Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mental Minimalism

When I recently penned a goodbye to blogging as I'd conducted it over the past 6+ years, it was as much for me as it was for readers. I needed to signal to myself that I could let it go for long periods of time without worrying about it. I didn't consider that there might be something I'd want to publicly share shortly after publishing that post. And yet over the last few weeks the thread of a thought has wound its way around my mind, and I've tested it, made changes in my own life, and found some resolution.

I've returned a few times to the idea that digital clutter and infomania are sources of anxiety and lack of clarity. But a recently unexplored source -- particularly as related to anxiety -- was entertainment. I initially wrote it off as a possibility; I don't watch much TV, I read a mix of fairly un-dramatic nonfiction and fiction, and I don't keep up with celebrity gossip. But my curiosity was piqued, and I gave the idea a chance.

About a month ago, Val Woerner had a week-long email experiment called an "anxiety detox," where, to test a personal theory, she asked people to take a week off from content that involved violence, horror, suspense, or abuse; anything highly emotion-driven; news; online community tragedies; and depressing or angsty music, to see if they felt a difference in their anxiety levels. Based on the idea that relentless exposure to tragedies on the news makes us more informed but also more overwhelmed, her theory posited that we are not capable of withstanding the mass consumption of stress and emotion-inducing content that we currently do.

Instead, she explains, "Tragedy should seize our hearts. We aren't supposed to block it out completely, but I think we are supposed to experience those things in community. If we are so filled with anxiety that we can't sit with a friend going through a divorce, diagnosis, or death of a child, then we need to cut out the materialized drama so that we have space to experience the small bit of stress that means getting to love someone else well."
Her idea was not to completely cut out emotion-driven entertainment forever, but for each person to see what affected them and to think through what serves them well (and in turn, helps them love others better) and what doesn't. At the time I didn't think much of it, but as I went through the week-long experiment and thought through what I spent my free time consuming, I was surprised to see specific examples of relevant anxiety-inducing (or at the very least, not anxiety-calming) choices. 

Though I don't watch much television, I realized that I unconsciously picked suspenseful and emotion-driven choices. Recently I watched the new season of Stranger Things and caught up on Riverdale. Both are suspenseful, highly emotional, and written to manipulate your feelings a specific way. And while I don't think it's bad to immerse yourself in fiction, I do notice, for instance, I'm far more relaxed after watching an episode of Nailed It! than I am either of the above-mentioned shows. I've also been listening to more instrumental albums and the classical music radio station rather than songs with lyrics. Lyrics can be distracting, and stirringly dramatic for entertainment's sake, rather than calming.

Additionally and perhaps most relevantly, I've re-thought my reading choices. I'm always cautious with book choices, as I dislike wasting my time reading something I don't care about, but I've been less discerning with my online article and essay choices. It's so easy to click on anything with a remotely interesting headline, and I found myself particularly caught up in the endless habit of reading productivity articles or "insights" on life or any other number of self help-esque articles, which ends up being a cycle of reading instead of doing and feeling guilty for not doing more. Now, I've unfollowed certain blogs and topics on Medium, and I'm trying to be more discerning about reading pieces that are thoughtful and relevant rather than something that's supposed to make my life better through simple tips and hacks.

Rather than seeing this re-evaluation of content as restrictions on things I enjoy, I'm thinking of it more as being discerning and pursuing simple joys and beauty over quick thrills or filler. I'm not abandoning all the media I enjoy, but limiting its hold on my time and attention. It's a give and take, a continual thinking through of what is "life-giving" and what can be eliminated.
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