Why Do I Keep Watching The Same TV Shows Over And Over Again?
Illustration by Mr Frank Moth
In 2016, the US had a pretty momentous election (maybe you heard about it), which arguably changed the course of global history. It also changed the course of my own personal history in a small, but, to me, fairly momentous, way: I stopped watching TV.
OK, that’s not strictly true. But I did refuse to finish the extremely upsetting season of The Walking Dead we were in the middle of at the time. I also gave up on Netflix’s nail-biter Stranger Things. And, while I watched Game Of Thrones (as was legally required of all sentient life on Earth), I could barely sleep before and after each Sunday showing. I had already given up Law & Order SVU for nightmare-related reasons years before, but this was a new level of culture-abandonment-as-stress-management. In this new world order, where the biggest, most orange dummy could become president, I simply couldn’t stomach more stress – even if I knew, rationally, that zombies weren’t really running rampant in Georgia.
In place of the new television, I favour the old, ie, rewatching, on repeat, hundreds of episodes of 30 Rock and Parks And Rec. I also have rewatched all 10 seasons of Friends from the start, twice (it does not hold up, thanks to an overwhelming amount of homophobic jokes, by the way), plus a good helping of wedding, home makeover and other trash television.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that it didn’t occur to me until a few weeks ago that maybe this newfound proclivity for fluffy, low-stakes television was connected with my anxiety level. I’m a lot ashamed to admit that it occurred to me only after seeing an Instagram Story on a joke-farm account that referred to this rewatching phenomenon. Then I did a little non-scientific survey of my anxious friends and what do you know? We all have this habit of watching the same shows over and over, ad nauseum. “Vanderpump Rules is my Xanax,” joked one friend.
It’s something my husband, a fairly non-anxious person, doesn’t understand and, frankly, thinks is bizarre. “You’re back to this again,” he chuckles, when he hears the Arrested Development theme tune for the umpteenth time. It’s difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t struggle with anxiety, but the reason I do it is because I don’t have to worry about whether things are going to work out at the end of a Bob’s Burgers episode – I already know they will. Watching a new episode of The Walking Dead, on the other hand, is an exercise in psychological torture. What if they kill [insert favourite character here], for example? Another Red Wedding-level reveal would surely incapacitate me. The uncertainty – the who-will-die of it all – baked into high-stakes television makes my jaw lock right up.
“If you live in the past, you’re bound to get depressed. If you live in the future, you’re bound to be anxious because the future is unknown. Stay in the present and focus on what you do know”
“That makes sense,” says Mr Mike Ward, a psychotherapist who runs The London Anxiety Clinic and The Hampshire Anxiety Clinic. “Uncertainty and anxiety often go hand in hand.” Mr Ward listens to my Instagram-inspired theory with warm encouragement and validation. I got in touch with him because he specialises in the treatment of anxiety, including PTSD, phobias and social anxiety. “Anything where there’s stress involved in the body,” he says. Bingo.
I suggest that perhaps the television repeat habit is a (perfectly healthy) coping mechanism. And while he won’t quite confirm this to be true, he suggests that as long as one’s coping mechanisms don’t directly interfere with one’s life, work or relationships, they’re OK. “We’re all creatures of habit,” he says. “Walking to work the same way every day, driving the same way, putting your shoes in a certain part of the room... These are all habits in that give us a sense of control.”
The pandemic has disrupted many of these habits. Our commute is now from mattress to couch or, if you’re lucky, to a desk. Our shoes remain in the part of the room where you left them, and driving? What’s driving? “For some, there’s a sense that this is what it is,” says Mr Ward. “For others, they don’t feel like they have any control.”
Indeed, control, or lack thereof is intrinsically linked to a feeling of uncertainty. Throughout lockdown, I have not felt anxious about getting sick myself, but the vague idea that it could continue for months, or even a year, seems untenable. “A lot of clients have come through who are focused on the uncertainty,” says Mr Ward. “I have a lot of NHS staff seeing me – via Zoom – talking about the uncertainty of what’s happening, the enormity of what’s going on.”
When things are uncertain or feel just too enormous, what does Mr Ward recommend?
“Focus on the things that you can control and then chunk them down into smaller tasks. Ask yourself, ‘What am I in control of? What are the facts right now? What’s true right now?’” In the case of pandemic anxiety, visit government websites to get the information you need – even the simple act of wiping down your groceries with anti-bacterial wipes can be a way for you to say to yourself: hey, maybe I can’t control whether I’ll be able to go to a pub in four months, but I can control what comes into my home.
My mother, Ms Sharon B Shaw, a psychotherapist based in NYC, concurs. “If you live in the past, you’re bound to get depressed. If you live in the future, you’re bound to be anxious because the future is unknown. Stay in the present and focus on what you can do, what you do know.”
“Being nervous before an exam, or anxious about meeting someone new – that energises you to make sure that things can be OK. But there can be a tipping point”
Anxiety does have its benefits. It’s a natural part of our system, after all. “Being nervous before an exam, or anxious about meeting someone new – that energises you to make sure that things can be OK,” says Mr Ward. “But there can be a tipping point.” Anxiety becomes unhealthy when it begins to disrupt your normal life, when it becomes constant as opposed to situation-specific and short-lived. When your anxiety starts to interfere with your work and your relationships, that’s when it’s time to seek professional help.
“If you find that anxiety is really interfering with your functioning, go and see someone,” says Ms Shaw. “And medication might help.”
Both Mr Ward and Ms Shaw (thanks, Mom) had a little chuckle at my TV-related coping mechanism, but neither seem to find issue with it. “Think about what gives you comfort and pleasure,” advises Ms Shaw. Maybe baking a cake at midnight soothes your soul, maybe chatting with a neighbour from a comfortable distance will help you ease back into normal life.
“Uncertainty leads to anxiety,” Ms Shaw says. While this might be a particular banger of a moment in time when it comes to unknowables, uncertainty isn’t a new concept and it has a knack for rearing its head just when you’ve laid yours down on the pillow for the night.
So manage it, take what control you can – whatever you find soothing, harness it. Even if it’s watching 30 Rock for the 500th time, I ask my mom? “Whatever calms you.”