Updated April 04, 2015.
It’s usually one of the first things you learn about fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome — stress makes everything worse. It’s easy to identify some source of stress: workplace drama, money problems, conflict with friends or family members…. But a more subtle source may be stressing you out without you even realizing it. That source is entertainment.
That may seem bizarre to you at first, but think about the goals of entertainment. It’s supposed to have an impact on our emotional state. We laugh, we cry, and our hearts pound in response to what we see, hear, or read. Our bodies can’t distinguish these states from the real-life things that make us feel the same way.
Movies & TV Shows
Several years ago, I realized that I felt a lot worse after watching intense movies or shows. It started while watching an action flick. During one especially tense scene, I realized I was leaning forward in my seat and my shoulders were up around my years. A couple of hours later, my symptoms flared. I spent the next day recovering.
I considered that it could have been the movie, but then I decided it was probably just a coincidence. The same thing happened the next time, though, so I decided there must be something to it.
When you have these conditions, it’s pretty common to have a lot of down time when your symptoms don’t allow for activity. So if our down-time entertainment is making us worse, what can we do?
I’ve identified two strategies that work well for me. First, I tried to stick to more lighthearted entertainment when I’m really feeling bad. Comedies and non-action-based dramas become common choices.
Second, when I do choose to watch something more intense like action or horror, I do several things:
- Take anti-anxiety supplements before watching (l-theanine and DHEA are the ones I like);
- Intentionally distance myself emotionally from what I’m watching;
- Pause the show to relax when I feel myself tensing up.
That takes a lot of awareness, but it works well for me—as long as I don’t lose myself in the story.
If I find myself tense after watching something, I try to watch something really light and funny afterward to help me relax. Re-runs can be a good option because you already know what’s going to happen, which can keep you from getting emotionally invested.
I take similar steps with books, but it can be a little more difficult. I find it’s even harder to retain what I read when I maintain emotional distance. That can make short stories a more attractive option than a novel. (They may be a better option due to cognitive dysfunction, as well.)
Along with short stories, I make sure to always have some options in my e-reader that I can pull up when I don’t have the tolerance for anything intense. (If you don’t have an e-reader, I highly recommend getting one when you’re able!)
Video games may be the worst offenders when it comes to creating too much stress in us. I tend to avoid things like first-person shooters or anything timed unless I’m feeling really good. I also find that video games lead to sensory overload more than other media. Quest-type games, where you can wander around and do things at your own pace, may be a better option.
Video games can actually function as a treatment for us, so don’t avoid them entirely!
I like rock music, but I know that at times, I have a very low tolerance for the more thumpy or screamy stuff. Fortunately, my musical tastes are broad enough that at those times, I can switch to a more melodic genre. Classical is my go-to for when I’m really feeling anxious.
More than other forms of entertainment, this one takes communication with my family members. I have to make sure they know when I can’t handle the harder stuff so they can make other choices or wear ear buds.
Watching the news and being inundated with all of the negative things going on in the world can cause a lot of stress, too. I like to stay informed, but I’ve learned that it’s better for me to read my news than to watch it and, especially when I’m already having a flare or a lot of pain. Also, the worse the news is, the less of it I read. (I spent a nearly a decade working in TV news, so ignoring it can be hard, but I force myself.)
I spend a fair amount of time on social media, but on those days when something horrible happens and it dominates my newsfeed, I have what I call a “media blackout day.” Those are the times when I’m really grateful for video streaming services.
Managing Your Entertainment
Don’t think that you have to give up your favorite types of entertainment forever. The important thing is that you learn what triggers symptoms in you and take steps to manage it. Whether that’s relaxation and deep breathing, strategic avoidance, or some other third thing is up to you.