Can Watching Intense TV Shows & Movies Relieve Stress?

By Maggie Ethridge 05/03/19

A survivor described to The Fix how she felt empowered while watching a traumatic storyline on a season of "Dexter." 

woman watching an intense movie

Psychological research has shown that for some, watching high-stress drama can actually relieve feelings of stress.

One reason for this is that viewers watching a traumatic event that they themselves experienced can feel that their experience is being normalized—not in the sense that it’s common, but that it is a part of the human experience. This reduces feelings of shame and self-loathing that can be the result of post-traumatic stress disorder after a trauma.

Alaina Leary, an editor and communications manager in Boston, wrote about her own experience of this phenomena for Hello Giggles. After being raped in college, Leary found that watching crime shows such as Dexter or horror shows such as The Vampire Diaries actually had a sedating effect.

Leary spoke with The Fix about her experience watching Dexter in the context of her rape. “I could see a survivor (Lumen, the woman Dexter saved, played by Julia Stiles) onscreen dealing with her trauma. In season five, Lumen goes from a traumatized, terrified person to a strong, confident person who has done a lot of healing from what happened to her.”

Despite the unlikely plot turns that occurred, Leary still felt empowered by the story playing out on the screen. “Lumen experiences very real effects of trauma like nightmares, panic attacks, specific triggers, and difficulties with trust/physical touch,” Leary explains. “I experienced all those things as a survivor too and it was powerful to see that portrayed in a narrative where the survivor heals, moves on, and lives their life.”

Those who have experienced trauma may find themselves caught in what is called reenactment, where the adult person recreates a traumatic experience, with themselves in a position of mastery, in order to gain a feeling of control over the events. The publication Psychiatric Clinics of North America notes that, “The only reason to uncover traumatic material is to gain conscious control over unbidden re-experiences or re-enactments.”

In other words, in order for it to be helpful to provoke stress through watching TV, movies or theater, the viewer must be aware of what is occurring inside themselves. Leary was conscious of what was happening as she watched stressful shows, and found it healing.

“I could channel my emotions into the characters while getting my own sense of healing through therapy and art,” Leary told The Fix. “I am someone who lives with love, compassion, and vulnerability, instead of mistrust, anger, and resentment. Those are my active choices. I get to decide who I am today.”

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.