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Published on 11/25/2021 additional information available

How Watching Movies Can Help Your Mental Health


It’s a long holiday weekend in the U.S. and the official start of the Christmas season. This time of year is filled with gatherings of friends, families, and coworkers, twinkly lights, lots of goodies to nibble on and a pumpkin spice latte or two. It also usually contains overspending, overeating, and overstressing.

The time of year is also the prime winter movie season. You can expect to see a lot of family films, big-budget blockbusters, and serious dramas angling for awards consideration. Whether you to go watch something on a big screen in a theater or turn the TV at home to Hulu or Netflix, watching (and reading) fiction can help your mental health in various ways.

Cinema Therapy

“Cinema therapy” is a real thing sometimes prescribed by therapists. However, it’s usually a self-administered opportunity to do interventional work by yourself. Cinema therapy is the process of using movies made for the big screen or television for therapeutic purposes.  For the self-helper, books with names like Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning and Reel Therapy, are available. The idea is that movies can change the way you think, feel, and ultimately deal with life’s ups and downs.

Gary Solomon, Ph.D., MPH, MSW, author of The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy, says:

The idea is to choose movies with themes that mirror your current problem or situation. For example, if you or a loved has a substance abuse problem, he suggests Clean and Sober or When a Man Loves a Woman, or if you are coping with the loss — or serious illness — of a loved one, he may suggest Steel Magnolias or Beaches.”

How Watching Movies Can Help

Movies encourage emotional release.

When watching the happenings on a screen, a person may end up sobbing, laughing hysterically, or showing emotions freely which they might not feel comfortable doing on their own. This can have a cathartic effect and can also get them more accustomed to expressing emotion. Doing so can be an important precursor or accompaniment to being able to open up in counseling or real life.

One common symptom of depression is a kind of emotional numbness – an inability to feel emotions at all, good or bad. A movie can help a person start to open up and feel emotions again.

Sad films can make you happier.

Yes, happier.  When you watch a sad film you are more likely to come away from it thinking about loved ones and feeling happier about what you have. In one study where students watch a version of the movie Atonement, they rated themselves much happier with their lives right after viewing the tragic tale than they had just before seeing it. Tragedies, it seems, make people more appreciative of the blessings and important relationships in their lives which translates to feeling happier.

Watching a sad movie can actually make you feel happier.


Movies can help you make sense of real-life.

Myths and narratives about fantastic beings, heroes, and gods have been around forever. Human beings are story-telling animals. Learning and knowledge have been passed down for thousands of years through stories. Stories are the way we understand and make sense of the world. A good story engages a person’s curiosity, emotions, and imagination. Movies are stories that can help us see the world in a different way and from a different perspective.

Movies give you a mental break.

Your mind gets a rest from whatever it is that it’s been working on when you watch a movie — even if it is only for a few hours. It allows your brain to unplug and reenergize. You can turn on the television or slip into a movie theater and be immediately transported to another time in another state, country, or even galaxy. When you get lost in a different world for a little while, your mind is focused on the present moment and your concerns fall away. Movies provide a form of mental distraction which can be a healthy and adaptive coping tool when used appropriately.

Scary movies can actually calm anxiety.

It seems like the exact opposite would be true. The article Why Some Anxious People Find Comfort in Horror Movies quotes Dr. Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University in Denmark who has been studying the psychological effects of horror movies for 15 years as saying:

Exposure to horror films can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the film are manageable. Moreover, there’s psychological distance when we watch a horror film. We know it’s not real—or at least, some parts of our brain know it isn’t real. Other parts—ancient structures located in the limbic system—respond as though it were real.”

Movies bring relief – even if they stress you out first.

You might experience a cathartic release when someone narrowly escapes doom or the underdog character is victorious against the odds. When you watch something tense or suspenseful, your brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone. However, at the resolution of the story, you get a hit of dopamine, a naturally produced opioid that brings about feelings of pleasure.

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