July 8, 2021

Is Your Love of True Crime Impacting Your Mental Health?

How taking in too many gruesome stories can impact your well-being

tense woman watching TV

From podcasts to documentaries to nonfiction books, it seems like the true-crime genre is bigger than ever these days. But how much is too much?

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

It can be all too easy to get lost in the kind of grisly tales that nightmares are made of — and what started out as a hobby born of curiosity can easily take a toll on your mental health.

Psychologist Chivonna Childs, PhD, explores why people are obsessed with true crime and the psychological effects it can have.

Why crime shows are so addicting

People who don’t have any interest in true-crime stories might think you’re a creep for enjoying them — but rest assured that your love of the macabre doesn’t indicate a tendency toward criminal behavior. Instead, Dr. Childs says, it’s as simple as curiosity.

“Watching true crime doesn’t make you strange or weird,” Dr. Childs says. “It’s human nature to be inquisitive. True crime appeals to us because we get a glimpse into the mind of a real person who has committed a heinous act.”

Most true crime lovers are fascinated by the likes of Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes and Ted Bundy out of a deep desire to better understand their unthinkable capacity for cruelty. “We want to see how they tick,” she says.

Why women love true crime

Research shows that true crime stories disproportionally appeal to women. That makes sense, Dr. Childs says, as women are also disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime.

“We want to watch true crime in part to learn how to avoid being a victim,” she says. “It can teach us to be prepared in case we’re ever in that situation.”

But there’s a darker side, too.

The psychological effects of crime shows

“Shows that focus on murder and rape can really take you to a bad place,” Dr. Childs says. “They can help you become more vigilant and aware, but you don’t want to become overly reactive to the point where you’re not leaving your house, you’re not socializing, you’re not functioning.”

And it’s not just true crime stories that can impact our psyche. Fictionalized depictions of crime can be just as captivating — and have similar impacts.

Advertisement

But that doesn’t mean you need to stop watching Law and Order: SVU or listening to “My Favorite Murder,” if you love them. It means that you should remain vigilant about how they affect you, paying special attention to your reactions.

Dr. Childs runs through some of the psychological impacts that crime shows can have — and signs that you may need a break.

You’re scared all the time

“I always tell people that too much of anything is a bad thing,” Dr. Childs says, “and when we watch too much true crime, we start to worry about the what-ifs. It can cause us to isolate and to not fully live our lives.”

If you start to feel fearful every time you go out — or you sometimes feel too scared to go out at all — that’s a sign that your true-crime habit is negatively infringing on your everyday life.

You feel unsafe at home

Just as crime content can make you feel unsafe out in the world, it can also affect how safe you feel in your own home.

“If you’re double-checking and rechecking locks and doors, consider whether your true crime habit has started to interfere with your life,” Dr. Childs says.

You’re wary of others

When you’re constantly consuming stories that reveal the worst parts of humanity, you can start to doubt the humanity of the people around you. In small doses, this can be a good thing. Again, a certain level of true crime intake can teach you survival skills. But too much of it can make you overly suspicious to the point of paranoia.

“You may find yourself worrying whether the person you’re chatting with at the grocery store isn’t actually as nice as they seem,” Dr. Childs says. “When you start asking yourself questions like, ‘What if they have dead bodies in their basement?’ you probably need to take a step back and consider your crime intake.”

You’re anxious all the time

Too much true crime ceases to be about curiosity and starts becoming fear-based instead. “When we start to feel worried and afraid all the time, it takes away the fun of it,” Dr. Childs says. “It starts to instill anxiety in us instead.”

If you feel as though you’re constantly on the verge of impending doom, your true crime habit may have turned a corner into negativity. Other symptoms of anxiety include:

Advertisement
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Shallow breathing or hyperventilation.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • An overall feeling of nervousness, restlessness, or tension.

How much true crime is too much?

Try to pay attention to how you feel when you watch or listen to crime stories. Are you excited to delve deeper? Or do you feel nervous, anxious, depressed, stressed?

“Pay attention to any decline in your mood, like if true crime doesn’t feel as good to you as it used to,” Dr. Childs says. “Look, too, at how your body responds to the stories. If your heart is racing, or you feel tense or anxious, or you have moments when you think, ‘Oh, God, I can’t take this anymore,’ those are all signs.”

It may not be immediately evident to you that your true crime habit is having a negative impact on you. But stopping to consider how the stories make you feel in the moment can help clue you in to whether you should walk away from them now and try again later.

“Your body is going to tell you how much is too much,” Dr. Childs says.

You don’t need to swear off all your favorite true and fictionalized crime shows forever. But the old adage “Everything in moderation” applies.

Take a break from true crime

If you’re having negative reactions to the stories, it’s helpful to take a step back from your habit for the moment — and even if you’re not having negative reactions, you can help keep them at bay by monitoring your crime intake.

“Break it up every now and then,” Dr. Childs suggests. “Go listen to music, a comedy or something else frivolous in between crime stories to keep things from getting too heavy.”

Related Articles

Child using smartphone and with social media and texts bubbles around him
January 15, 2024
How Social Media Can Negatively Affect Your Child

Too much screen time and unrealistic expectations and perceptions and can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression

Person huddled on floor with arms around knees with thought bubbles above head
January 3, 2024
Anxiety vs. Depression: Which Do I Have (or Is It Both)?

Although different conditons, they can occur together or cause one another

female sweating in gym with male lifting weights in background
December 25, 2023
Gymtimidation: How To Push Through Gym Anxiety

If the thought of the gym sends you spiraling, do some prep work beforehand and bring a friend along for support

Overhead view, female and male in kitchen preparing food, christmas tree and baking pans
December 18, 2023
How To Avoid Hometown Anxiety and Holiday Regression

Stay merry and bright by knowing your triggers and journaling throughout your visit

close up of green coffee beans
December 14, 2023
Should You Go Green? What To Know About Green Coffee Bean Extract

There’s no evidence to prove this supplement can help with weight loss, and it may come with risks

female wearing super hero cape standing in front a crowd of people
December 14, 2023
You’re the Star of the Show With Main Character Syndrome

Being the center of attention doesn’t mean you have to exile your guest stars

kid at bedroom desk stressing over a test while studying
December 13, 2023
How To Help Your Child Overcome Test Anxiety

Focus on a positive mindset, strong study habits and healthy living

person stressing, with clock and books
November 28, 2023
6 Ways To Feel Less Anxious in the Mornings

Breathwork, sleep meditation and avoiding screens can help fight back morning anxiety

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad