The Crown. Stranger Things. Walking Dead. Game of Thrones. What’s your weakness? All of them?
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Long gone are the days that the message, “To be continued…” actually flashed across the screen. Television shows today are so readily available that you can spend an entire day (or night) sitting on the couch watching a whole season or more.
Turns out, there’s more going on besides riveting entertainment. Psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, says a reason we like to binge-watch our favorite shows is because it can actually provide our brains with a feel-good high.
This sounds good, right? Yes, and no. It depends.
Dopamine and your brain
When you watch a show you enjoy, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine, Dr. Bea says. “It’s the feel-good chemical. Most pleasant activities release it, and these streaming shows can keep it going.”
Now, the last episode’s cliffhanger easily gets resolved within minutes as we watch the next episode. We can get instant gratification.
Television also can soothe our day-to-day worries. “When we’re upset by our own thoughts, we often use television shows to help pull us outside of that self-awareness,” Dr. Bea says.
A high that can’t last
However, Dr. Bea believes there is also a letdown involved with binge-watching TV. “If it was pleasurable and exhilarating and fun, now we’re kind of down, depressed, and a little tired when it ends,” he says.
This can create a kind of cycle, where you look for another way to get the satisfying effect after the show is over.
“All those positive things the show was doing for us tend to have the opposite effect when the show ends. So we want to repeat the cycle again and find another series or another show that’s going to do the same thing for our brain,” Dr. Bea says.
When it’s a problem
Dr. Bea says there’s no real harm in binge-watching a series, but it’s important to do it in moderation.
“If you’re watching for fun, as a group activity or as a couple, it’s fine. But if it’s getting in the way of physical and social activities and causing you to become isolated, it’s time for a break,” he says.
To avoid this pitfall, Dr. Bea says it’s good to set some ground rules before you start.
Here are some examples:
- Limit the number of episodes you will watch at a time. Decide in advance.
- Choose to stop halfway through an episode before the cliffhanger so you don’t feel compelled to keep going.
Dr. Bea says it can be fun to mentally step away from real life, but it’s unhealthy to use television as a coping strategy.
“Some people will use it to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. It can become almost like a medication. This is OK as a temporary escape, but we all need to eventually address the real problems in our lives,” he says.