the storming of the Capitol. But as he observes, it could hardly be published at a more opportune moment. “This is the perfect chatter episode for society: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, political uncertainty, widespread groupthink.” His most cited paper to date looked at the harmful implications of social media, often “a giant megaphone” for the inner voice – Facebook expressly asks its users: “What’s on your mind?” – and an environment that he thinks we need to learn to navigate with more care.

As for the pandemic, though, he is less pessimistic than some about the effects it is likely to have long-term on mental health. “We are already seeing signs that depression and anxiety are spiking,” he says. “Everyday feelings of sadness are elevated for many, and then there are more full-blown episodes. But there is also a lot of resilience, and we often underestimate that. A lot of people are doing quite well. They’re managing this hardship in an adaptive way. I am an optimist. We will return, I think, to a nicer place, though how quickly that will happen, I only wish I could say.”

Which technique should the pandemic-anxious deploy? “Well, one that I personally rely on is temporal distancing,” he says. This requires a person to look ahead: to see themselves determinedly in the future. Studies show that if you ask those going through a difficult experience how they will feel about it in 10 years’ time, rather than tomorrow, their troubles immediately seem more temporary. Does this really help him? “Yes, it does. I ask myself how I am going to feel a year from now, when I’m back in the office, and I’m seeing my colleagues, and travelling again, and taking my kids to soccer – and it gives me hope.”

It is, as he says in his book, a form of time travel: a mental Tardis that, if only we can manage to board it, may make everything from a bereavement right down to a silly argument seem less brutal, just a little easier to bear.

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross is published by Vermilion (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Rachel Cooke

By: Rachel Cooke

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if you ask those going through a difficult experience how they will feel about it in 10 years’ time, rather than tomorrow, their troubles immediately seem more temporary

I’m not so sure about this. When I had a major depressive episode with crippling anxiety about 20 years ago I spent the better part of 18 months living (in my head) in this fantasy version of the future where none of the things mattered. Wha…Jump to comment

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One of the mistakes humans often make is to assume all thoughts are words. A person without access to or knowledge of any kind of language will not be without thought. Nor will that lack of language make them unintelligent. Words form a paper thin layer on top a complex set of emotional networks. Some of our most powerful and enduring responses to stimuli have no need of any kind of language.
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How To Stop Toxic Comparison & Combat the Envy-Inducing Effects of Social Media – Tara Swart

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Wouldn’t you like to be immune to comparison? To devote your energy to making your own goals happen rather than enviously poring over the details of other people’s successes?

We live in a world in which comparing ourselves with others is easier than ever. Social media means we’re constantly invited to measure the curated high points of other people’s lives against the everyday ups and downs of our own reality.

From a neuroscientific point of view, this can be harmful for two reasons. First, it’s distracting and energy intense. Social media requires you to make a lot of decisions: what to like, how to comment, what content to post and how to frame it. These low-level decisions add up and deplete your cognitive resources for the times when you really need them in your own life.

Second, overuse of social media can trigger your ‘lack’ thinking mode, whereby you activate your brain’s negative pathways as a result of focusing on everything you don’t have and others do. Research into teenage behaviours shows that negative body image and self-objectification are directly related to social-media usage.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do to inoculate yourself against the urge to compare yourself, whether online or in real life, with friends you perceive to be more successful or happier. By focusing on modifications that harness the power of neuroplasticity – your brain’s ability to change for the better – you will be able to build your resilience. Remember, nobody is born confident; it is something you can work at. Here are some ideas for how to do just that:

Think abundantly. This can help you reframe others’ successes as inspiring rather than threatening. Tell yourself there is enough to go around for everyone (partners, great jobs and money). Thinking abundantly translates into liking, commenting and engaging on social media, spreading the love around, focusing more on the positive responses you give to other people than you do on your own feed. This emphasis on giving is a good way to counteract the narcissistic tendencies social media can fuel.

Switch your self-talk. You know that negative voice inside your head? Ask yourself what its underlying message is. It will usually speak to your deepest insecurity, whether that’s “I don’t have what it takes to be successful” or “Change is dangerous. I’d better stay where I am”. Take this exact message and find its opposite: “I am successful” or “Change is exciting”. Repeat this aloud, and with feeling, whenever you remember.

The greater the positive emotional charge you can give your affirmations, the more likely it is your brain will take note of them. This is because emotionally charged thoughts activate a ‘value tagging’ system in the brain that tags not only what is important to you deep down but also creates a sense of your place in the world, such as your identity in life (I belong) or your purpose at work (what I do is meaningful).

Hold on to good feelings. Wellbeing and resilience have been linked with the ability to sustain positivity and savour happy moments after they have passed. In 2015, researchers at CIHM in the University of Wisconsin-Madison used brain scans to demonstrate that those who were able to maintain those good feelings had sustained ventral striatum engagement.

This area of the brain is part of the basal ganglia, where our internal reward systems are found. You can work on enhancing this ability yourself by making a point of noticing your successes. Write down your greatest achievements of the past year and past five years, with a line or two on what you learnt from each of them. I recommend writing a miniature version of this list every night too. Note down the compliments you get. Print out pictures of yourself you like. This will help remind you that there is plenty you are doing that is good.

Get used to fake stress. Boost your natural mental and physical resilience by trying intermittent fasting (this could be as simple as only eating between 12 noon and 8pm most days) or having a regular ice-cold shower followed by a sauna. Training yourself to endure temporary hardship has been found to improve immunity (fasting) and build the brain’s fight or flight response (cold-water immersion), rather like the way allergies are sometimes treated through controlled exposure to the allergen.

Let unhelpful thoughts move along. Regular mindfulness meditation will help you to allow unfriendly thoughts to pass without clinging on to them. This way, you avoid veering off down an inadequacy-inducing rabbit hole of comparison, a huge waste of brain energy that comes at a great cost to your confidence.

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