5 Ways Anxiety Can Ruin Virtually Every Movie You Watch
One day, many years ago, my brain suddenly announced that I was going to die. It didn't offer any specifics, but it was convinced that something horrible was definitely going to happen to me. Like a terrible plumber, I naturally wondered "Where did all this shit come from?" Short answer: It was an anxiety disorder. And besides sucking in all of the normal, predictable ways, it also sucked because I'm a huge movie and TV fan. And when you have anxiety, the way you enjoy both of those things is drastically changed. For example ...
It's Literally Impossible To Watch A Character Embarrass Themselves
I really like The IT Crowd, a show about two nerds that's sort of like The Big Bang Theory if it wasn't, well, The Big Bang Theory. It's generally agreed that the show's funniest episode is "The Work Outing," wherein one of the protagonists ends up pretending that he's disabled, and his lie slowly escalates and turns the entire thing into a comical farce. Or so I hear.
I was never actually able to finish the episode, because I just could not bear to watch the character make a fool of himself. Whenever I tried, I turned into what I call the Painfully Orgasming Pretzel, with my face cringing HARD and my body twisting to all sorts of uncomfortable shapes. I saw the awkwardness, and my body responded with nervous yoga, almost as if I was watching a horrible torture scene.
Actually, that's exactly what it was. Anxiety is often linked with increased levels of empathy. The disorder makes you hone your empathetic skills because you assume the world is against you, so you learn to read people's emotions better to know exactly how much of an asshole they think you are. And the stronger your empathy is, the stronger you feel other people's "social pain." Here's the kicker in the pricker, though: According to fMRI scans, the empathic brain sees no difference between humiliation and physical pain, which turns other people's embarrassment into your own personal snuff show.
The first time I felt this way was during the episode of Frasier in which the title character delivers a speech in what he thinks is Hebrew but is actually Klingon (it ... makes sense in context). I remember feeling so uncomfortable during Frasier's humiliation that I had to get up and leave the room. Though to be fair, that is the reaction of a lot of 20-somethings whenever someone puts on any episode of Frasier.
There's also this one episode of Married ... With Children that I had to bail on halfway through because it was all about Bud getting caught jacking it in the library. The thing is, I absolutely do NOT identify with Bud. If he wanted to masturbate in public without getting caught, he should have gotten himself a camouflage poncho and made base in the tree outside the local nunnery, like NORMAL people. But watching his shame was, well, physically painful for me. Eventually I developed a trick to help me with it, though. Since I watched most of my shows with subtitles, I would turn off the sound during the scenes I couldn't cope with. For whatever reason, it really helped.
But it does exactly fuck all for watching movies in cinemas. Back in the day, I'd sooner let Ben Stiller breastfeed me rather than watch him lie about milking cats in Meet The Parents, which almost made me leave the theater. And speaking of which ...
Cinemas Start Feeling Like Inescapable Death Traps
I want to be clear on one thing: If you're very empathetic and don't enjoy watching people get humiliated, it doesn't necessarily mean you have anxiety. An anxiety disorder is something that seriously interferes with your life, which in my case happened after I had a panic attack so severe that I actually called an ambulance because I thought I was having a stroke. Then there was the time when, for about a year, I was seriously too stressed out to watch movies in cinemas.
Before my brain started randomly hearing that Sonic The Hedgehog drowning music whenever I came within 50 feet of a theater, I LOVED going to the cinema. It was my happy place. Then one day, I started thinking "What if the roof collapsed?" I probably wouldn't make it to the door in time, because I liked sitting in the middle rows, far from the exit. Same if there was a fire. I eventually started spending most of my time planning escape routes instead of enjoying myself.
During this time, I'd often come out of movies feeling like I didn't really get the story because of how distracted I was, like with Quantum Of Solace or Hancock (though in these cases, those may have just been problems with the script). Seriously, though, because of my anxiety, I often found myself, ummm, "streaming" movies after just seeing them in theaters and rewatching them in the anxiety-free comfort of my own home, where I didn't have to worry about the screen catching on fire and falling on me as much.
Then the Aurora theater shooting happened. As far as I know, there never was a cinema shooting in Poland or Japan, where I've lived, but my brain wasn't convinced. Even though I KNEW that my fears were unfounded, after Aurora, I'd spend most of my time looking for potential shooters in the crowd and missing even more of the movie. The worst were loud films. I became convinced that a shooter would want to use the distraction of a loud action scene to start blasting me and my fellow patrons. As if I needed more reasons to hate Transformers movies.
So for about a year, I just stopped going to the cinema. I was miserable. The thing about anxiety is that it takes the things you used to love and twists them into something unfamiliar and ugly. This is honestly one of the things that prompted me to seek help and get it under control. It was either this or only attending movies where I would be the only audience member, but I'm sorry, I just refuse to pay good money to watch something that has Adam Sandler's face on the poster.
The Strangest Movies/Shows Relax You
One of the most relaxing movies I've seen in years is The Martian, the story of Matt Damon eating copious potatoes and almost dying on Mars. And you might ask "Cezary, are you drunk?" to which my answer is usually "Oh please, off three beers?" Really, though, the entire movie strangely puts me at ease because it's mainly about the lead character taking control of a chaotic situation.
It's true that the movie opens with Damon's Mark Watney almost getting killed and being left alone on Mars, but right after that, he gets up and gets shit done. Specifically, he uses his friends' shit to construct a little farm, makes his own water, establishes contact with Earth, etc. To a person with anxiety, watching that is like taking a bath in a tub of warm Earl Grey. Anxiety is all about feeling like you're losing control, so seeing a character actually being in control of chaos is extremely satisfying to watch. It borders on porn, except you can watch it in non-horribly depressing cinemas.
Then there's the "Charlie Work" episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which I must have watched 40-50 times because of one scene wherein Charlie comes up with an insanely convoluted on-the-spot plan to keep a health inspector from shutting down the bar. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. The whole thing should have failed at every step, but each part of Charlie's insane plan connects so smoothly. It's like watching those satisfying YouTube calligraphy videos ... performed by a profanity-spewing psychopath.
Things just going right rarely happens in movies and TV because there is little drama in it, but to people with anxiety, that shit is EVERYTHING. That's why us folks often resort to another relaxing genre: horror movies. Watching scary movies to ease your anxiety sounds counterintuitive, but I looked at it this way: Since my mind occasionally went all panicky for NO REASON, then I would give it a goddamn reason. This left me with two choices: walk around sketchy neighborhoods while talking loudly about having to wrap a Rolex around my wallet to keep it from bursting open, or watch scary movies. I went with the latter.
By watching horrors, I gave myself reasons to be afraid, and that somehow focused all my attention on the film instead of the pain in my chest which, according to my anxiety, was definitely an impending heart attack and/or lung cancer. The Shining and Halloween used to work best for me because of how atmospheric and improbable they were. Sure, I was scared watching them, but I also knew the things I was scared of would never happen in real life. For one, I wouldn't be caught dead in an empty hotel over winter with no internet. For a few hours, it made me feel like I was in control of my fear, and that gave me a lot of comfort.
You're Afraid To Try New Movies And Shows
I can recite most episodes of the British comedy Blackadder near-perfectly from memory. There are two reasons for this. I've ... ummm, "acquired" just the audio of the show and occasionally listen to it on a waterproof music player while swimming. Also, back during my cinemaphobic days, Blackadder was one of like three shows and three movies that I watched on endless repeats. Each day, it was either that, Only Fools And Horses, That '70s Show, Goodfellas, The Shining, or Halloween, and absolutely nothing else. Was it because they are all just that good? Well ... yeah, except maybe That '70s Show. I mainly watched that to hear Kurtwood Smith threaten Topher Grace with shoe-to-colon violence.
At its worst, my anxiety demanded constant appeasing. I needed something calming and, above all else, familiar to anchor myself and ride out my brain's malfunctioning red alert notifications. It was less about being entertained and more about trying to establish a sense of normality. I don't think there has been a day in the last ... 17 years or so that I haven't seen at least one movie or a TV episode. So I had to watch something during my episodes of heavy anxiety without aggravating it with, say, scenes of a character getting humiliated. This forced me to fall back on the known and familiar. Over and over and fucking over again.
Also, I only had so many free hours in the day, I couldn't possibly RISK them on something that would stress me out. In short, my death anxiety had taken my advice and went and fucked itself. Then, in an ironic twist, this resulted in it giving birth to time anxiety -- the fear of the passage of time and the feeling that you are wasting your life. But watching the same shows and movies hundreds of times apparently didn't qualify as that, because the human brain is weird and stupid. Yeah, this was another thing that finally forced me to seek professional help.
It's Never Really Over
After a lot of work, I've managed to get my anxiety under control, and now it's almost like it's not there. I try new shows all the time, I no longer rewatch that one episode of It's Always Sunny to relax, and I go to the movies as often as I can. But I tend to sit in the back rows, near the exits. Just in case. Unfortunately, getting rid of anxiety is a lot like wrestling a knife away from an excitable toddler -- it's doable, but you're getting some scars in the process.
I first saw The Martian after I thought I had gotten better, but it still relaxed me to no end. Then there was the time I saw Trailer Park Boys Out Of The Park: Europe, a Netflix special about three Canadians winning a trip to Europe, where they have to perform ridiculous tasks in order to earn money for food. In one episode, a character is FINALLY able to afford a meal, but before he can taste it, his two asshole friends keep distracting him and taking bites from his grub. I got through it just fine, but I probably wouldn't have been able to if I still had anxiety. I think my heart would be racing, and I'd be screaming at the screen for those assholes to let their buddy eat his food before just rage-quitting. Then I realized I got lost in thought and had to rewind the scene to catch up. So ... have I really gotten better?
Honestly, I don't know. Before my gray matter got cast in the lead role of The Brain That Cried Wolf, I really enjoyed the show Monk, but after coming down with anxiety, I just couldn't handle it. The show is based entirely on the premise that the main character is everything-phobic but no one ever explains it to the people around him, resulting in him constantly being humiliated. I still haven't gone back and rewatched the show. I guess I'm just afraid that I might feel anxious during it, which would mean I'm not really better. But as long as I keep away from it, I can tell myself that everything is fine, while the truth is that I might not have actually fixed my "Check Brain" light. Maybe I just put a piece of tape over it.
Hopefully not, though, because they recently cast the insane count from Da Vinci's Demons as Brainiac and I kind of want to see that. You hear that, anxiety, you little bitch? If I'm not able to enjoy Syfy's Krypton, it will be because of the horrible, horrible writing and not you.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
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