Why we experience Phantom Vibration Syndrome, and how to stop it

·Features Contributor
Why we experience Phantom Vibration Syndrome, and how to stop it

You swear you felt it, that buzzing sensation in your pocket indicating your phone has gone off. Somebody out there needs you and you must respond. You go to reach for your phone and realize it’s not there, so what did you just feel? This phenomenon is known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome and its prevalence has increased as constant mobile connectivity has become the norm.

People experiencing phantom sensations is not a new occurrence in the medical community as amputees have often felt what is known as the Phantom Limb. Despite the limb being removed from the body, the brain still feels as if it’s there and continues to send the signals it would have sent if the limb still existed.

“So why is this happening with the phones?” says Dr. Alan Monavvari, Chief of Family Medicine at Markham-Stouffville Hospital and a family practitioner at Discovery Family Health. “Most people tend to have their phones very close to their body. People used to attach it to their waist, now it’s in your pocket, and when it vibrates that nerve is sending a signal to your brain that says you feel it and to pick it up. When it vibrates many times a day for many years, that’s exactly the same thing that’s happening with the Phantom Limb. Even though the vibration doesn’t exist you go ‘I swear to god, I left my phone over there, but somehow I feel the vibration.’ It’s how your brain is vigilant, the path of the nerves just keeps firing and says it’s in here [your pocket].”

A paper published in Computers in Human Behaviour titled ‘Phantom vibrations among undergraduates: Prevalence and associated psychological characteristics’ noted that 89 per cent of the group they studied experienced phantom vibrations. Those that had a strong emotional response to text messages were the most bothered by the sensation.

Dr. Monavvari says people shouldn’t be concerned if they experience Phantom Vibration Syndrome once in a blue moon, but if it’s happening every day it could become unhealthy.

“If it’s happening every day it could interfere with your function,” he says. “If you’re sleeping and then all of a sudden you feel the vibration and you reach for your phone. Every time you suddenly wake up from sleep there’s an adrenaline surge, so people may end up with more high blood pressure, lack of good sleep, and then potentially it could make you anxious.”

However, he says the real health concern is why this is happening at all. Phantom Vibration Syndrome is just a symptom of a more important issue — the perceived need to be connected at all times.

“If cell phones were a drug you’d be in big trouble,” he says. “You go through this withdrawal, and you’re always waiting for something to happen to you, or you’re constantly distracted because of this thing. The brain is just constantly looking for something to come from that machine and it makes you anxious.”

Dr. Monavvari suggests people “unplug” themselves from their devices and take some time off from their phones. He says the struggle to disconnect may be just as hard as quitting smoking as mobile use has become habit forming.

“It’s hard because it requires behavioural changes and re-training your brain,” he says about putting down the phone. “The best thing is not to use it too frequently. Keep it outside of your body, like put it in your purse, but don’t attach it to yourself and your body. You have to go through a process, just like someone would when trying to quit smoking. You should get someone to help you because you have to understand why you’re doing it. Why do you suddenly have the need to be connected all the time?”

Top Tips on Preventing Phantom Vibration Syndrome:

  1. Set boundaries: “Say, as soon as I get home at 5 p.m. the phone gets put down and I won’t touch it — that’s kind of cold turkey,” says Dr.Monavvari about the most extreme way to unplug and reduce your chances of experiencing Phantom Vibration Syndrome.

  2. Limit exposure: If you can’t go an evening without looking at your phone try reducing the amount of times you use it to help yourself disconnect. “Instead of going cold turkey, take it down gradually. Say ‘I’m going to put it down an hour at a time and I’ll only check my phone once an hour and I don’t want to put it somewhere that I can hear it ring or feel it vibrate’,” advises Dr. Monavvari.

  3. Get out and get active: Take up hobbies and activities that will engage your mind and body that don’t require you to have your phone on you. “If you’re going for a walk, why do you need your cell phone with you? If you’re going with friends, why do you need it? In this way you’ll need less and less of this phone time and can go out and do more sports and walking,” Dr. Monavvari suggests.

  4. Ask your friends for help: If you’re trying to reduce your cell phone use it can be difficult when people are always trying to get in touch with you. Don’t be afraid to tell your loved ones that you plan to take time off from your phone every day and that you won’t be available during that time period.

  5. Let yourself sleep: “Do not bring your cell phone any where close to your bedroom, that’s a definite no,” stresses Dr. Monavvari. Being well rested is crucial to your mental well being. Having your phone in your room can not only disrupt your sleep, but having it within reach will tempt you to use it when you’re supposed to be focusing on your R&R.

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