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How a post-holiday Netflix binge can help you process emotional trauma

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Flashpro | Flickr CC by 2.0

Calah Alexander - published on 12/29/17

Using TV binge-watching to practice "reappraisal" can be good for you.

I don’t know about you, but I love a good post-Christmas Netflix binge. Some years my choices have been more unfortunate than others (because literally no one needs to relive their high school days by binge-watching Roswell), but I’ve always enjoyed the relief of mindless television after the Christmas frenzy.

Until the year I binge-watched The Walking Dead and didn’t sleep for two solid weeks, certain that every creak in the night heralded the zombie apocalypse. That was the year I learned that some Netflix binges are manifestly less healthy than others.

Psychology Today agrees with me, and recently featured an article on ways to use a Netflix binge to cultivate well-being. Their suggestions range from obvious (generate positive emotions by choosing positive videos!) to insightful (practice mindfully accepting negative emotions generated by film to strengthen your ability to do the same in real life), but it was the suggestion to use a Netflix binge to practice reappraisal that got me.

In graduate school, my research team often asked study participants to watch emotional scenes from movies. We’d then give them instructions on how to reappraise the situation – for example by giving the characters advice for how to feel better, think about what could be learned from the experience, or imagine possible positive outcomes. By reappraising the situation as more positive, people were able to reduce their negative emotions. You too can use this strategy to practice positive reappraisal. With practice, you may be able to more easily use this strategy in real life.

True story: I recently watched a TV show in which a character went through a painful experience that was somewhat similar to something I’ve experienced myself. I wasn’t expecting it, and at first I felt myself bracing for all kinds of negative emotional fallout. But that’s not what happened.

I found myself giving the character advice (out loud, like a crazy person) that I wish someone had given me. I found myself seeing so clearly things that I hadn’t seen when it was me, and things I actually hadn’t seen until I saw it on a TV show. By the end of the first season I was straight-up yelling at the TV, wanting to somehow get through to the character and make her see what I hadn’t, but also knowing that she wouldn’t see because she couldn’t. Just like I didn’t see until I could.

In the end, binge-watching this TV show helped me forgive myself for making some really bad mistakes. It let me stand outside the situation and judge myself less harshly, which was a very healing experience. It was also a surprising experience, since I tend to avoid TV and movies that remind me of my own bad experiences. I didn’t realize that good could come out of stirring up negative emotions, or that stirring up negative emotions didn’t always mean I would be overwhelmed by them.

Using your post-Christmas Netflix binge as way to process and heal emotional wounds might not sound like the most fun thing ever, but it just might bring you something better than mindless entertainment or fleeting positive emotions. It might bring you peace … and that is totally worth a few days of couch vegging.

Read more:
Binge-Watching is Fun, But Here are 5 Ways To Relax for Real

Mental Health
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