Digital Escapism – What Are We Running Away From?

Shantaram & underlying anxiety

In the epic story, ‘Shantaram’, Gregory David Roberts talks about the constant anxiety he experienced in his everyday life. He was, after all, Australia’s most wanted man at the time. Since Gregory was on the run, his constant anxiety was hardly surprising: it was likely that at any time he could be caught, attacked or locked up again.

After escaping prison and whilst hiding in India, he started doing jobs for a local Bombay gang, which included mercenary jobs in Angola where a civil war was raging. He explained how the even greater danger of those scenarios meant that once the intense and risky job was finished, he could experience a deep sensation of relaxation. The even greater stress had temporarily overridden the lower but chronic stress, giving him a momentary respite. Of course, it wasn’t long until the underlying anxiety returned after the spike had subsided (as we mentioned earlier in relation to dopamine spikes, a tip to one side, e.g. pleasure, will result in an equal and opposite tip to the other side). Interestingly, he said he could see that same thrill-seeking look on many of the mercenaries who were out there as well, all of them going to further extremes, looking for a way to cope with their own underlying anxieties.

What are we running away from?

Of course, this is an extreme example, but it serves as a nice metaphor. We don’t need to go the extremes of entering war zones, but we’re also not on the run from Interpol nor a rival gang. We do, however, regularly subject ourselves to dopaminergic spikes and rushes and we might well be on the run from something.

Under the surface, many people live a fragile existence, often indebted with a mortgage, credit card and student debt. Even in many Western countries, a large percentage of the population is only a few paychecks away from financial ruin. All of these factors can cause constant underlying worry and fear of loss, including of fundamental things like shelter, sustenance and security. Many people’s income source, whilst ostensibly secure (as in monthly), may actually be quite fickle when viewed at a macro economic level: again, adding to an underlying fear of losing one’s livelihood.

Furthermore, most messages that people receive throughout the working day are probably not messages of support, gratitude or congratulation either. Most likely it’s something that somebody wants from you quickly or something that should’ve been done but hasn’t. Each message brings an increasing addition of stress which is overlayed on top of an ambient discontent.

As we continued on our journey of understanding dopamine, tech usage and addiction, it meant confronting our coping mechanisms in the face of stress and anxiety – and it meant confronting where stress and anxiety are originating. We had no other option but to peel away the layers of the onion till we began to confront these deep questions.


  • Are these spikes that we experience from social media a coping mechanism to cope with underlying anxiety?
  • When do you feel anxious?
  • Do you use any technologies when feeling anxious?
  • How does it make you feel afterwards?

A digitally induced ‘learned helplessness’

Incidentally, many of these ‘coping mechanisms’ are adding even more fears into the slow burning embers of anxiety. The sheer amount of information available through digital channels means that people are becoming ‘hyperaware’ of their susceptibility and fragility, but also acutely aware that these factors are outside of their control. As Michele Wucker writes in ‘You are What you Risk’, people – particularly millennials – are worrying about things they cannot control rather than things they can do something about it.

So in many circumstances, whilst we’re distracting ourselves (either deliberately or unwittingly) into digital escapism to seek momentary respites, the result is sometimes that we’re not only adding to the underlying stress, but also inadvertently adding to the feeling of helplessness.

As we continue with this journey, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the aspects of life that we can act upon or influence, especially together with our network of friends, family and the communities we align to. This is the stuff that exists!

Likewise, we found that it’s worth continuing to understand our own behaviours, especially in response to our anxieties, so that, if anything, we have the space and capacity to reignite our natural propensity to act upon the things we can change.

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