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How Does Binge-Watching Affect Your Mental Health?

How Does Binge-Watching Affect Your Mental Health?

We’re living in the age of bingeable TV. Not only are there a lot of great shows available to stream in their entirety, Netflix and other platforms automatically play the next episode before you even have time to go to the bathroom. Therefore, we have a lot of little incentives encouraging us to sit on the couch watching one show for hours at a time. While we all have days--especially when we’re sick--when sitting on the couch and binging a TV show is all we can manage, we have to wonder: Is binge-watching good for you?

This question is especially pressing for anyone recovering from a substance use disorder, a mental health issue, or both. In fact, most people who struggle with a substance use disorder will also have a co-occurring mental health issue and a strong recovery entails looking after your mental health. While there are specific ways you should be doing this, such as seeing a therapist and possibly taking medication, lifestyle factors--including how much time you spend binge-watching TV--also play a major role. Let’s look at some ways binge-watching might affect your mental health.

Binge-Watching May Increase Anxiety, Depression, and Loneliness

Since binge-watching is a relatively new phenomenon, ballooning over the past five years or so, there hasn’t been a lot of research into how it affects mental health. However, what research there is should give you pause. One study by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found a high correlation between binge-watching, depression, and loneliness.

Other studies have found negative effects including increased fatigue, mood disturbances, and insomnia. Many of these studies show correlation, rather than causation and it’s easy to imagine that someone who is already depressed or anxious might spend more time binge-watching TV. However, there are also a number of reasons to believe that binge-watching may negatively affect your mental health.

Binge-watching Can Disturb Your Sleep

At least one study has found that people who binge-watch more have more insomnia and poorer quality sleep. While this may also be a matter of correlation to some extent, “pre-sleep arousal” also appears to play a significant role. Pre-sleep arousal includes both biological and psychological factors. Biologically, a number of studies have found that the bright light from screens, especially in the blue spectrum, mimics daylight.

If you are exposed to this kind of light before bed, it may disrupt your circadian rhythm, making it harder to sleep. Psychologically, a show may get you wound up, perhaps for hours, when you should be winding down for sleep. We enjoy the drama, tension, suspense, and action of good TV shows, but these also increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline. When you finally go to bed, you may feel like you’ve just been through a stressful or even mildly traumatic experience, which is not conducive to sleep. 

This sleep disruption can take a toll on your mental health. A number of studies have found that a chronic sleep deficit can quickly impair mental faculties such as attention, working memory, and emotional regulation. In the long run, insomnia has been linked to a higher risk of major depression and anxiety disorders.

Binge Watching Makes You Less Physically Active

Perhaps the biggest single problem with binge-watching is that it has a high opportunity cost. That is, every hour you spend watching TV is an hour you’re not spending doing something else--not even moving. This affects both your mental and physical health. Too much sitting--and snacking--increases your risk of obesity and related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.  Recent research has found that obesity significantly increases your risk of depression and vice versa. 

Perhaps more significantly, if you have a history of depression or anxiety, getting regular exercise is a critical part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Many studies have found that exercise improves mood by increasing levels of endorphins, serotonin, and BDNF, a neurotransmitter that grows neurons in certain parts of the brain. Exercise also causes structural changes in the brain that make you less vulnerable to stress and anxiety. If you have struggled with depression or anxiety, spending hours sitting on the couch is the last thing you should be doing.

We Tend to Binge-Watch Alone

Or alone together. Watching TV is an activity that mainly entails getting absorbed into the world of the show. No company is necessary or even desirable. If you are binge-watching with someone, it’s unlikely you are simultaneously having a stimulating discussion or otherwise connecting in any meaningful way. You’re both just watching the show.

Binge-watching may just be a symptom of loneliness, but it may also make you less likely to accept an invitation, reach out to friends, or even just leave the house, all of which perpetuates loneliness. However, it’s worth noting that many people cite social motivations for binge-watching. In other words, they want to be able to talk about a show with friends or colleagues. So in this limited way, binge-watching may have a prosocial silver lining. 

You May Feel Let Down When a Show Is Over

Finally, you may feel better while binge-watching a show, but it will inevitably end, at which point, you may feel a significant letdown. At some level, we respond to TV characters as if they are real friends and acquaintances and we miss them when they’re gone. We get invested in the meaning created by the storylines, the exciting events of the show, and the interesting worlds in which it all happens. When it’s all over, you’re left facing dull reality and it’s not great for your mood. 

The explosion of quality TV shows in recent years has been amazing, but like most things in life, moderation is key. Binging is bad for you, whether it’s alcohol, cake, or TV, even if it’s good TV. What’s more, binging has become a phenomenon largely through behavioral manipulation by media giants. It’s in your own interest to decide how to use your time and to use it in ways that maximize your health and happiness.

At The Foundry, we know that abstinence from drugs and alcohol is only one aspect of a strong recovery. Long-term success depends on making healthy lifestyle changes and generally taking control of your own life, rather than falling prey to destructive habits. To learn more about our approach to addiction treatment, call us today at (844) 955-1066.

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