This Is Your Brain On Shows Like 'Euphoria' And 'Yellowjackets'

Obsessed with intense, emotionally charged shows even though real life is already so rough? This is for you.
"Euphoria" is one of many emotionally charged shows that has viewers hooked.
Eddy Chen/HBO
"Euphoria" is one of many emotionally charged shows that has viewers hooked.

I’m basically always thinking about “Yellowjackets.” In the shower, before bed, while eating lunch, you get the point. For all its gore and horror, that show is enthralling. Many others feel the same way: 1.3 million people watched the finale, making it the second-most-streamed series on Showtime.

And while I haven’t started “Euphoria” yet, there’s no doubt it’s a huge hit right now. The show is filled with trauma, violence and shock value, but 2.4 million viewers watched the premiere of Season 2.

If you’ve seen these series, you know how graphic and upsetting they are. So what keeps millions of us tuned in ― especially right now, when real life is already a horror?

Many viewers will admit these shows can crush the tiny bits of mental health we have left entering another year of the pandemic, but we watch them obsessively anyway. There’s an ongoing joke on Twitter about these series even being our “comfort shows.”

So amid real-life death, increased rates of substance use and high levels of anxiety, we find comfort in … the fictionalized version? Below, a couple of experts weigh in on potential reasons why:

These shows provide a guiding light for survival

Especially on “Yellowjackets,” the characters are in an unprecedented (I know, I’m tired of that word, too) situation with limited knowledge of how to survive. While a pandemic is a different beast, the fight-or-flight mechanisms are similar.

“‘Yellowjackets’ may be so popular right now because it explores the lengths people are willing to go to survive their situations,” said Sabrina Romanoff, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with a private practice in New York City. “It may be soothing to see beloved characters placed in an analogous, while heightened, uncomfortable situation as viewers can subconsciously internalize that level of resiliency and strength they’re reviewing on-screen.”

When we watch these shows, we realize we aren’t alone in the seemingly unsurmountable challenges we’re facing. We realize when we support each other, we too can (hopefully) get through it.

They allow us to feel our feelings in a safer way

The urge to watch movies that make us cry or scare us isn’t new. Any fan of “This Is Us” or “Scream” can confirm.

“However, these types of shows offer us a safe environment in which we can anticipate the types of emotions that will be activated when watching; we’re also then more effective in how we respond to and manage these emotions,” said Timothy Schlairet, a licensed psychologist with Thriveworks in Atlanta and a “Yellowjackets” fan.

“If desired, we can pause, turn away from the screen and process exactly what is happening,” Schlairet continued. “This differs from real life, specifically in that we cannot predict how often and the manner in which many situations will affect us emotionally.”

Feeling sad and scared about real-life situations is much more intense and unpredictable. But feeling our emotions can be cathartic, so we turn to the safety of a fictional plotline.

They help us project and shape our emotions

On a similar note, shows like these can help us focus our emotions and anxiety onto fictional characters or even the world — which helps lift the weight off our shoulders.

“Watching the fears and worries that originate from the minds of others in shows and viewing commentary that validate those concerns has calming effects. We refer to this process as projective identification,” Romanoff said.

“In other words, aspects of the self, like fear and dread, are split off and attributed to an external source, like an impulsive and self-destructive behavior executed bygone of the ‘Euphoria’ main characters or a catastrophic twist that dampens the Yellowjackets’ hope for survival.”

The fear that pops up can also distract us from the sadness we’re experiencing, or make our situations seem less dire.

“This same process can explain why folks gravitate toward horror films when depressed — from an evolutionary perspective, fear supersedes sadness,” Romanoff continued. “When our ancestors were confronted by a lion in the jungle, sadness about a primordial struggle was displaced by fear to motivate escape and ensure survival.”

At that point, she explained, we can even choose to not feel that fear anymore by turning off the TV and resuming normal life. And compared to what’s happening on heightened shows like “Euphoria” and “Yellowjackets,” our lives might not seem so bad.

Stay in tune with how you feel after watching emotionally charged shows.
Morsa Images via Getty Images
Stay in tune with how you feel after watching emotionally charged shows.

How To Decompress After Watching Intense TV Shows

While watching these kinds of shows can comfort us, they’re still intense with heavy topics. To ensure you don’t carry all that with you, practice the following after an episode or two:

Process any feelings that arise, then remember they’ll pass

You may feel triggered, fearful or even hopeless. Take time to process those feelings and any others fully.

Schlairet recommended figuring out what emotion you’re feeling, then deciphering the thinking behind it. “Whether that means journaling, discussing it with a friend [or] loved one, or simply sitting and thinking about it, it’s important that you identify how a show impacts your thinking and worldview,” he said.

Then, remember you won’t feel that way forever. “In the same way joy and excitement decrease in intensity with time, so will fear, shock and anxiety,” he added. “But, distressing emotions may take a little more intentional effort to understand and process.”

Use ‘TIPP’ skills when you’re feeling anxious

A skill people often learn in dialectical behavior therapy is TIPP, an acronym for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Here are some ways you can practice each:

  • Temperature: Splash your face with cold water, take a cold shower, grip an ice cube, sit in a hot bath, drink a warm tea or get under a thick blanket.
  • Intense exercise: Do jumping jacks, run around or lift weights (but don’t overdo it).
  • Paced breathing: Breathe in deeply through your nose for four seconds and then exhale through your mouth for six seconds.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Starting with the top of your body, tighten each muscle group for five seconds and release, one group at a time.

“Each strategy has the effect of quickly changing your biological response pattern to stress,” Romanoff explained. “In turn, they lead to a decline in your emotional arousal.”

When practicing TIPP skills, be mindful of your needs and how your body might respond. For example, if you have blood pressure problems, you probably want to avoid the temperature option. And if you’ve struggled with an exercise addiction, you should probably avoid the intense exercises.

Stay mindful of your reactions

As you watch intense shows, pay attention to how you feel throughout and take care of yourself accordingly.

“I’ll always encourage people to be mindful of what they watch, especially in how it affects them cognitively and emotionally,” Schlairet said. “Watch what you enjoy, try to watch with intentionality — scheduled viewing rather than mindless scrolling on a cell phone — and consume media in moderation.”

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