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Binge Watching to Cope with COVID-19

We all love a good streaming session, but a balance is important

Binge watching is the new addictive drug of the day, that is, until the episodes run out. Then you are left feeling the empty desert of time before the next season, which could be a whole year or more away. Or if it’s an older show, that’s it, the end, finito. You will never see all those characters you followed and started to care about again. Pause for a moment of sadness. Ok, time to start looking for your next streaming fix.

The phenomenon of binge watching—viewing multiple consecutive episodes of a TV program in one sitting—has expanded amid COVID-19. Today, there are more than 200 streaming services available.

Being laid off from a job, having money troubles or just worrying about the pandemic itself and getting sick are serious concerns. Watching your favorite TV show…or 52 episodes of your favorite show, can take your mind off things for a while. There are some easy solutions to balance screen time and avoid over-streaming. But first, here are a few of the key issues medical professionals have identified in regard to binge watching.

Temporary Anxiety Relief Rebound
Binge watching is a “rescue” from anxiety to distract us from what else is going on in real life. Psychologists consider this a negative coping strategy.

By binge watching a series, one is likely putting off something else (work, looking for work, exercise, studying, paying bills, etc). You give yourself permission to watch the next show, and the next. The problem is, avoidance doesn’t make the problem go away.

Binge watching may make you feel good and quiet your anxiety for a time, but then you will have less time for those tasks that were put off. If this creates more anxiety, it could lead to a continued cycle of binge watching, while deadlines and commitments pile up and scream louder for attention.

Here is a list of resources if you are feeling serious COVID-19 related anxiety or depression.

Binge Watching is Like a Drug
If binge watching has an addictive feel to it, there is good reason. According to doctors at Northwestern Medicine, the brain produces dopamine while doing something pleasurable, like watching your favorite show. Dopamine enhances feelings of excitement and happiness. The release of this chemical in your brain produces a sort of a feel-good high. Your brain says yes! Give me more! And as long as you continue to binge watch, your brain continues to release dopamine.

But, just like any addiction, when this behavior is continued over time, neural patterns and habits become hard to break. According to Dr. Danesh Alam, a board-certified addictions psychiatrist with Northwestern Medicine Behavioral Health Services, binge watching can cause an addiction to a show, and continue on with the next series.

Dr. Alam warns that marathon viewing can adversely affect your relationships, goals and commitments. The amount of time spent watching TV may become out of control as you try and reach the same level of dopamine satisfaction. Others may notice you become irritable, defensive or even lie about how much screen time you are spending.

Remote control for TV

Instant Gratification
Having our desires met instantly at the touch of a remote control is also a dopamine trigger. But research shows that delaying gratification can help people develop good impulse control, manage spending and have more complex thought processes. Impulse control also helps our relationships by managing anger and overeating.

As my mom used to say, patience is a virtue. I remember eagerly waiting each week, looking forward to piling on the couch as a family to watch the Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday evening before bed. In between, my imagination rehashed the last episode and anticipated the next show. Even though I could now download every episode in Disney+, practicing patience is a good life skill.

My husband and I still like to watch one show or movie together after dinner. Though there are some debates on what to watch, enjoying a program with someone is less isolating than streaming individual programs. With quarantines and social restrictions, the last thing we want is more isolation.

Effects on Sleep
That same increased brain activity interferes with your ability to sleep. Research compiled by Psychology Today reveals that watching back-to-back episodes may over-excite your brain. Even if you continue to watch until your eyes get droopy, your ability to fall asleep, or have restful sleep may be affected.

In addition, cliff hangers compel us to watch the next episode to see what will happen.

Outlander writers are the best at writing these powerful teasers, and we’ve been caught more than once saying “let’s just watch the first few minutes of the next show to see what happens.” I can stop anytime, really (not). But watching “just one more episode,” and likely the next, can cause one to stay up later than intended at night, leaving you feeling tired and drained the next day. Spoiler alert: medical professionals also say caffeine cannot make up for the effects loss of sleep have on your brain.

Physical Problems
It’s likely you are relaxed in a comfy chair, couch or even bed while binge watching. However, poor posture can cause myriad back problems because your spine becomes curved or weak over time.

Sitting for long periods of time reduces oxygen intake, and over time shrinks your lung capacity by a third. Plus, while you are lounging, you are not physically active, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke.

As if the pandemic and staying home didn’t already have us over-indulging on snacks, TV watching increases this behavior. Within two weeks of binging you might notice a bigger waistline starting to appear, which won’t make you feel any better about things.

Tips for Managing Binge Watching
If you sit down to watch one show and end up watching a whole season, it may be time to reassess your viewing habits. Now that you know why you should curb those binging impulses, Dr. Alam has these recommendations for a more balanced approach to streaming.

+ Limit yourself to a certain (small) number of episodes, like two or three at a time. When you’ve reached your limit, turn off the TV and move on to something else. Set a time limit. Decide the amount of time you watch per night. Use a timer for accountability.

+ Balance TV-viewing with other activities, such as physical exercise, seeing friends, reading or taking up a hobby.

+ Keep lights turned on in the viewing area and your house so you don’t lose sense of time.

+ Make it a social thing and invite a friend, spouse or kids to watch with you.

+ Chat with your partner or fellow fans about the characters, plot and cliffhangers in a series, and build anticipation for the next show (delayed gratification).

One Final Thought
Many people are working from home, spending more time on a computer during the time of COVID-19. It’s not just the amount of time you or I spend watching TV programming—time in front of a computer, tablet or phone screen has many of the same ill effects. Researching this article hit really close to home, including sleep issues and feeling some bad physical side effects such as shortness of breath and weight gain. I am committed to doing better about overall screen time. If some of this information resonates with you, I hope you will join me in this effort for a healthier lifestyle.

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