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Hanging up on stress



Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the mobile phone. But a growing number of people are learning to ignore their constantly ringing devices

A new medical problem has been ringing alarm bells in the medical community. 'Cellphone stress', caused by excessive use of mobiles, has been found to result in irritability, sleeplessness and fatigue, especially in teenagers.


Last year, a competition was held in Helsinki, Finland, where 100 participants from across the world threw their mobile phones across the farthest distance as a way of beating the stress of modern communication.


There's a growing constituency of users who sigh or mentally jump at the first ring of their mobile phones. Many hear their phones ringing when actually they are not. These phantom rings explain the frantic and clumsy groping for cellphones in multiplexes, malls and any public place whenever a beep goes off in the vicinity.


Haunted by phantom rings, and stress-related symptoms, many cellphone users are increasingly pressing the 'ignore' key every time their talk tool starts crying for attention.


Writer Anjali Joseph, 32, hates taking any calls on the cellphone. "I sometimes avoid even friends' calls just because I can't deal with the intervention of an actual telephonic real-time presence. I call them later, but then I do feel guilty for being churlish," she says.


She is not the only one who does it. Those with careers that call for sustained interfacing are particularly affected by cellphone stress. Doctors, journalists, bureaucrats, executives in sectors like public relations or IT, are displaying anxiety and panic symptoms of inordinate cellphone use that fall under the broad umbrella of technology-related stress.


Hari Sudhakaran, an animator, turned his cellphone off for three days after battling incessant ring anxiety during a project where he had to handle multiple vendors. "I was constantly on the phone. At some point of time, I started hearing my ringtone, often clearly over ambient sounds, even when my phone was not ringing." He changed his ringtone to a softer one hoping that the ghost sounds will go away, but to no avail. Even the three days of rest didn't help much. "Even today, the first sensation produced by a ring is irritation," says Sudhakaran.


If this malaise is not yet well-known, it's because the symptoms are not always visible. Anger, irritability and insomnia are some of the signs of behavioural malfunction deriving from cellphone stress. Psychiatrist Harish Shetty says he gets one out of five patients with such complaints. On investigation, they boil down to cellphone misery.


Even doctors can be driven to the shrink by the ring. One doctor, who kept the phone under his pillow, had disturbed sleep."Once he shifted it to the living room on my advice, his sleep improved," Shetty recalls. "Earlier, the unconscious mind was at work, expecting a call any minute and keeping him half-awake."


A year ago, Sunil Deodhar, founder of an NGO, My Home India, that seeks to facilitate the integration of people from the north-east into the mainstream, had to spend four torturous days in an intensive care unit after a TV channel flashed his mobile number. The channel had interviewed him and in an unusual outpouring of appreciation, he was flooded with calls. "It was a horrible experience. On just the second day, I had severe angina (chest pain) that was attributed purely to stress," he says.


Indeed, a survey done in the US linked stabbing pains in the chest and anxiety pangs to excessive cellphone usage. Another demonstrated heightened blood pressure of the user when on the phone and a state of relaxation when away from it.


But why does this harmless-looking tech marvel stress its user? The intrusiveness of the cellphone is a standard complaint. With some it's the crushing of class and hierarchy barriers. Ministers, who could in the not-so-distant past manage to remain elusive behind layers of secretaries and deputies, find themselves taking calls directly from activists, 'contractors' keeping them in the business and often, journalists demanding answers for everything that may or may not concern them."Sometimes, they call at midnight. And you know, one can never antagonise the media," says one aggrieved Maharashtra minister who was woken up one early morning by a reporter wanting to know if Mumbai would face power shortfall in the summer.


Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam was woken up at 3 am on one occasion by someone asking him to call railway minister Mamta Banerjee to bail him out of a trespassing case."I asked him, 'why should I harass her the way you are harassing me?'" says Nirupam. He resolutely keeps his phone on silent mode at night ever since.


Some beleaguered users have found ways to cope. A senior bureaucrat in Maharashtra devised a technique that many of his IAS colleagues have adopted as the most practical method of coping with phone stress. During his stint in Delhi, he had two cellphones and two landlines apart from an internal hotline to which only he had access. His phones rang incessantly. The moment he finished one call, a second phone would ring and so on. And as he handled an important department, he could not wish them away or dump them on his assistants.


So, after 15 minutes of relentless talking, he would switch off all phones, or lift the receivers as the case may be, and recline on his sofa or do file work. Another 15 minutes later, he would be ready for his next whirlwind.


The internet is flooded with mobile phone stress annihilation techniques such as breathing deeply each time you look at your cellphone - probably to develop a Pavlovian response of tranquillity. Cellphone dummies are available for crushing to help you deal with stress.


On the flip side, being out of mobile contact is also stressful for many users. Called nomophobia, this variety of cellphone-related stress - being stranded in an area without network coverage or battery dying out - has been found by researchers to afflict one in five persons who found it more agonising than moving house.


All the anguish and heartburn notwithstanding, the gains of cellphone continue to outweigh the pains. For most, the pocket-size accessory is actually a lifeline that helps us breathe.


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