Since lockdown started, Aisling Keenan’s policy on TV, movies, books and podcasts has been strictly light-hearted escapism only. Here, she asks why exactly we’re inclined to avoid the hard stuff right now, and suggests some easy viewing should you need to avoid every single emotional trigger imaginable.[restrict]
‘Please. Please. Don’t make me feel anything’. I whisper that, my new mantra, to every bit of content I consume right now. I’ve long sworn off the cess pit that is Twitter (a place I used to cherish) and I’m checking in on the news just once a day, as is the advice from every mental health practitioner that has ever mental healthed.
And still, my mood is up and down like the lift in Dundrum Town Centre on a pre-virus Christmas Eve.
My feelings cull, I noted, began with a Disney+ subscription. No Disney creation could hurt me, surely? Typically, I’m not someone who loves a cartoon – even a classic Disney one, save for the four or five absolutely obvious faves – and so rifling through Walt’s back catalog felt alien (yes, that’s on there) to me.
It continued when, last night, I found myself googling the synopsis of Notting Hill to remind myself of any overly sad, overly happy, overly grief-filled moments, so that I could either nip to the bathroom at that part, or avoid the movie entirely. I’m sadness-scanning potential films… This is life in 2020. Writing this, I realise that I’m avoiding media that has ANY feelings. Any at all. Because, I suspect, I have already have all the feelings I can handle right now.
Dr Amy Watchorn, senior clinical psychologist at Saint John of God Hospital, explained these feelings to me, instantly assuaging the guilt I feel for refusing to watch The Lion King the other day. “During times of crisis and extreme stress, people tend to develop heightened levels of anxiety as the body’s threat system goes into overload,” Dr Watchorn tells me.
“People experience the ‘fight or flight’ response when exposed to stressful events. It involves a number of physiological and cognitive changes as our body prepares us for the perceived threat. During the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, the threat and uncertainty surrounding it has amplified people’s levels of anxiety and made them more vulnerable to it,” she continues.
“There is a huge level of uncertainty regarding the future and how the ongoing crisis is going to impact on people’s physical health, mental health and financial security, amidst many other concerns. This lack of certainty can result in people feeling increasingly anxious and having no way of finding relief from this feeling,” says Dr Watchorn. That’s it, isn’t it? No relief. No one’s getting a day’s reprieve from this constant onslaught of pure FEELINGS. Good and bad. We can’t get away from them – they have our 2km circumference mapped and monitored.
I polled about 4,000 of my Instagram followers the other day, as I am wont to do, and it threw up some interesting stats… I am not alone in my avoidance of emotive content.
I also had a packed DMs inbox, filled with explanations for these stats.
Noelle told me: “I read Normal People over the weekend and watched the series and I swear my heart is sore! I cannot stop thinking about it, it’s all about human connection and love. I think it’s things we are all missing hugely at the minute.” Human connection? Never heard of her.
Meanwhile, Caro (I didn’t want to wrongly extrapolate ‘Caroline’ from that…) told me: “I find that if I’m already at a high level of anxiety, even suspenseful music will send me into a panic. I’ve been watching a lot of Disney+ and listening to audio books I’ve listened to before, where I know the outcome. Comfort in the familiar. Same goes for food: it’s soft boiled eggs, toasted cheese sambos and pasta with tomato sauce,” she says.
Emma, a braver soul than I, replied to me on Instagram with this: “I’m definitely still watching and reading content that involves hard hitting topics. I think exposure therapy is important to me, and helps me deal with what is happening right now,” she says. See? BRAVE.
“I’m a scientist, so I’m reading a lot of articles and papers. It helps me massively, knowing the amount of work being done around the world to tackle Covid. I also watched series two of After Life yesterday, and cried my eyes out. But I felt great afterwards. I think it’s so important to just let it all out, over something that’s either related or unrelated to what’s happening right now,” she continues.
There is a lot to be said for facing it head on, exposing yourself to emotion and growing from it. I am, as you’ve probably gathered by now, not able. Not yet. Environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers says that choosing calming, comforting content is actually a power move – something I for one am quite happy to hear.
“With many decisions being taken away from us right now, and adaption and acclimatisation to a new normal, having the autonomy to choose what we consume is empowering, and we are less likely to choose to consume content that portrays elements of uncertainty or triggers emotions that we are protecting ourselves from,” says Lee.
I’m glad someone in the medical field supports my decision to rely on repeat viewings of Aladdin as a means to get through the day. Before we continue, I feel I should clarify that I am in no way affiliated with Disney+. Although you’d be forgiven for not believing me.
WE’RE ONLY HUMAN, AFTER ALL
Helen Jones is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. She contradicts something that many personal trainers of mine have tried to make me believe.
“We are not machines,” she tells me.
“It is only human to be struggling. It is always important to acknowledge the struggle and to offer oneself some kindness. We are very good at berating ourselves if we feel we are not coping. Try to become more self-aware by simply taking time and space to reflect on how this is affecting you. Write about it. Talk about it. Stay in touch with other people. Remember, there will be good times as well as bad times.”
Well. Right now, I am both writing about it and staying in touch with other people, and you know what? It’s helping.
HOW TO STAY POSITIVE (ISH)
Clinical psychologist Dr Tara Logan Buckley, has some excellent advice for anyone attempting to maintain some semblance of positivity right now. “Your mental health is just as important as your physical health during this pandemic. It is important to take time for yourself and your mental well-being,” she says.
Remember that it’s important to separate the things we have control over from the things you have little or no control over (e.g. the future, how long it will last, other people’s emotions, actions or responses).
Keep a normal routine – if this has gone out of balance then so might your wellbeing. • Set achievable goals to work towards. Do not create a list of ‘life-changing’ goals or challenges as these will only add stress and overwhelm you.
Remember some days are going to be better than others.
Be mindful about your physical health, this includes; getting enough sleep, eating well, regular exercise, avoid or limit your alcohol, tobacco and other drug intake.
Unwind. Practice mindfulness, engage in deep breathing, try online yoga or meditation. Do whatever helps you self-soothe and relax you as this will reduce anxiety.
Stay connected to others by any means you can.
Dr Amy Watchorn gives some great advice too, for those among us who are practicing avoidance but still finding little relief from the intensity of the anxiety. “Try to reduce your media and social media consumption, as too much time online/viewing such content can reinforce your levels of anxiety and make you feel worse. Limiting this to once or twice per day and getting your information from a reputable media source could be of help in managing your anxiety,” she advises.
“If you feel overwhelmed and are unable to cope with the anxiety you feel, seek out professional supports. GPs may be busy but they are still very happy to take calls from patients and provide options for onward referrals. There are also lots of good online resources for managing anxiety available from the HSE and other mental health services.”
Here are some things I’ve found convenient and safe to engage with if the very last thing you need is more f*ing feelings.
8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown
Devoid of ALL emotion, peppered with comedy, with just enough mind-bending engagement to keep you in thrall, if you can hack the sight of Jimmy Carr right now, this will see you through one (1) evening.
Notting Hill (et al)
It made the cut, I watched it all. Sure, Hugh Grant’s performance could bring about painful feelings in anyone, but the heartwarming and iconic brownie friendship scene brings enough of a knowing smile to cancel that out. Warning: When Julia Roberts approaches the bench of the old lady, pop the kettle on.
This food podcast doesn’t have very many feelings about anything OTHER than food. What a relief. I hadn’t realised before how many of my go-to pods were jam-packed with emotion, ready to gut punch you with a heartfelt anecdote when you least expect it. This, however, with comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster, is pure fun.