What Watching "Misery Porn" Shows Like 'The Handmaid's Tale' Does To Your Mental Health

TV has long been synonymous with mindless, escapist entertainment, even to the point that people wonder if watching too much of it makes them lazy or less intelligent. Now, with more platforms and content to consume than ever before, one might assume that viewers would gravitate toward fun, easily digestible shows. Instead, "misery porn" like The Handmaid’s Tale and other deeply disturbing shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Chernobyl, and even Game of Thrones seem to always be the shows people want to talk about. The Handmaid's Tale in particular has been called out as being "torture porn" by multiple news outlets and the internet is rife with people complaining that they "need to stop" watching the series, especially given the current American socio-political climate. Still, it's considered a critically acclaimed series, with the Emmys even allowing the series to submit the hanging episodes for award consideration.

So why are viewers so drawn to watching ritualized rape, extreme gore and violence, or people die slowly due to radiation poisoning? Those are not mindless or escapist themes, and they're definitely not "fun." What’s really happening when we watch this kind of TV? What do we get out of it? And should we be worried about the impulse to continue?

According to Sheela Raja, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of The PTSD Survival Guide for Teens, viewers’ motivations can be grouped into three categories: those who enjoy the adrenaline rush of watching dystopian, alternate realities similar to our own, those who relate to the depicted trauma onscreen, and those who engage politically or intellectually with the content.

In other words, enjoying this type of TV doesn’t make you a monster. But depending on why you watch it, you could still experience negative effects.

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The first group of viewers — the adrenaline seekers — has little to no risk of experiencing real distress. Raja describes them as “the roller coaster riders.” They are people who “recover fairly quickly in terms of their bodily responses to stress,” and are therefore able to enjoy the heart-pounding, sweat-inducing moments of shows like The Handmaid’s Tale without worrying it will seep into their everyday lives or ruin their sleep. “When the show is done, they’re done along with it,” Raja says. And even if they experienced unpleasant feelings while watching, those feelings linger less strongly than the “afterglow” of the endorphin rush. “Even though the experience itself was scary," Raja explains, viewers like this will remember it as a “positive experience” because the endorphins make them feel good after.

Dr. Ramani Durvusala, a California-based clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, concurs with the roller coaster metaphor, adding that this type of TV acts as an opportunity to “engage in fantasy,” and have a “controlled experience of fear.” It’s not just about feeling these heightened emotions, but a mental exercise in “considering what we might do” in similar situations — ones we’re likely to never experience ourselves. It’s a “controlled walkabout in the unsettling lives of others,” per Durvusala, the key here being “controlled.”

For example, viewers of The Walking Dead like to engage in mental exercises about a zombie apocalypse; they don't actually want to live through one themselves. The same goes for The Handmaid's Tale: Viewers might like to think about how they'd handle the experience of Gilead, but they probably don't want to actually move into Commander Waterford's home.

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This, then, is where it becomes tricky for viewers who have experienced trauma, particularly when their trauma is similar to what’s being depicted on TV. “Watching [TV like this] can re-trigger a person,” Lisa Brateman, a New York City based psychotherapist and relationship specialist, tells Bustle. “Exposure to scary shows can be gratifying when the negative emotions caused by the content are manageable,” Brateman clarifies. But in order to experience that gratification, you have to be able to maintain “psychological distance.” That distance can be hard to keep, especially for victims of sexual and physical abuse who find themselves enamored with The Handmaid’s Tale.

Given the graphic depictions of sexual violence and attacks on women’s bodily autonomy in the series, the psychologists Bustle spoke with agree that the show can have unintended effects on a viewer. Per the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. For those women, shows like The Handmaid’s Tale can cause an undue level of distress. At that point, Raja says, they need to be on the lookout for warning signs: if the show creates a negative emotion that "they can't turn off," or that lingers past when they're watching, it may be in their best interest to stop tuning in altogether.

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Not all media that feels emotionally distressing is dangerous for your mental health — and in the case of shows like Chernobyl, which is based on real, traumatic events, distressing content is a requirement of the genre. So, at what point does feeling badly about a TV show cross a line and become something you should avoid? For Brateman, the answer is simple: “It's dangerous if it now gives you nightmares. It's dangerous if you now see the world as an unsafe place.” If you can watch a distressing show and return to normal after, you’re not in any real danger, but if it “continues to influence our thoughts afterwards,” per Raja, or causes persistent “preoccupation or discomfort,” per Durvusala, it may not be worth whatever else you’re getting out of it.

There is a flipside for viewers who have experienced significant trauma, however: in certain cases, this type of TV can be freeing — even empowering. First off, “it’s a way of feeling less isolated,” according to Raja. Watching other people’s distress lets survivors of trauma know that they’re not alone: not only have other people suffered, but it’s a “common enough phenomenon” that they’re making widely viewed TV about it.

This identification with the trauma depicted on screen is also beneficial if it “triggers conversations that they wouldn't have had otherwise,” Brateman adds. “Something that somebody might have kept in their whole life, […] they almost normalize it in the show, and it makes them feel like they’re free to speak about it, when they didn't feel that way before.”

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The final benefit trauma depictions may have for survivors is the ability to “see people fighting back against the injustices, [which] we often can't do in our real lives,” Brateman continues. “One can see themselves, once they watch, as a survivor, and not merely a victim.” While watching the trauma itself play out can have dangerous consequences, watching a reversal of power is often cathartic. Trauma victims who are attracted to these shows are “hoping to see someone who's been traumatized overcome something horrible and get justice,” Raja says. In this sense, The Handmaid’s Tale can be especially satisfying on the rare occasions when the victimized successfully fight back. Given how insurmountable the odds against them seem, it's all the more satisfying to see them fight back anyway.

The third group that’s attracted to this type of distressing television may experience any and all of the outlined emotional responses — but it’s not their primary reason for engaging. With dystopian or historically-minded adaptations in particular, Raja says, there’s a group of viewers who “really feel like art and media can be used for political purposes and to raise consciousness, to get us to talk about difficult and anxiety-provoking topics.” She uses Handmaid’s again as an example: “It’s easier to say, ‘hey, are you watching […] The Handmaid’s Tale?’ as opposed to, ‘What do you think about the Supreme Court’s decision?’”

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From that perspective, Raja and Durvusala agree that this type of TV can have a positive effect. “People are wanting to make sense of their political anxieties right now,” Raja says. “It’s giving people a vehicle.” And it’s not just encouraging conversation: For some, these shows can convince people to care about issues that previously evaded them. With dystopian TV in particular, Durvusala notes that it puts a “hot lens on what happens if things drift too far," and, by making it about individual storylines, it may encourage “more consideration of these themes than simply reading theoretical work.”

So, should we be ramping up content warnings for this type of material, or should we make key dystopian portrayals required viewing for the nation? According to these experts, neither, as viewers’ reactions have far more to do with the individual than the TV show in question. As parting words, Raja offered this advice: “Know yourself,” and try not to get desensitized. You don’t want to be so immune to the violence that your reaction is, as Brateman puts it, “Oh, who died today.” That said, watching June be electrocuted by Aunt Lydia as pure entertainment doesn't make you a bad person. But finding that violence too upsetting to watch doesn't, either.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.