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Many people say they feel a little separation anxiety when they forget their smartphone, but if you really can’t bear to be away from your device, it may be a sign of a bigger issue. Getty Images
  • Many people report feeling anxious when they forget their phone.
  • The term “nomophobia” has been coined to describe this feeling.
  • Researchers have found that nomophobia is linked to traits like interpersonal sensitivity and obsession-compulsion.
  • Your phone usage may be problematic if it begins to interfere with your daily functioning.
  • Experts recommend setting aside times to step away from your phone to keep your usage within healthy limits.

Have you ever left home only to realize you’ve forgotten your phone? Did you feel the need to immediately return home to retrieve it?

If you’ve ever felt anxious or panicked about the thought of not having your phone with you, you’re not alone.

In a 2019 Statista survey, 44 percent of participants reported feeling at least some degree of anxiety about being separated from their phone.

In fact, these feelings are so common that there’s even a word for it: “nomophobia.”

According to Niranjan S. Karnik, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College, nomophobia is a relatively new term that was coined about 10 years ago.

It’s used to describe a set of symptoms and experiences that people feel when they’re away from their mobile phone, says Karnik.

Nomophobia is characterized by symptoms such as anxiety, distress, or general discomfort.

It’s not a part of the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), so it’s not an official diagnosis, he says.

It’s simply a description of a recognized phenomenon.

To evaluate who’s more prone to feelings of nomophobia, a team of researchers recently studied 495 Portuguese adults between the ages of 18 and 24.

The study participants were given two questionnaires to complete.

The first dealt with their reliance on their cellphone.

The second explored any symptoms of mental disorders that they were experiencing, such as anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, or obsession-compulsion.

The research team found that the more people used their phone each day, the more stress they felt when they were without it.

In addition, those people who scored higher on obsession-compulsion felt greater fear about leaving their phone behind.

Interpersonal sensitivity was also a strong predictor of feelings of nomophobia, said the authors.

They didn’t find any link between gender and feelings of nomophobia, however.

Karnik says it’s unclear why people experience this feeling.

“Researchers believe that this anxiety stems from a fear of isolation, lack of communication, and the sensation of not being part of a social network,” he said.

“It is somewhat contradictory, because people can even have these feelings when in the presence of other people. It seems to be partially a result of people putting a high value on their connections to people via their devices,” Karnik said.

Ana-Paula Correia, PhD, who was one of the authors of the study, adds that it’s about more than just the phone.

People are using it to connect with people and know what’s going on.

Being away from their phone severs that connection, leading to a feeling of agitation, explains Correia.

Correia says there’s a difference between normal phone usage that benefits your life — for example, chatting with your friends or using it for work — and usage that interferes with your daily functioning.

That type of usage, according to Correia, is more likely to create feelings of nomophobia and anxiety.

According to Karnik, these feelings can be problematic if the anxiety and distress that you’re feeling begins to interfere with work, school, or your everyday functioning.

“In extreme cases, people can have panic attacks or physical manifestations that start to cause health problems,” Karnik said.

One example of a health problem you might have would be fatigue related to waking during the night to check your phone.

Karnik adds there’s not a clear line that indicates when you have a problem.

However, if you’re not able to put your phone away for a set time or leave it alone without triggering anxiety, you might want to speak with a therapist or counselor, he says.

“People should consider that these devices have been made to be addictive and to draw our attention, but we can choose to make times to step away,” Karnik said.

He recommends setting your phone to silence alerts and notifications at night.

“It is never good to be waking in the middle of the night to check your phone or device,” Karnik said.

“Second, if you are in a social situation and in the company of others, it might be best to put the phones away or turn them off. Focus on the people you are with, and leave the electronic social connections for later,” he said.

J. Scott Hinkle, PhD, faculty in the department of counseling at Palo Alto University, further suggests it’s a good idea to schedule breaks from things like social media apps on your phone.

“If it isn’t scheduled, it’s not likely to happen,” he explained.

Hinkle recommends that these breaks do need to be realistic. Otherwise, they may result in failure.

“So, think about looking at it in the morning and then not checking back in until after dinner,” he suggested.

“Remember, all the news will still be there when you chime back in; the news is not going anywhere. If you have people who may need to contact you, tell them you will check in with them at a designated time that evening,” Hinkle said.

Many people report feeling some degree of anxiety about being away from their phone.

However, if those anxious feelings are interfering with your life, it could be a problem.

Creating time away from your phone can help keep your usage within healthy limits.

If you find yourself unable to control your usage, however, it may be a good idea to seek the advice of a therapist or counselor.

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