Protect Your Peace from Modern Stressors

By Marisa Cohen
March 02, 2023

A few months ago, I joined an app that was designed to connect real-life neighbors online. I was hoping to get the inside scoop on new restaurants and maybe catch some local gossip.

Instead, I got exactly one good tip about a new ice cream shop—and a ton of aggravation. One neighbor's complaint about a panhandler quickly touched off a no-holds-barred, ALL-CAPS debate about mental health policies in our city. Soon, even harmless questions about parking spots somehow degenerated into vicious screeds complete with NSFW language and name-calling. Within weeks, I deleted the app.

The Connectivity Conundrum

Being constantly connected to friends, family, neighbors, and the world at large has a lot of benefits. But the advent of social media and 24/7 technology has also brought about more and more ways to drive us crazy.

Every time your phone buzzes or you check Facebook, it seems like someone is out to scam you or start an argument. “Technology has made it easier for people to access groups and information that's often upsetting or polarizing in nature,” says psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., author of Joy from Fear.

Reclaim Your Calm

Manly says that by using calming strategies, you can stay engaged with the techno world without losing your sanity. Here are four very 21st-century aggravations and how to deal:

1. Online Trolls

How often do you scroll Instagram or read a news article and feel your head explode from reading the vicious comments? I’ve even seen my own Facebook posts turn into screaming matches between friends of mine who would probably like each other if they met in real life.

When you feel your blood starting to boil from an online troll, “start by acknowledging how you feel and clarify the thought that led to it,” says Joel Minden, Ph.D., author of Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss. “Anger is often driven by the belief that you’re being disrespected or treated unfairly.”

You could, of course, just scroll on by. But if you feel compelled to respond, Minden suggests a few questions to consider: “Is it important to reply and correct a false impression? Or will you end up feeling even more upset after getting involved in an unproductive back-and-forth with a stranger who isn’t interested in a good-faith discussion?”

In the end, the most useful way to deal with trolls is to remember that you're not required to respond at all—simply step away from the phone or computer, take some deep breaths or do another calming ritual, and remind yourself that by ignoring the troll, you're depleting them of their power.

2. Robocalls

"This is Robin from dealer services…” Is there a person alive who hasn't received one (or 1,000) of these enraging phone calls? In fact, more than 50 billion robocalls are placed each year, most of them aiming to scam you (or, more likely, your elderly relatives) out of your hard-earned money. But other than never answering your phone again, what can you do?

First, try the practical approach: Download a call-blocking app; let any calls from unknown numbers go directly to voicemail; and when a robocall does sneak through, hang up immediately without saying a word.

But Manly suggests one more thing: “It’s helpful to intentionally smile when hanging up on these calls,” she says, adding that research suggests that the physical act of smiling is a simple way to release stress. Then picture the spam calls and texts as tiny flies that you can easily swat away. “They’re bothersome, but we really don’t want to waste very much energy on them,” she says.

3. Fake Pop-Up Ads

I like to think of myself as a savvy consumer, researching every site carefully before I hit the Pay Now button. But one night early in the pandemic, I was up late scrolling through my social feed when an ad popped up for a Jane Austen–themed jigsaw puzzle. How did they know that was exactly what I needed? I clicked on the ad and bought two puzzles before I had a chance to think it through.

The next morning, once it dawned on me what I'd done, a mild panic set in. Had I been ripped off? Of course, it was a scam, and no puzzles ever arrived.

Though puzzleless, I did learn a few lessons: Never buy anything on a whim in the middle of the night. Never click on a pop-up ad—instead, if you’re interested in the product, open a new window and search for it on a legit e-commerce site. And always use a well-established payment app—because I used PayPal, my purchase was protected, and I eventually got the money back.

But perhaps the best way to both stay calm and avoid scams is to make a practice of stopping and taking a mandatory 15–minute cooling-down period before you make any impulse purchases online.

4. Neighborhood Apps

As I discovered, neighbors who might smile at each other at the grocery store can turn into raving banshees when unleashed anonymously online. But while it’s easy to get sucked in by the carnival sideshow, Manly says it's possible to skip past that and get to the good stuff on neighborhood apps.

“By knowing what you want from the site—such as a referral for a great restaurant or pet sitter—you can purposefully avoid the often small-minded commentary that tends to be upsetting and deflating,” she says. “We’re far less likely to get hooked by negative interactions when we mindfully pop online for a specific purpose, get the information we need, and then turn our attention elsewhere.”

In other words, there is no rule that you have to read the bad stuff to get to the good.

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