Well Being: Helping men log off, then reboot within

Rob Garfield , 67, a psychiatrist, and his son, Isaac, 32, a psychotherapist, help people overcome the impact of digital information. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Rob Garfield , 67, a psychiatrist, and his son, Isaac, 32, a psychotherapist, help people overcome the impact of digital information. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 12, 2013

Rob Garfield is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who specializes in "men's issues." He's writing a book, The Guy's Guide to Friendship, and is interested in how men communicate or, more often, don't communicate, and the effect that has on their physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Garfield, 67, who practices in Bala Cynwyd and is a faculty member of the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania, conducts "friendship labs" and men's retreats to induce men to open up and relate on a deeper level.

As much as he believes in the importance of "open-hearted communication" and talk, however, Garfield also recognizes the value of quiet in men's relationships, "the shoulder-to-shoulder silences that reinforce feelings of safety and bonding."

"You can be walking with a guy and just be quiet, and there's a certain comfort in that," he says, "a certain support in silence."

Years ago, when he led retreats in the Canadian Rockies, he scheduled a day of solitude during which participants hiked in silence and then split up to be alone. Beforehand, he confiscated all cellphones, a custom that threw some hard-charging retreatists into a panic.

"We live in a culture that fears solitude, self-reflection, and being alone," Garfield says.

Social connection is essential to health and happiness, he says, but so, too, is disconnection. That's why he's concerned about the burgeoning avalanche of digital information, chatter, and static, and the increasing compulsion to be connected electronically 24/7.

"The idea is that faster connection and more information are good for us," Garfield says, "and there's no question that technological advances do improve our lives in many ways. The problem is being able to understand what the costs of these innovations are. As we become more enamored of the excitement, we're correspondingly naive about some of the consequences.

"Part of the problem is that a certain compulsivity develops. We can lose ourselves in the innovation and have trouble making a distinction between the signal and the noise, between what helps focus, center, and inform us, and the chatter and mental static that make us anxious. Today, it's hard for the average person to separate the two, and it's getting harder because the emphasis is on increasing the dumping of information."

In recent years, a new diagnosis has emerged - Internet addiction disorder - and it is especially prevalent among adolescents, Garfield says. The vast array of stimuli, the immediate gratification of the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, are changing the chemistry and structure of the brain, an organ that is surprisingly plastic, research shows, and that readily adapts to the conditions of its environment.

That's why Garfield calls for "cellphone sabbaticals," his comprehensive term for "a time to turn off the computer, television, and cellphone and to cease texting, tweeting, and Facebooking so we can quiet the noise that translates into tension inside our bodies."

Such sabbaticals enable us to rejuvenate and center ourselves, he says. Rather than representing a retreat from family, friends, and ourselves, they enable us to engage more fully.

"We need these experiences of solitude and disconnection in order to better navigate the world that calls on us increasingly to connect with each other," Garfield says. "That's not going to go away. It's here, and we have to deal with it. We're creatures of connection and solitude, and we need periods of both - commotion and quiet - to maintain our balance and health."

It's a view espoused heartily by Garfield's son, Isaac, 32, a licensed social worker and psychotherapist.

"I'm very concerned about how much we're relying on technology and screens as a substitute for connecting with other people or with ourselves, and I'm seeing a lot of anxiety and isolation as a result," says Isaac Garfield, who lives in Mount Airy and has offices in Bala Cynwyd and Chestnut Hill.

He acknowledges the "automatic high" we experience when someone sends us an e-mail or likes our Facebook post, but he also believes it's essential "to unplug, to step away and reflect on the quality of this disembodied, virtual experience and how fulfilling it is to one's sense of well-being."

Isaac Garfield, who has spent time meditating at a Buddhist monastery in California and a wilderness awareness school in Washington state, worries that the "onslaught of digital technology" is impoverishing our souls by depriving us of authentic experience. He is intrigued by how the development of Internet-related technology and social media has coincided with an explosive growth of interest in meditation and mindfulness.

"What we all live for is to lead happy and peaceful lives," Isaac Garfield says. "Will this communication technology help or hurt that effort? I have my concerns, especially about the social isolation piece. While we're connected to people near and far through these devices, we're disconnected in a way from ourselves. That's why practices like meditation are so important and why it's also necessary to go outside and connect with the natural world, where we can engage all our senses instead of sitting in a chair, staring at a screen."

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.

Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com.

Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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