Here’s The Psychology Behind Why ‘Euphoria’ Is So Uncomfortable To Watch

Courtesy of HBO

Content warning: This post contains discussion of substance use, self-harm, and sexual violence that some may find triggering.

HBO’s new series, Euphoria, takes a deep dive into the struggles facing today’s teens. The show follows 17-year-old Rue, played by Zendaya, who's just gotten out of rehab following an overdose and befriends a new girl named Jules, played by Hunter Schafer. But with its graphic depictions of substance misuse and sexual violence, critics of the show say it may be too triggering for the exact group of people it portrays.

Spoilers ahead for Euphoria's premiere episode. Now, as an HBO series, Euphoria isn’t exactly geared towards adolescents. But what's different about Euphoria, compared with other shows geared towards teens, or even graphic shows geared towards adults, is that it takes teens' issues seriously, even in the context of it being entertainment. And that can sometimes result in the show being upsetting or uncomfortable to watch. (It should be noted that viewers who are feeling triggered by the show can turn it off and connect with a trusted friend or therapist, practice re-centering techniques, or text a crisis line for support.)

The hour-long pilot alone shows numerous, graphic scenes that some might consider gratuitous or triggering. During one, a much older man performs a sex act on a teen even when it’s clear she’s in pain. In another, some boys pass around sexually explicit photos of a girl without her knowledge or her consent, much to the discomfort of her boyfriend, who seems to feel powerless to stop them. Later, that same boyfriend chokes her during sex, without her consent, though he stops as soon as she tells him to and apologizes.

All of these scenes are extremely hard to watch, because it’s always difficult to see someone’s consent being violated. They are also scenes that depict illegal acts of sexual violence, as they all contain the presence of force or coercion, including depictions of a statutory rape. There are also scenes that don't depict sex that can still be hard to watch, including a depiction of self-harm.

The question is: what is the best way for shows to explore these dynamics honestly?

However, the show itself doesn’t attempt to mask the violence in these scenes. When violence is occurring, the on-screen images and the dialogue illustrate how the victims of that violence are feeling: scared, insecure, angry, threatened, hurt. And when violence is being committed, the show makes sure to indict the perpetrator’s choices, not excuse them.

As of yet, Euphoria has not attempted to minimize the emotional impact of these harmful behaviors, even though the characters themselves might not be ready to recognize the impact it has on them. That's not only understandable, but it's common in real life: responses to sexual trauma can range from fight, flight, freeze, friend, and flop. It's important for shows to validate and portray all of these responses, while simultaneously affirming clear definitions of consent.

Jasmine Crane, a Denver, Colorado, therapist who specializes in life cycle transitions, tells Bustle that when depicting the mental health struggles of today’s teens, she’s a big fan of shows like One Day at A Time. “Those shows neither glamorize or ignore mental health struggles, differences... or trauma. They don’t make them unrealistic either." Crane, who treats both teens and adults, says that "I think with TV, it’s also important to not only show teens going through these struggles, but also adults. It’s healthy to see how these issues manifest throughout the lifespan."

Through voice-overs from the main character, Rue, the show also acknowledges the harmful societal forces that lead to these lines being crossed. “Everyone on the planet watches porn,” Rue says bluntly, as the camera pans to show that the most popular videos online are ones that show violence against women. A 2008 University of New Hampshire survey found that 93% of male-identified college students and 62% of female-identified students said they viewed porn — accidentally or intentionally — before they were 18. It’s valid to feel that Euphoria’s depictions of teen sexuality are problematic, but unfortunately, they're a realistic portrayal of the struggles Gen Z faces today. According to 2016 data from RAINN, female-identified people age 16 to 19 are four times more likely to be victims of an attempted or completed sexual assault.

Teens are being exposed to this kind of violence regardless of how or when it's depicted onscreen. As a consent educator who works in high schools and middle schools, I've seen and heard stories and situations that break my heart over and over again. And as much as I would like for this to not be true, the things I've seen and heard about are almost identical to every situation shown just in Euphoria's pilot. Adults know that these violations of consent and dangerous kinds of sexual exploration are happening with startling frequency. The question is: what is the best way for shows to explore these dynamics honestly?

Viewers might feel unsettled because the show is tackling complex, real social problems.

The show may be triggering for viewers at any age, but many teens will be able to relate to Rue's struggles with mental health. Writing for Bustle, Gretchen Smail discusses why the frank depiction of chronic depression and anxiety speaks directly to Generation Z. The show delves deep into Rue's health problems with substance use as well, showing unfiltered drug usage. But Rue is also shown overdosing, lying in a halo of her own vomit while her younger sister — frozen in terror — finds her and saves her from dying. Her dealer is a young boy trying to pay his family’s mortgage. When Rue needs to trick her way into passing a drug test, the show doesn’t hide the fact that Rue must go to humiliating lengths to do so. When Rue lies to her family, she spirals into a cycle of shame, and her behavior only widens the chasm between her and those she loves most. And when Rue is high, she doesn’t look elated or happy. The camera closes in on her face, and viewers can plainly see the emptiness and pain that drives her substance use.

The show may depict drug use with no filters, but it also doesn’t back away from showing us the consequences of drug use and the myriad of ways that young people find themselves trapped in this world. Most importantly, it takes pains not to glamorize substance use, though viewers might interpret those choices differently.

It may be too early to tell whether Euphoria will provide an outlet for viewers to explore these issues, but right now, it feels like it's depicting mental health, substance use, and sexual violence with a frankness that may unsettle viewers. But it’s possible that viewers might feel unsettled because the show is tackling complex, real social problems, not because the show is inherently problematic.

Watching television shows about tough topics can sometimes feel anxiety-inducing or triggering. It’s important for viewers to be aware of this and their own triggers so they can keep themselves and others safe. When feeling stressed, the American Psychological Association says that you may feel symptoms like tense muscles, trouble breathing, chest pain or elevated heart rate, stomach pain, and nausea. And people with post-traumatic stress from past events may relive those painful moments while watching sensitive media, and should take extra care to manage these feelings.

It's important to prioritize self-care when engaging in these difficult topics, but this kind of media can allow people to find new ways to speak openly about tough problems. And adults watching these shows can find new ways to be allies to young teens — one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).