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How TV Can Be a Trauma Recovery Tool

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My dear friend Susan (aka: SARK) calls me a professional TV watcher.

This is ironic because I don’t actually even own a TV, have never had cable service, and, at best, maybe watch two to two and half hours of it a week (streamed on my phone or iPad in those blessed 20 or 30-minute chunks between my toddler finally falling asleep and before I pass out myself – parents, you know what I mean).

What my beloved friend means when she calls me a professional TV watcher is that she knows I use TV intentionally as a self-care and self-soothing tool.

She knows that I love and believe in the power of storytelling, so much so that I’ve been known to assign certain shows and movies to my therapy clients as adjunctive healing tools in our work together.

(Plus she knows I’m always down to get and receive recs about the latest shows we’re loving and watching!)

Because, for some, confessing to loving TV still carries some stigma and shame, I wanted to use this essay today to not only normalize this enjoyment but also to suggest that TV, when used intentionally, can be a great adjunctive healing tool in your relational trauma recovery work.

Learn more about how I suggest my clients use this as an intentional tool:

TV: Our modern-day digital campfire.

Since time immemorial, we humans have learned and grown through stories.

Through the passing down from one person to another, from one generation to another, we’ve received instructions about how to be a human in this world through oral and later written stories, rich with literal and symbolic instruction.

We’ve been entertained, challenged, inspired and supported by the tales passed down across time.

And while our ancestors would have sat around a literal fire, listening to a bard, shaman, or wise elder impart this wisdom and entertainment, today, arguably, few of us huddle around literal fires.

Instead, we gather around the glow of our screens and tablets – our digital campfires. The form has changed, but the need has not. We all still hunger for stories, for instruction, for entertainment, support, guidance and connection.

But these days, in times when we live far from the places we were raised and are more isolated than in community, TV (and movies) can help meet that ancient storytelling need in the absence of a wise elder holding court.

And thank goodness for that!

Now, certainly, there are a lot of problematic ways to watch TV and movies — mindlessly, compulsively, for hours on end to the point of detriment (to your health, relationships, job and finances).

And, yes, there’s certainly a lot of toxic, problematic, and truly inane material out there in the world.

But I still argue that certain TV and movies can go beyond being used solely for entertainment and storytelling and instead even be used as an intentional healing tool, particularly on our relational trauma recovery journeys.

So how can we use TV and movies intentionally as a healing tool? Through these four ways:

  • Using it to internalize models of reparative relationships.
  • Using it to externalize and metabolize our psychological processes.
  • Using it to provide us with an “emotional vitamin” when in need.
  • Using it as a less harmful emotional regulation and selective dissociation tool.

TV can help us internalize models of reparative relationships.

Nearly always, my clients who come from relational trauma backgrounds who were raised by mood- or personality-disordered parents face two big tasks in their healing work:

  1. Becoming their own good-enough inner mothers and fathers; and…
  2. Developing kinder, more supportive self-talk.

Both of these tasks can feel hard (if not impossible) if they were raised by parents/caregivers whose psychological deficits prevented them from being kind, loving, affirming and respectful to their child.

When I begin to challenge my clients to speak to themselves more kindly – as a loving, devoted father or mother might – some will draw blanks, not knowing at all how they might begin talking to themself in that way.

With poor early models and without flesh-and-blood examples in their waking life, they have no reference point for how to reframe their own self-talk and self-care.

And so, in these cases, I’ll assign them to watch certain shows where characters – fictional though they may be – treat their children with love, devotion and relentless faith in them.

Disbelieving that a father could ever love a daughter who was “chubby” and didn’t fit conventional beauty standards?

Watch how Jack Pearson from “This is Us” treats Kate when she’s a tween.

Now imagine internalizing a father that is decent, good, kind and accepting.

Convinced that all mother-daughter relationships have to be resentful, competitive and embittered? Watch the classic “Gilmore Girls” and the love between Lorelai and Rory for a different perspective and perhaps one to model your own parenting behavior after (in ways).

Characters from TV and movies may not be known to us in real life, but that doesn’t undermine or diminish the power they have to help us absorb different, more functional, and helpful relational models from.

This is one of the biggest ways I think TV can be used as a healing tool: it can help provide reparative relational models for us to internalize and to take hope and inspiration from.

TV can help us externalize and metabolize our processes.

TV and movies can be used as a healing tool, too, when it helps us make sense of what we’re going through in life. Many of us have had the experience of listening to a song and feeling like our inner experience was put into words and melody — someone named what we were going through in their work.

So, too, can movies and TV help externalize and help us metabolize (make sense of, digest, move through) our inner experiences by giving form to what may feel ephemeral and hard to place inside of us.

One example I’ll share from my personal life is how cathartic “The Handmaid’s Tale” felt for me during the years of the Trump administration.

The rage and horror that played out on the screen matched so much of what I felt inwardly and while the show felt hard (and sometimes impossible) to watch at times, it helped externalize many of my big feelings and helped me feel less helpless and stuck at points.

The circumstances of The Handmaid’s Tale were extreme derivatives of the actual events unfolding in the country (though at times they felt perilously close to home) but conflated, exaggerated portrayals – much like archetypal portrayals that we find in superhero movies like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – can, I believe, sometimes be even more helpful as we externalize and metabolize our inner experiences.

Watching the psychodrama of others who are moving through events that mirror our own (even in some small ways or in symbolic ways) can be a powerful and healing way to use the power of TV and movies to support ourselves psychologically.

TV can be the “emotional vitamin” we need to get through hard times.

Probably the biggest and best way TV and movies can be used as a healing tool is probably also the way almost all of us default to using it already: as a kind of “emotional vitamin” to provide what we need when we feel like we lack it.

For example, at the start of the pandemic I half-jokingly, half-seriously said to many of my girlfriends that someone should aggressively fund continued, relentless, and endless production of shows like “Ted Lasso,” “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy,” and “The Great British Bakeoff.”

Those shows felt (and still feel like), to me, the digital equivalent of a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a cozy, weighted blanket with a hot water bottle at my feet and I couldn’t get enough of them in those hard, scary, strange early days of the pandemic.

Most of us inherently gravitate to what feels good, comforting, and helpful to watch, but to use TV and movies more intentionally, double down on that when you’re going through challenging times and use it as a self-soothing tool that can give you what you’re lacking in that time.

Feeling destabilized and need a sense of security and like things will be right with the world? Watch “Downton Abbey: where they take care of each year after year with structure in order inside the manor despite the chaos on the outside.

Feeling lonely and longing for friendship, community and company? Watch “Friends,” “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” for exposure to groups of people who care for each other over and over again. Feeling utterly overwhelmed with your new business and making your big dreams come true? Watch “Joy” for an emotional vitamin boost of entrepreneurial grit.

And you can even go a step further beyond what fictional stories and plotlines offer to derive comfort from the characters that star: find stars who have lived through some of what you’ve gone through (or are going through) to derive support and a sense of hope for getting through things.

When I was going through a recent thyroid cancer scare, I watched – for the first time – “Modern Family” – because I learned Sophia Vergara had had thyroid cancer and I needed and wanted a model of someone who thrived despite that unique adversity. TV and movies can be used intentionally when we seek it out for what we need and lack in any given time, treating it as an “emotional vitamin” of sorts.

TV can be a “less harmful” emotional regulation and selective dissociation tool.

Look, the reality is that life can be really, really hard. It can feel impossible some days/weeks/months/years to exist inside our bodies and minds in a world that seems like one endless series of tragedies and heartbreaks after another. In an ideal world, we could stay present with all of our feelings, all of the time, ever-expanding our capacities and nervous systems to tolerate more of our reality.

And while I aspire to this and work to support my clients to continuously expand their emotional containers, I also realize and recognize that sometimes this just isn’t possible, and what would actually be most supportive is reducing the amount of feeling, not increasing it.

And so in these times, I work from a framework derived from the harm reduction model that encourages the least self-harming and least self-sabotaging behaviors in order to help someone cope with their experience.

And when it comes to lesser self-harming and lesser self-sabotaging ways of reducing the amount of feeling you’re feeling, I certainly think of watching TV and movies as being on the less harmful side of the spectrum (by contrast, more harmful dissociative tools might include compulsive and harmful substance use and certain compulsive behaviors).

Put plainly: I’d rather you disappear into “Westeros” for a few hours than disappear into a bottle of wine.

By using TV and movies to selectively dissociate, you can give your autonomic nervous system and psyche a much-needed break in a way that doesn’t undermine your life in more damaging ways.

For example, the next time you need to quickly regulate yourself mid-fight with your spouse lest you say or act in a way that would be damaging, take a time out and go to the next room and stream a show on your phone for 10 or 15 minutes.

Watch what happens to your big feelings and ability to be more regulated after you intentionally disassociate for a few minutes.

TV and movies can help us selectively, and less harmfully dissociate in order to cope with our big feelings.

How will you use TV and movies as an intentional healing tool?

As we wrap up today’s little essay I’ll say once more: thank goodness for good TV and movies!

Beyond our human, inherent hunger for story, for instruction, for entertainment, TV, and movies – when used intentionally – can be such a wonderful adjunctive tool in our healing work, particularly when and if we come from relational trauma backgrounds.

So if you, like so many do, feel shame, stigma, or judgment about watching TV and movies, please don’t! You’re in good company and it’s smart and helpful of you to let this be a resource in your life.

And now, I’d like to ask you some questions on this topic that might be especially helpful for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds:

When it comes to using TV and movies to provide positive, reparative relationship models, what characters would you recommend someone watch if they’re looking for good models of re-fathering and re-mothering?

When it comes to using TV and movies to help someone feel comfort, soothing, and safety during life’s very hard times, what shows and films would you recommend?

When it comes to using TV and movies to help someone feel like, despite hard, adverse early beginnings it’s possible to go on and build a functional, good, adult life, what shows and films would you recommend?

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself.

You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Image via Stocksy

Originally published: March 16, 2022
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