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the scientific reason why 'depression watching' is so comforting

There's a quiet solace in binge-watching your favourite series alone.

by Jenna Mahale
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Jul 29 2019, 2:01pm

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Lois’s favourite episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is from the show’s first season. Episode 16, “The Party”, is a relatively low-stakes outing of the popular American sitcom, based around the lives of the employees of a New York police precinct: the eccentric detectives attend the birthday party of their newly-appointed, unerringly professional captain. Hijinks ensue.

“It’s just so good,” she says with palpable enthusiasm. “I’ve probably seen it three or four times, because I usually rewatch the show in seasons. I just like that Netflix automatically plays them one after the other.”

Lois, a 21-year-old designer from south London, found herself cycling through television programmes on a regular basis in 2018. The year was a period in which she was struggling with bouts of depression rooted in the stress of her university course. “I had also begun experimenting with MDMA, in addition to going through a difficult break-up, which led me into a sort of spiral. At that time, television was the biggest comfort for me. I just didn't owe anything to it.”

Watching TV certainly isn’t the most proactive form of self-care around, but it may well be one of the most prevalent. At a time when private therapy prices are unaffordable for the majority of young people and public mental health services are an unending series of waiting lists, many of us turn to TV in the hopes of switching off.

“It’s a really good form of escapism,” says Kay, a 22-year-old university student. “I tend to watch television when I'm in a particularly depressive state, or when I'm anxious about something. I'll just go and watch Netflix so I don't have to think about things.”

The habit has unfortunately tainted many popular TV shows for anxious-depressive viewers, haunted by the memories of sleepless nights, bad break-ups, and uni bedrooms left to fester, grimy beyond human repair. One Twitter user laments their aversion to Scrubs in the present: “I associate it with pyjamas, cheap noodles and not leaving the house.”

Virtually anyone with Internet access and a source of stress has heard the siren call of streamable content. Watching TV on an actual television can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead. Being able to watch content on your phone literally anywhere killed her. I will be the first to admit I have risked it all to bring my comfort-watch into the shower, but I can also guarantee you that I was not the first to try.

In 2019, it’s easier than ever to block out the buzz of anxiety with a hefty dose of Parks and Rec, or allow your favourite episode of The Office lull you to sleep for the umpteenth time. While comfort-watching is far from a permanent solution to mental illness, we rarely talk about how effective it can be in the interim.

“TV is a really good way to make you feel like there's more to life than your immediate situation,” says Penelope, a 26-year-old media researcher from Oakland, California. “Especially when you’re in school, and it feels like there isn’t a world outside of it.”

When Penelope was 13, she began experiencing anxious-depressive symptoms as a result of moving to a different country. “I would watch Ugly Betty so religiously. Even though I was feeling so alone and shit, I felt so seen in Ugly Betty. I was like, 'Whoa, she gets me!'” she says, laughing. “I think I get a lot of joy out of TV shows that are about young, strong women. When you're in a situation where you’re struggling, it's nice to see people thrive who you can potentially relate to.”

Ensemble comedy and ‘strong women’ emerge as prevalent themes in the very unscientific poll I conducted to identify potentially key depression shows among my peers. Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Place, Steven Universe, and Jane The Virgin all fall neatly in the intersection between the two. However, science suggests that our choices may have more to do with the nostalgia factor than anything else. In an article for Psycom, Missouri-based therapist Laura Fonseca explains why she often recommends that her patients rewatch media content they have enjoyed in the past: “I encourage teens to watch their favourite movies from childhood as a way to calm down, relax, and ground themselves. This helps teenagers to move out of their lower brain to their higher brain and process their triggers in a calmer state.”

It tracks that we’d gravitate towards more familiar, uplifting stories when we’re feeling low, but this isn’t always the case. Kay says she’ll sometimes indulge in more self-destructive watching habits, choosing shows that she knows will exacerbate her low mood. “It's weird,” she sighs. “Even when I’m not sad I think, ‘Let’s watch a sad show.’ It’s as if there’s some sort of catharsis in that as well. But other times, when I'm in a bad state, I catch myself saying, 'Let's watch some Bojack [ Horseman],' which I know will not be good for my mental health.” Still, there’s even evidence to suggest that watching sad movies and TV actually increases endorphin levels in the brain.

But research has demonstrated a link between binge-watching and higher levels of anxiety and depression, although it’s not entirely clear exactly how causal the relationship is. Not that this affects our current habits – TV viewing has been cited as one of the most common coping strategies when dealing with depression since the late 80s. So why not comfort-watch to cope?

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“There’s no evidence that it’s bad for you, or unhealthy per se,” says Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic, the chair of business psychology at University College London. “The main criterion is whether it interferes with what we call your ‘adaptive activities’. Does it inhibit your ability to maintain relationships, or is it interfering with your career?” The problem, according to Tomas, is if you could be doing something better with the time you’re spending in front of the screen.

Kay says she’s someone who finds that her relationship with television has reinforced a tendency to isolate herself from others. “A lot of the time when I’m feeling really bad, what I need to do, and what is actually good for me, is going outside and meeting a friend. Or even just going outside by myself. But when you have TV shows, you just feel like you might as well stay at home. It's good and bad, I guess. It's better than drugs, but it's not as good as, like, walking.”

Penelope can also describe more than one occasion in which television took precedence over her social life: “I once just spent a whole weekend watching Game of Thrones. Two or three seasons in two days. I didn't leave my bed. I just sat in the dark in my room. I was going through so many things at that time and Game of Thrones is such an intense show; it's so gory and terrible. It was kind of like, 'Okay, I'm just going to feel everything right now, and really wallow.'”

However more than ever, there is a social aspect to TV viewing. Even binge-watching can help isolated individuals find a platform through which they can connect with others. “People can of course learn from [television],” explains Tomas, “especially if the alternative is no stimulation. They can improve their quality of life.”

Penelope acknowledges how being able to talk about television helped her to socialise and, especially when she was younger, become closer to her peers: “I think television has always been a constant part of my life. I would say I grew up on TV and film. I feel like TV was a really good way for me to connect with other people; it was a way to make friends, really.”

This certainly isn’t the case for everyone. Lois, for example, found that the social aspect of television consumption inspired a kind of stress in her as her anxiety worsened. “Starting new shows felt like a commitment,” she says, “They were asking something of me, to follow along. There’s pressure to pay enough attention to them; you have to be able to have conversations about them and critique them.”

But even when TV got stressful for Lois, rewatching Brooklyn Nine-Nine never started to feel like a burden. “Even if an episode ends on a cliff-hanger, or something bad has happened, you always know it's going to work out.” I press her on exactly what it is about the show that makes its appeal to her so enduring, “It's just a very wholesome, and the characters are all friends... I don't know!” she laughs.

It’s easy to see why so many of us rely so heavily on comfort-watching: it’s cheap, it’s low-effort and, after the fourth or fifth time around, watching talking-heads of Leslie Knope really starts to feel like having a positive conversation with a close friend. When you’re in a particularly rough headspace, it can’t quite live up to the real thing. We all have to face up to what lies behind our screens at some point.

Overindulging is the easiest way to ruin something pleasurable, just ask anyone who’s experienced the post-binge-watching blues. And with the addictive mechanisms built into streaming platforms, it’s practically the norm to do so. But with the golden age of streaming coming to an end, we may have to find alternate ways of pushing back at the abyss anyway, as content becomes increasingly difficult to access. The new streaming giant-to-be HBO Max has already got dibs on Friends for when its term on Netflix has been served. The BBC and ITV have teamed up to build BritBox, and plan to snap up classic depression content such as archive Love Island and the UK (read: lesser) version of The Office with its launch. Worst comes to worst, we could always go back to DVD boxsets, right?

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.