Healthy Mind

Seeing COVID-19 Addressed and Also Not Addressed On TV Shows Can Be Triggering—Here’s How To Deal

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Laurence Dutton
When the pandemic hit and television production largely halted, I kept my TV diet to audience-less late-night hosts and Mad Men reruns, and I didn’t even think about shows released during quarantine and set during the pandemic until about a month ago when my roommate announced, “This is Us is back—they’re addressing the pandemic.” And after a few quick conversations with co-workers and friends, I realized so many other shows are doing the same, ushering viewers into a new reality of COVID-19 being depicted on TV shows that aren’t the news. At the same time, other shows continue to exist in a bright, shiny alternate reality, where life isn’t controlled by an invisible airborne disease. Suffice it to say, both can viewing options be extremely triggering to mental health.

According to Naiylah Warren, LMFT, therapist at virtual therapy platform Real, watching shows that address or ignore the pandemic can equally dramatize our reality, which can have the effect of being stressful to watch. “We’re often exposed to more about what’s going wrong than what’s going right, playing directly into our fears and angst,” she says. On the flip side, she adds, “our anxiety tends to feed off what it doesn’t know or what it’s unsure of.” Ultimately that means both plot types can increase anxiety.

For the shows that flatly avoid the pandemic, there’s an extra layer of complexity: Very often, we turn to television to provide an escape or joyful break from our woes. Take Emily in Paris: Filmed before the pandemic and released after, it’s a candyfloss concoction that I gobbled up as comfort food. But when I heard it was renewed for a second season, I had this feeling of betrayal. We truly don’t live in Emily’s Paris. At this point, no one can casually go to a café without fearing for their life.

“Shows that ignore COVID can remind us of how life used to be, but many people are still learning to cope with feelings of grief associated with the loss of how life used to be.” —Michele Burstein LCSW

To throw it back to the beginning of the pandemic, that discomfort I’m feeling is grief. “Shows that ignore COVID can remind us of how life used to be, but many people are still learning to cope with feelings of grief associated with the loss of how life used to be and adjusting to our current way of living,” says Michele Burstein LCSW, a senior therapist at Manhattan Wellness.

Here’s the conundrum: For many people, watching a favorite show is a form of self care, and when that activity no longer comforts you, it feels like another thing has been stolen by the pandemic. So, how do you deal?

Basically, you want to figure out if your television intake is still nourishing—and if it’s not, consider turning elsewhere for entertainment. If you’re unsure about whether or not a show is setting you off, Warren advises that you listen to your body in the moment. More times than not, your physical reactions will reveal any tension you might be feeling. Some negative responses to watch out for are, “things like an increased heart rate, restless legs, feeling numb, hypervigilance, tightness in the chest, or feeling butterflies when you tune in to certain programs,” says Warren.

You can also assess how something is affecting you by employing a mental-health strategy called BDA, or Before, During, and After. Psychotherapist Jennifer Teplin, LCSW, often tasks clients with noticing how social media affects them by having them track their mood before they go on social media, while on social media, and after they log off. “The same theory can be applied to a show: Notice how you’re feeling before you watch the show, mid-show, and directly after,” says Teplin. “Shows are meant to bring joy or entertainment into our life, not anxiety or worry. So, if the show isn’t serving its intended purpose, give yourself a break and pick something new to watch or pick a different activity that brings you joy.”

Through it all, remember to exercise your agency. The reason this pandemic is so frustrating—besides, well, everything—is because it’s left us with a complete loss of control. We’re at the mercy of the virus and, in a more complex way, other people’s choices. The only way we can reclaim our power is by making proactive decisions on an individual level, whether it’s by wearing a mask, limiting social contact, or not traveling home for the holidays. And in this situation you can do the same with your mental health: Accept that you don’t have control of how your favorite show is written, but know that you do have control of the remote.

“The key to remember is there’s no right way to address or ignore COVID, and while we may not agree with specific shows’ actions, it’s our choice whether we continue watching,” says Teplin.

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