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How do television shows affect my mental health?

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

We often seek out various types of media with an expectation of enjoyment. But, how is our mental health affected when watching emotionally-charged content?


Many people approach their evenings with the same question: what will I do tonight? We often have the same options available to us: chores, exercise, or watching television. While we may spend time with friends or have the occasional outing, most people share a common thread in that decision-making process. Most often, we choose to sit and watch TV. In fact, per a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, Americans spend an average of 3.1 hours per day watching television. After factoring in our other most frequented activities (i.e., sleeping, working), this leaves little time in the day for much else.


Now, this article is not meant to disparage consuming media. We all know that exercise is healthy and that we need to maintain a routine with our chores. But, sometimes we simply need to relax and unwind on the couch in front of our favorite show. If we’re all going to make this decision on a regular basis, might it be important to better understand how this activity affects our mental health? Additionally, why are we choosing what we choose?


Dr. Sabrina Romanoff and I previously spoke with HuffPost about the effects of watching intense, emotionally-charged shows. More specifically, we discussed why we often seek out distressing shows and how these shows affect us. First, shows about survival or intense drama can pair us with others. This para-social relationship (with a fictional character whom we’ll never meet) feels real. We feel connected with this person and can appreciate their struggle. We come to understand that life’s stressors are present for all of us. In other words, seeing intense drama that can mirror real-life scenarios can be normalizing.


However, many shows depict a departure from our everyday life, specifically when characters experience life-threatening scenarios routinely. These shows tend to allow us a different experience; we can now more comfortably experience an unpleasant emotion with increased predictability. It warrants mentioning that emotions are not unsafe. Are some unpleasant? Certainly. But unsafe? No. When you’re in the mood for a scary movie, you’re actually saying you’re in the mood to feel unfamiliar emotions (e.g., fear, shock) followed by comforting emotions (e.g., calm, relief). The next time you utter those words “I could watch something scary,” it might be worth taking an emotional inventory of your week. We can sometimes seek an emotional experience in response to our recent moods. Distress seen in others can help dampen the distress we are experiencing (whether we now feel validated for our own concerns or are simply distracted from our stressors).


Finally, processing is always in order. There is a reason we’re discouraged from doing anything emotionally activating prior to bedtime: it wakes the brain up. If you notice yourself experiencing intense emotions as a result of a show you’re watching, label it! Put a name on it (e.g., “Wow…I really feel scared after watching that”) and give it appropriate attention. Next, allow the emotion some runway and feel what you're feeling; with time, emotions decrease in intensity. Just as the joy you felt in the past following a great accomplishment has dissipated, so too will the anxiety associated with something you just watched. And overall, there may be little need to change your viewing habits. Some argue that meaning is found in our emotional experiences (in particular, intense emotional experiences).


If you’re looking to better understand your own mental health, Roswell Psychology is here for you.

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