Quiz: Smartphone Separation Anxiety

It may seem like the stuff of Urban Dictionary portmanteaus, but ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being without one’s mobile phone, is the subject of serious research. Has your attachment crossed the line?

In a world that promotes multi-tasking and being in six places at once (a personal and professional Facebook account, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and on the route you mapped between home and the office), there are many reasons to be anxious. It makes sense that we look to our smartphones to help manage the overwhelm.

Quiz: Smartphone Separation Anxiety Photo Gallery

In fact, there seems to be an app to help manage every variable from how many steps we’ve taken to whether our cycle is regular. But could our relationship with our pocket devices actually be causing anxiety? Research into ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being separated from one’s mobile phone, suggests that mobile phones can be a source of anxiety, at least for some. The term ‘nomophobia’, an abbreviation of ‘no-mobile-phone phobia’, was coined by a UK post office survey in 2008. The British study found that more than half of UK mobile phone users experienced symptoms of anxiety at the thought of being out of reach of their cellular device.

A handful of research teams have since evidenced the phenomenon. In a survey of 300 university students, researchers found that people who identified with more self-destructive and addictive patterns of internet and mobile phone use were more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression. Notably, this relationship was not seen with people who used these technologies to escape boredom. A follow-up study showed that university students were less negatively affected by a stressful experimental condition when they had their cell phones in reach. A 2015 University of Missouri study provided a laboratory-style example of the effects nomophobia can have on both body and mind. Results showed that participants were more likely to experience increased heart rate, blood pressure and self-reported feelings of anxiety when separated from their ringing device. Moreover, the anxiety induced by being without a phone was associated with impaired mental capacity. Reduced cognitive capacity is a well-known symptom of anxiety disorders. “Our findings suggest that iPhone separation can negatively impact performance on mental tasks,” said lead author Russell Clayton.

“Additionally, the results from our study suggest that iPhones are capable of becoming an extension of our selves such that when separated, we experience a lessening of ‘self’ and a negative physiological state.” A similar University of Texas study further evidenced the link between nomophobia and reduced mental capacity. The study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research earlier this year found that participants whose phones had been placed on their desks “slightly” outperformed peers instructed to leave their phones in their bags. These results suggest that the interfering effects of mobile phone separation anxiety are greatest when the device is within reach but out of use. “We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” says researcher Adrian Ward. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process – the process of requiring yourself to not think about something – uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.” A subsequent experiment by the same authors showed that the most mobile phone-dependent participants performed worse than their lessdependent counterparts. These results suggest that the “brain drain” effects of smartphone proximity may be worsened for those with nomophobia.

TAKE-HOME: Nomophobia might not be in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) yet, but a small number of therapeutic options are already on the market. There are currently two key treatment camps. The first treatment style directly targets the anxiety associated with nomophobia, using interventions for anxiety disorders. We have included a version of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) presented by Australian non-for-profit mental health group beyondblue. PMR is an established anxiety intervention aimed at systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups to both draw patient’s attention to the physiologic manifestations of anxiety and remove tension from the body. The second treatment camp targets mobile phone addiction, which is often suggested to occur alongside nomophobia. We have included an abridged version of Tips for Breaking Free of Compulsive Smartphone Use from Harvard Medical School’s HelpGuide.org. If you scored high on the NMP-Q, you may want to try the following interventions.


• Loosen any tight clothing, sit or lie comfortably and close your eyes.

• Systematically tense different muscles of your body as much as you can for at least a count of 10. Desist tensing if pain occurs.

• Slowly release the tension and allow the muscle to relax. Let that feeling of relaxation flow through your body. • Start at your feet and move up.


1. Designate no-device times, such as driving, meal times, work engagements and time spent with the kids.

2. Remove your phone from your bedtime routine. “The blue light emitted by the screens can disrupt your sleep if used within two hours of bedtime,” write HelpGuide.org authors Melinda Smith, Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal.

3. Use the ‘phone stack’ game during social gatherings. Ask everyone to place their phones face down on top of each other on the table. Choose a consequence to be given to the first person who removes their device from the stack before the end of the meeting (buying the next round is always a welcomed option).

4. Remove social media apps from your device. The time-consuming endeavour of having to use an old-fashioned search engine to check for updates will likely curve your habit.

5. Limit the number of times you check your phone each day.

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