Cinema therapy – it’s a thing

My partner says that I sometimes have a tendancy to get down about the world’s problems. Sadly, it’s true. It’s possible that yesterday I burst into tears while cooking dinner because of “the state of the world”. After dinner, I parked up outside the gym to wait for my booked session to begin, and it hit me. A foolproof way of cheering myself up.

I whipped out my phone, my fingers slipping excitedly on the wornout case, and I tapped my foot impatiently while it loaded. As the first notes of the classic 90s movie 10 Things I Hate About You begin to play, I began to smile.

I love movies. I grew up with movies in a big way. My dad collected VHS tapes, then DVDs – hundreds of them, must be close to a thousand by now. Friends would come around and he’d lend them out like our house was the local Blockbuster store. Nights were filled with drawn-out Survivor-style voting between me and my siblings to decide what movie we would watch. And to this day, my family communicates primarily by quoting movies at each other. So, for me, it makes total sense to put on a happy movie if I’m feeling a bit down.

Sitting in the car last night, laughing at Heath Ledger drilling a hole in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s French textbook, the tears in the kitchen of a mere hour beforehand seemed laughable. And I began to wonder: is using movies to improve your mood actually a thing?

Turns out it is. Cinema therapy can actually be prescribed by a therapist, but it seems to be a bit more thought out than me watching 10 Things before hitting the gym. The idea is basically to choose a movie that reflects your life right now. So, if you’re struggling with alcohol you’d watch Sandra Bullock going to rehab in 28 Days, etc.

But most people seem to self-administer their cinema therapy the same way I do, and it seems that even my simple “I want to feel good by watching a feel-good movie” can be helpful. Movies engage us on a pretty deep level – they light up the parts of our brain used for emotional processing, reflection, problem solving and empathy – so it makes sense that they can help us navigate the ups and downs of real life.

Emotional release

If you’re anything like me, movies can make you snort with laughter, cry your eyes out, and everything in between. There’s a cathartic effect from this kind of emotional release.


And just a note on laughter: Patch Adams was right, it’s truly the best medicine. Laughter has been shown to boost the immune system and decrease stress hormones. Plus, a University of Maryland study found that laughing while watching a funny movie actually dilated blood vessels by up to 22%, thus lowering your blood pressure. Pretty awesome, right?

Tradegies can make you happy

Sad movies can make you happier. Sounds counterintuitive but I’m betting you actually already knew this. I’ve seen Titanic probably more times than I can count, but instead of getting me down about life, it always make me feel better. And apparently it’s not because of a “My life isn’t as bad as this” effect. Some researchers at Ohio State got over 300 college kids to watch Atonement and they found that because tradegies often centre around a theme of eternal love, they make you think about your own loved ones. The more the students thought about their own relationships, the happier they were after the movie. A sort of ‘count your blessings’ thing.

Scary movies can actually relieve anxiety

Watching scary movies causes a raft of negative emotions so, how is that a good thing? Well, it’s theroized that for some people with anxiety, experiencing those negative emotions in the controlled environment of watching a movie can be gratifying because at least part of your brain knows that it’s not real and you can manage the emotions.

Stress, relief, repeat

When you’re watching something suspenseful and tense, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Have you ever seen Southpaw? It’s my favourite boxing movie. When Jake Gyllenhaal gets in that ring and gets beat to shit, I can physcially feel my heart rate jack up. But when he switches up his stance and smacks his arrogant opponent down I get a rush of joy that usually makes me throw my hands in the air and yell “Yes!”. That’s the dopamine hit – a natural opioid that gives us a feeling of pleasure. For every stressful movie scene, there’s a cathartic release when the character escapes or overcomes.

Movies give your brain a mental break to reenergize

Probably the biggest thing for me when I watched 10 Things last night wasn’t the laughter or the emotional release, it was just the chance to give my brain a break. I was transported from locked down New Zealand to Padua High School in Seattle. My mind focused on the movie and I got a break from the “problems of the world” for a couple hours. It was a form of mental distraction that worked wonders for me.

So tell me, do you self-medicate with movies like I do?

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