What Pleasures You May Stress You

sb10068251n-001Have you seen that show, “Battlestar Galactica?” It received recent press thanks to a reference in an episode of another show, “Portlandia.” I’ve been watching it, and I have to say I love it. It has that perfect mix of connection and drama, adventure and heroism–and the acting is incredible.

And, even though I love the characters and storyline, I have begun to notice that sometimes, especially after a stressful day, watching it heightens my stress level rather than lowering it. This is not because it lacks fun or captivating qualities.

It is likely because it is violent, and because the characters I care about die. This is hard. And, this brings me to the topic of this article:  have you ever experienced feeling more stressed after doing something fun?

Sometimes, we think that doing fun things creates positive excitement or even calm. The truth is, even pleasurable events can cause stress. Think about the music you used to enjoy. How has your experience changed as you’ve gotten older? Do you find that what you do is affected by how much you’re doing?

Are their activities that you do out of habit that no longer bring the same feeling of freedom? Sometimes, we end up doing activities because of who we used to be, rather than because of who we are now. Or, we do the right thing at the wrong time, like listening to Green Day when we’re anxious or annoyed. It makes the emotion worse. Or you’re left feeling worse rather than better.

For some people, the line between anxiety and excitement is very thin. How can you tell the difference between anxiety and excitement? One way to assess this distinction is to experience how your body feels. Anxiety might create a jittery or even light-headed feeling. You might hold your breath, find it difficult to focus, or to think clearly.

In contrast, excitement may lead to more ideas, more clarity, and increased energy without panic or jitteriness. And, it creates more energy. Anxiety, in contrast, creates more exhaustion because your body is working harder. Calm, on the other hand, leads to breathing with ease, feeling your body relax or melt, and thinking clearly.

Why is this important? Have you ever had a day where you did everything for fun and felt exhausted or anxious afterwards? That may be because the balance between energizing and calming experiences is essential. This might change might also be based on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Extroverts typically experience more energy from stimulation with the outside world and with other people, while introverts may need more down time after relating to the world.

Ideally, if you can combine one energizing experience with a calming one, and only do a few mind-numbing experiences (like zoning out in front of the TV for one show rather than several), you might notice a difference in how you feel. You might feel the right kind of energized! The point is to actively create your mood. Want to increase mindful balance in your life?

Try this: Make a list of your favorite energizing activities, including music you love, people who enthrall you, and things you love to do. Next, make a list of things that create anxiety. Lastly, make a list of activities that bring calm. On a day when you feel stressed, try to do two activities that day that bring calm. Experiment with the activities: does doing an exciting activity increase the anxiety or decrease it? You can also keep a chart of your mood and activities on the free App, Stress Tracker.

While we can’t have perfect control over our moods, we do have some say in how we feel. Sometimes, just being aware of what we’re doing can increase calm. Other times, it takes intentionality to lead you toward the mood you’re hoping to create.

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  • chynna

    chynna

    March 29th, 2012 at 3:33 PM

    Yeah, I suppose that a tv show could do this to you, but it’s not like it’s real stress. How can it be really stress inducing when the plots are not even real, have no real effect on your life, and you could turn it off any time you wanted to?

  • Dollie

    Dollie

    March 29th, 2012 at 4:56 PM

    Have a hard time with wrapping my head around something that is pleasureable also causing such stress and tension. How is that possible? If this is something that one enjoys, I can’t really see how this could also cause something bad in life like stress. It could make you a little tense or anxious I suppose, but pleasure intimates that this is somehting that feels good to you and that you can enjoy, not that you would wnat to try to avoid. If it causes that much distress then I say give it up and find another way to occupy the time.

  • jack

    jack

    March 30th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    For me basketball is definitely the one thing that can push me over the edge. If my team is winning, then yeah, I definitely get psyched. But if they are losing it can tear me up! So much that my friends and family have to walk away, they won’t deal with me.

  • Bailee

    Bailee

    March 30th, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    I need things in life that help me unwind, not make me even more tense than usual. I have a very stressful job and career; why add any more stress to my life than I already have to live with?

  • Rosalyn C

    Rosalyn C

    March 31st, 2012 at 12:21 AM

    I feel this way at times.When there’s an assignment pendin but I still go out with my friends I feel this too.Its like I’m doing something because I enjoy it and in fact I do feel good but it also rings this bad feeling and stress.I shall follow your pointers here.Thankyou :)

  • clarke

    clarke

    April 1st, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    You know that argument that people are always having about violent video games and the way that they can influence and impact kids? This is all the perfect example of this. It gets them wired up, think that it’s ok to do all of that crazy stuff that they have acted out on the computer or the game station and then it becomes a part of their personality and who they are, triggered along the way by every new exposure to the same stresses. Parents, I did not feel this way for a long time, but now I see that some things that you think are entertainment really deep down inside affect you in the opposite way. They do bring about that anxiety and that negative energy that emotionally is difficult for many of us to rein in, especially young children. Please take the time to not let it remain a part of your life anymore, but especially don’t let it come a constant in the lives of your children.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    April 8th, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Thank you, everyone for your comments! Jack and Clarke, I think you got it. For those of you had confusion, thanks for writing in.

    What I was trying to say is that you may listen to music that you love which also stimulates anger or sadness, which may be because of the words, the instruments, or because of your association with it (e.g. a memory of a break-up is then sealed with a song you used to love).

    So, music that you love can also cause anger or aggression, which is stressful (Check out this study, if you’re interested: APA, 2003: apa.org/news/press/releases/2003/05/violent-songs.aspx
    ).

    Similarly, if you watch something you love that is also stressful, (such as Battlestar Gallactica for me), certain nerve cells in your brain, called “Mirror Neurons,” pick up the facial expressions of the characters you are watching and your brain thinks that the scenarios you are watching are happening to you. This is why you watch the show. You’re identifying (to a greater or lesser extent) with the characters.

    You actually experience the same emotions as the characters you’re watching (Iacoboni, 2009)!

    For an in-depth discussion of this, read Marco Iacoboni’s book, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect to Others.

    For less in-depth, check out this article from the NY Times on Mirror Neurons: nytimes.com/2006/01/10/science/10mirr.html?pagewanted=all

    Unless you’re autistic and don’t have much functioning in areas of your brain connected with empathy, this process of picking up emotions from characters or other people, happens. It may happen without our awareness, but if you pay attention, you may notice that you feel more stirred up than you felt before you watched the show. Or, you might feel more excited. There’s a fine line between excitement and anxiety/stress.

    But, with mindful awareness, you can add in calming activities which balance out your mind and your body.

  • Dr. Heather Schwartz

    Dr. Heather Schwartz

    April 8th, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    And, yes, Rosalyn, that’s exactly it!

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