My four years at college were some of the most stressful years of my life. But if you ask any of my friends, they would probably say that nothing academically or socially seemed to phase me. While everyone else was frantically exchanging notes and hunting down test banks, I would be taking my third nap of the day or finally getting around to watching the last season of Orange Is the New Black. In retrospect, this wasn’t because I “had it together” or was responsible in any way; it was because pressure did not convert into motivation for me; it converted into distress and inactivity. It was my coping mechanism.
And now, in the age of Netflix, binge-watching entire seasons of shows is normalized and even celebrated. There is a group mentality that because everyone does it, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Even though, when you inevitably finish the show, you are left with exponentially more stress than when you started.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of Communications surveyed 471 people, and those who watched TV after work did not describe it as a way to relax as much as a way to procrastinate. They did not benefit from their downtime because they saw it as “giving in” to media use. And, according to another study at the University of Texas, binge-watching is an addictive behavior to those who are not able to self-regulate. Binge-watching is also connected to depression and loneliness, neither of which are strong motivators for productivity.
Another way people cope with stress is by eating. According to the Mayo Clinic, more so than large, negative life events such as divorce or the death of a family member, it’s the daily hassles that lead to emotional eating. Triggers of this can be relationship conflicts, work stress, financial pressures, fatigue and even health issues. Once you start eating, you feel like you’ve already failed yourself, so why not continue the binge?
For me, stress eating and binge-watching TV would often go hand-in-hand. Making myself a snack and watching one episode of The Office quickly turned into me finishing a season, a half-eaten pepperoni pizza on the table beside me. Six hours later, I still had the same stress combined with feeling even worse about the decisions I had made.
Of course, one of the big problems that many people—including myself—have with these coping mechanisms is that in small doses, they can be good. Treating yourself to a few Oreos after you’ve had a stressful day or decompressing by watching a 20-minute episode of a sitcom can help you relax, but when you start using these things as a way to procrastinate and not relieve stress, that is when an unhealthy, self-loathing cycle begins. Trust me, it’s a difficult cycle to break.
If any of this sounds familiar, don’t let the guilt consume you. There are ways to break the binge cycle and find ways to relax, guilt-free. Here are five to get you started.
1. Get outside.
Research has shown that getting some Vitamin D and exposure to nature lowers blood pressure and raises serotonin levels—meaning, it will make you happier and more productive. Leave your Instagram feed on the couch and go for a leisurely stroll. This isn’t marathon-training, so don’t feel the need to overdo it at first.
2. Switch it up.
If you need some media in your life (and to be honest, I usually do), try listening to a podcast instead of watching TV. Podcasts are one of the few mediums that allow you to do other things while you listen, and are harder to binge than a continuous stream of New Girl. Turn on some This American Life and put away that laundry that’s been sitting in the basket for a week. You’ll get to relax while also feeling productive.
3. Use your hands.
Instead of lying around, try an activity that focuses on your hands, like knitting or drawing. Hands-on, rhythmic activities help your brain relax and make you feel more grounded. The less in your head you are, the less likely you are to fall into the procrastination spiral.
4. Take a bath.
According to Health.com, taking a bath connects you to the time you were the least stressed (in the womb) and reduces stress. Pick a bath bomb or scented Epsom salt to soak with; these have stress-reducing properties that are also great for your skin.
5. Take caution.
If you absolutely need to relax on the couch, have a snack and watch a rerun, do so with caution. Try to visualize the feeling of last time you let yourself slip down the procrastination slope and let that memory drive you to avoid the all-day slump. Also, be sure to only prepare small amounts of food. (For example, don’t bring the whole box of Oreos to the couch, just put three or four in a bowl and savor those.)