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What email does to your brain

man yellingUpdated 10-2-14: A follow-up post, with tips on how to manage your inbox, can be found here.

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10-1-14: Have you ever been in a situation in which you were feeling great until you received an email out of the blue that completely upset your day? How does it feel to receive 30 such emails first thing in the morning? There’s a reason why: Research shows that just looking through your inbox can significantly increase your stress levels (see research described here).

Why is this? Let’s start by defining stress. Stress is the experience of having too great a task to accomplish with too few resources to meet the demand. In the past, for our ancestors, this stress might have looked like meeting a hungry wild animal in the jungle. Today, however, it takes on a much more simple, yet equally powerful form: an inbox. Email overload is just another way in which we experience that there is too great a task (the huge list of to-dos) to handle. In the study mentioned above, email overload had a lot to do with the stress response as measured psychologically and physiologically through heart rate, blood pressure and a measure of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).

Is it just the amount of emails that lead to stress though? There’s another element that we are forgetting. The emotional impact of each email. Think about it: Usually, in our email-less past, we would experience maybe one highly emotional event a day or maybe two or three at the most, e.g. a confrontation with a colleague, perhaps a spat with a spouse, and/or a phone call from an angry neighbor. Our stress response is evolved to handle and recover from a small number of stressful situations but not a whole host of them. Unless we live in unusually extreme situations such as warzones, for example, our life usually doesn’t have frequent and sequential stressors thrown at us.

Today, however, just sitting down at our desk to check our email with a cup of coffee can bring on a deluge of emotional assailants. Between 30-300 different emotional stimuli are delivered to you within the span of minutes. From an email from your boss asking you to complete a task urgently, to a passive-aggressive message from a family-member, to news from a colleague that he’s out sick and you have to take over his workload. One hour of email can take you through a huge range of emotions and stressors. Sure, you can get happy emails too – photos of your nephews, someone’s marriage announcement – but unfortunately, research on the negativity bias shows that our brain clings more to the negative and they don’t always balance out.

That’s when our emotional intelligence is impacted. We know that when our stress response is activated, the parts of our brain that respond with fear of anxiety tend to take over, weakening our ability to make rational choices and to reason logically this study). You may be stressed; what’s more, your own ability to respond appropriately is impacted. We know that our emotions impact the way we act. You’re going to reply with a different tone if you’re upset (even at someone other than your email recipient) than if you’re not.

Have you ever pressed “send” only to regret it moments later? Don’t blame yourself. Research shows that getting depleted because you have too much on your plate reduces your self-control. For example, it can make you take more risks when maybe you should be more cautious (e.g. this study). It’s harder to have a say over our impulses when there’s just too much going on. As in too many emails, with too many different messages leading to increased stress and emotional overload.

When you’re doing a million emails – all about different topics and requesting you for different things, you are, by definition in a situation of overwhelmed multitasking. And multitasking, research shows, leads to lower productivity and makes you lose a lot of time out of our day!

So what’s the answer to the assailment of email on our lives?

Before you contemplate moving to a farm, selling your smartphone on Ebay, raising chickens and goats and cutting technology out of your life forever despite your love of selfies – WAIT, there’s a solution. Think about it - email didn’t exist 10 years ago! That means that there is a way to undo the madness. I’ll share a number of tips in my next post... Stay tuned.

Emma Seppala, PhD, is associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the School of Medicine. She is also a certified yoga, pilates, breath work and meditation instructor. A version of this piece originally appeared on her website.

Photo by bark

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