Poorna Bell found watching The Handmaid’s Tale only served to increase her anxiety. But happily, there are other shows that have the opposite effect - and science has found that watching TV can have a positive impact on our mood.
It should tell you something about the stigma and ‘keep calm, carry on’ mentality we have around mental health, that despite working as a mental health activist for the last four years, I was in complete denial about my own anxiety.
It popped its head up around seven years ago, when I was 31, after I’d had surgery to fix my hole in the heart. On the surface I was fine, but periodically I’d have panic attacks.
Once I recovered from the surgery, I then had a different set of problems to deal with – I was helping my late husband Rob with his addiction and depression issues. My anxiety then became more low-level, regular and present – like a house guest that refused to leave.
After Rob passed away, the anxiety left me – mainly because it was replaced by something much bigger and badder: grief and depression. But in the last two years, it has returned. This time round, I’m more clued up about mental health, and so I understand things like coping mechanisms and triggers.
I know the steps I need to take if, for instance, I have a panic attack. I also know that when I’m going through periods of being anxious all the time, there are things that make it worse. An unlikely trigger is TV.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this, given that season three of The Handmaid’s Tale is on. I tried, honestly. I even got as far as episode eight of season one. But there’s no getting away from the fact that when I watch it, I feel my stress levels ratcheting up, a pervasive sense of dread creeping in and an itching beneath my skin.
Talking to Radio Times magazine, Elisabeth Moss, who plays the central character, said: “When people say the show is hard to watch, I get my hackles up. If you can’t face our show, then how are you going to face what’s actually happening in the world?” And while I think Moss was referring to people who are in denial about women’s rights – particularly around fertility – I don’t think that anyone should be made to feel like they should watch something because it’s important. Or relevant.
I think it can be empowering to recognise what works and what doesn’t work for your mental health. For me, The Handmaid’s Tale does not work on any level.
I’m also not a fan of the peer pressure TV brigade. You know the one – where a show becomes massively popular, everyone takes to social media to discuss it, and your office is buzzing with it the following morning. If you reveal you haven’t watched it, noses wrinkle like you’ve just unleashed a bad smell.
For me, Midsommar, Bird Box, The Handmaid’s Tale – even The Apprentice – all go in a mental bin as an act of self-preservation. And it’s not without good reason. In 2014, a study by the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, measured empathic stress and found that watching other people undergo stress – for instance on TV - transferred it onto the viewer.
But if stress can be transferred, so can positivity and calm. Then, TV can be flipped from creating anxious feelings to being a panacea for them. I’ve found that the right kind of TV helps my anxiety in two ways: it’s a distraction, and it creates a warm, fuzzy feeling of safety.
And clearly it is something that resonates with other people. When I tweeted last week asking people if TV helped them with their anxiety, I had about 307 replies, and about 30 emails within 24 hours. Love Island was a sheepish top contender (but hey, if it works), as was Gilmore Girls, Friends, The Great British Bake Off, gardening shows and pretty much anything that featured David Attenborough.
Freelance writer Rose Stokes, emailed me, saying: “When I first ever had issues with anxiety at the age of 20 (related to the pill), I found I couldn’t watch anything where people were having any sort of interpersonal problems. Hollyoaks, which I liked at the time, was out of the question.
“Eventually when I started feeling better, I found re-watching old shows I’d seen before was therapeutic. I credit that safe and predictable escapism with teaching me how to be peaceful again after months of crippling panic attacks.”
Watching TV you’ve seen before has been proven to help soothe people mentally. Researcher Jayne Derrick published a study in the Social Psychological and Personality journal that showed re-runs could be ‘restorative’ and calls it ‘social surrogacy’ – where witnessing safe social interactions makes you feel safe.
But it is worth noting that TV watching is beneficial in small-ish doses. Binge-watching for the whole day tends to have a negative effect on mental health according to studies and from personal experience, it doesn’t make me feel great and simply postpones my anxious state.
Whatever your coping mechanisms are, you have every right to do what makes your brain happy. I’m sure The Handmaid’s Tale is great and important, but I would choose the streets of Stars Hollow or the grubby bull pen of Brooklyn Nine-Nine any day. Because when you don’t always have control over your own brain, you’ll take anything that allows you to exist in a world that does.
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