There are shows that we love to watch, shows we love to hate-watch and shows that are painful to watch. Not painful in the artificially produced and heavily edited reality TV kind of way, but painful because they’re heart-achingly emotional. When shows hit too close to home — whether they’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of queer relationships, the-one-that-got-away romance or complicated family dynamics — they can trigger a sob fest and/or a mini existential crisis.
On the cusp of Rooney’s Conversations With Friends hitting screens in a few weeks, I’ve seen many of my friends rewatching Normal People — and simultaneously reopening old wounds. Instagram Stories of laptop screens and captions of “torturing myself” and “here we go again” were dotted through the app. And after bingeing the season, one put up a question box calling for recommendations for shows “that will end [them].”
Shantelle, 26 was one of these friends. After being bombarded with Normal People fan edits on TikTok, she was reminded of how much she enjoyed the show.
“It had also been almost exactly one year since my breakup. I was feeling nostalgic and horrible at the same time, and started reliving my breakup to ‘feel something’ other than that,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
While watching TV was meant to distract her from reality, she was yearning for real-life catharsis. “I also wanted to relive the pain because I honestly just wanted to have a massive sob… I needed to finally sit there and do nothing and really just cry it out. Not about anything in particular, I mean it was probably fuelled by my breakup, but I just needed it,” she says.
Consuming depressing content can actually make you feel good [because] of [increased] endorphins.
Nancy sokarno, psychologist
Watching sad shows when you’re feeling depressed in hopes that it will make you feel better sounds counterintuitive, but according to Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno, it’s anything but.
She points to a study that found that watching traumatic films can potentially boost pain tolerance and feelings of group bonding. “To simplify that a little, consuming depressing content can actually make you feel good [because] of [increased] endorphins. Who would have thought! So, when we’re wanting to consume [traumatic] content when we’re in a low mood, our brains are essentially chasing those feel good endorphins.”
“It's strange to say, but I love consuming sad content when I feel sad… I even have a playlist called ‘sad girl hours’,” admits Shantelle. “I think for me, I need to really sit in those hard emotions to work through them. Trying to mask it with fun activities or pretending like I'm ok hasn't worked in the past. But consuming content that mimics the way I feel lets me just feel the pain, and avoids me trying to bottle [it] up."
But does this feedback loop of intense emotion actually help? To distinguish whether you’re engaging in healthy or toxic behaviour, Sokarno suggests looking inward at how it makes you feel.
“I think it’s healthy to consume this type of content so long as you do feel good doing it. The truth is, for many people it can feel really cathartic… I know I’m not alone in saying that I’ve definitely felt better after having a good cry watching a sad movie,” she says, although she warns that it can fall into dangerous territory when we end up burying our emotions instead of dealing with them.
It’s a phenomenon that we also see when it comes to our music choices. It’s that old chestnut; should you listen to sad music when you’re sad, or put on something more uplifting and cheerful?
“When we listen to sad music, it tricks the brain into releasing a hormone called prolactin, which is associated with helping to curb grief,” explains Sokarno. "So, in the absence of a traumatic event, the body is left with this pleasurable mix of opiates which produces feelings of calmness [and] helps to counteract mental pain.”
So (in case you needed a reason), go ahead and binge Normal People to your heart’s content.