If you’re a member of my Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course, you know that I follow a holistic model when working with anxiety. This means that in order to break open and discover what’s embedded inside the messenger of anxiety, we must address the four realms of Self: cognitive, physical, emotional, and spiritual/soul/creative. When anxiety and intrusive thoughts hit we ask, “What’s needed in these four realms of self? Which realm is asking for my attention?” Anxiety and intrusive thoughts are the distress flare. Our loving and compassionate action is the response.
In order to do our inner work and even slow down enough to ask what’s needed, we need to create time and space in our lives. Yet when I ask people how much time they’re spending turning inward, they often say, “I just don’t have the time.” Tell me your day, I respond. “Well, I get up, check email/FB/news, take a shower, go to work. When I come home from work I’m so tired, all I want to do is zone out in front of the television.”
Ah-ha. Too tired to do anything else so I plop in from the T.V. There’s the chunk of time right there – and while it may not be time that you can do inner work, it can certainly be time that you can spend replenishing instead of depleting further. Now, I certainly understand being tired at the end of a day. As a wife-full-time-business-owner-mother-of-two-boys-who-we-homeschool-and-make-all-of-our-meals-at-home I certainly understand what it means to lead a busy life. But one of the key reasons that I’m able to maintain a sense of inner home is that I don’t squander away energy on television. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a nice evening here and there of watching a show, but it’s certainly not a regular part of my day or even my week. Daily and extended television watching, like eating an unhealthy diet, works against everything I teach that allows people to break free from anxiety. If we’re doing to find true wellness, we must attend to each realm, and that includes how we’re spending our time. And in order to make different, more nourishing choices, we must push through the inherent laziness that is part of the human condition.
There’s nothing inherently harmful about watching television. It can certainly be a source of entertainment, humor, and information, and my husband tells me that the quality of many shows these days is on or above the level of films, with excellent writing, storytelling, and cinematography. The problem arises when television becomes the default mode for how to spend downtime and is the only form of relaxation. As with all potentially addictive substances and processes, it’s fine in small doses but, like sugar, it’s difficult to “eat just one cookie.” To follow the parallel with eating, we hear of people going on a “Netflix binge” where they spend an entire day or weekend watching several seasons of their favorite show. Following these binges, just as with food, they report feeling hungover, empty, anxious and/or depressed.
For the most part (and I’m sure there are exceptions in terms of higher quality shows), television amplifies our already distorted messages and images about love, sex, attraction, and long-term relationships. It delivers the message that everyone is beautiful, that love happens at first sight, and that sex is always hot. People often watch television to escape from their lives and their anxiety, but watching it furthers the belief that one’s life isn’t as fabulous as the people they’re watching on television, which then furthers their anxiety and their desire to escape their life. Television hooks us at the level of longing: longing for more aliveness, passion, and excitement. But inevitably the show ends, and then we’re back to our regular life, where we trudge off to bed and begin again the next day.
Furthermore, one of the most common complaints I hear among my clients suffering from relationship anxiety is that they’re bored in their relationship. As the true source of relationship anxiety is projection, my first question is, “Are you bored in your own life, separate from your relationship?” The answer is always yes. Boredom, like fear, can take many forms: lack of aliveness, emptiness, flatness, deadness. The projection then often becomes, “If my partner was more academic or read more books I wouldn’t be bored.” Here again we see a key component of relationship anxiety and the true cause of projection: an unwillingness to take full responsibility for one’s life and one’s aliveness. If aliveness is what you’re seeking, watching television is not going to help your aim. And blaming your partner for your lack of aliveness by falling into the pit of the intelligence projection will only further your anxiety.
Too much television depletes the Well of Self in all four realms:
Cognitively: It not only distorts our beliefs and ideas by presenting damaging messages and promoting a fantasy world, but it also robs our minds of absorbing more stimulating information. It has to be one of the most mindless activities that humans do. Does it actually kill brain cells? I don’t know, but I know that it doesn’t grow new ones. And I know that when someone watches television for hours on end, they tend to have a dazed, zombie-like quality in their eyes, as if they’ve been smoking marijuana (and the two activities – television and pot smoking – often go hand-in-hand).
Physically: We know that television in all forms, including video games, is responsible for the rise of child obesity, and we must ask how much it contributes to adult weight issues as well. I can’t think of anything more physically passive than watching television.
Emotionally: As I said, it creates unrealistic expectations about love, romance, sex, and marriage. When do we see a couple married 25 years on television having beautiful, seasoned, playful, erotic sex? When we do see people struggling with boredom in marriage without jumping ship and taking the easy escape hatch of having a scintillating affair? When do we see people falling in love based on intrinsic qualities of kindness and honesty instead of externals of looks, clothes, and money? Furthermore, while television hooks us with its high-drama storylines, it often leaves people feeling empty afterwards. This emptiness and sense of inadequacy is an instant breeding ground for anxiety to fester.
Spirit/Soul: While there are certain shows that light the fire of spirit and soul, like Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday, most television deadens the spirit. And, I would argue, that even a show or movie that touches our soul in a meaningful way doesn’t have the same, long-lasting effect as spending time in nature or sitting in meditation. I don’t want to paint this in a black-and-white way and I certainly don’t want to encourage one’s inner critic to pipe up if you do spend time watching television. The question is really the amount and intention, not the action itself.
Then it’s important to ask: What else could I be doing with that time that would help me relax, bring in nourishment, and fill the four realms of my Well of Self?
Take a bath (physical): Taking a bath is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most accessible ways of nourishing our bodies. Humans have relied on water for thousands of years to cleanse not only body but soul as well. When we immerse ourselves in water, especially hot water (and bubbles don’t hurt), we release our bodies from the stress of the day and help ourselves come back to Self.
Take a walk (physical): You may think you’re too tired to walk, but even a short walk in fresh air can give energy back. You don’t have to walk quickly or for exercise; just walk because it feels good to be outside and move your body.
Light a candle and draw, paint, knit or write by candlelight (emotional): There’s something about candlelight that invites us to slow down into soul-time as opposed to technological time. When we light a candle and engage in tasks that don’t require electronics, we connect back to an earlier, simpler time, and our souls remember a more natural, slowed-down way of living.
Call a friend (emotional): Connect with someone by phone (not text!) that helps you drop into your heart and remember your place of home.
Listen to podcasts (intellectual/cognitive): One of my clients said, “I just started listening to podcasts again and I’m remembering how much I love to learn! I usually watch 3-4 hours of television a night, and I’m starting to see how much time that sucks out of my life. What else could I be doing with that time?” There are so many excellent resources for podcasts (please feel free to list your favorites in the comments below), and soundstrue.com is also a wonderful resource for intellectually and spiritually nourishing audios.
Listen to music (and dance) (Spirit/Soul): I don’t know of a more immediate way to connect to our deepest essence than music and dance. It’s like an instant soul transfusion.
Final note: If you think your partner watches too much television or plays too many games, resist the impulse to show him/her this article and, more to the point for the anxious mind, resist indulging in the thought that your partner is “wrong” in some way! Instead, keep your eyes on your own plate and focus on your own inner work. After all, you’re the one struggling with anxiety otherwise you wouldn’t be here, which means you have plenty of your own work to do without focusing on your partner’s perceived faults ;).