From Making A Murderer to Don’t F*ck With Cats, true crime documentaries have only grown in popularity over the past few years. In fact, true crime podcasts are the third most popular genre on streaming platforms. For many people, these documentaries and podcasts simply serve as a means of entertainment, but for others, it turns out, they’re also a way to relax by reopening past trauma.
Although this genre has long fascinated audiences, its role as a source of comfort has begun to raise curious questions about the human psyche. Most recently, Dr. Thema Bryant approached this topic on Mel Robbins’ podcast, telling listeners that if they find comfort in true crime, it could be a sign of some underlying psychological distress. Here’s why.
Why Is True Crime So Appealing?
There are many reasons individuals enjoy true crime beyond entertainment. Viewers find the narrative formula comforting, it provides thrills similar to horror films, and it reinforces a sense of moral clarity.
However, if someone has grown up in a stressful, unsafe environment, watching traumatic scenes on TV may help the individual regulate their nervous system. “When someone is raised in an unsafe environment, their brain and body develop in a way that helps them to survive that environment by making them more hypervigilant and increasing their cortisol levels. When that person grows up and is in a safer environment, they may feel bored, restless, or unsettled because their brain and body are still optimized for an unsafe environment, and this can leave them with a feeling of edginess and anxiety in safer settings. So, being able to release and direct those chemicals and nervous system responses in a safe way, like a TV show, can help them feel more comfortable and help them to relax because they have a reason for feeling that way now,” says clinical psychologist Charlynn Ruan.
If someone has grown up in a stressful, unsafe environment, watching traumatic scenes on TV may help them regulate their nervous system.
Not only that, but reliving trauma through crime shows can provide comfort for some individuals because it shows that someone else has experienced a trauma similar to their own and enables them to feel less alone in their experiences. This feeling of shared experience can also be comforting because it allows people to observe trauma from an external perspective. According to Dr. Avigail Lev, a psychotherapist and author, “This externalization makes it more objective and less personal, providing a way to experience that traumatic event through someone else, which adds a layer of distance. The most effective intervention for treating any form of trauma is prolonged exposure. This method gradually exposes the person to their trauma to foster desensitization.”
How To Tell If Watching True Crime Is Bad for You
Watching true crime shows to relax isn’t necessarily bad – it really depends on the person. However, if you’d like to work out whether or not your interest in true crime is a signal of underlying psychological distress, Dr. Ruan recommends asking yourself the following questions:
Do the criminals in these shows feel familiar, or do they remind you of people you’ve known? (If yes, this may be a clue that you have some unresolved trauma you need to work through.)
How do you feel after watching these shows? (Even if watching these shows isn’t driven by trauma, it still may not be the healthiest way to add excitement or thrill to your life.)
Is watching these shows having a negative impact on your daily life or changing your worldview and making you feel less safe than you actually are? (It’s important to balance your entertainment and make sure you’re also watching shows that bring you joy.)
If you feel yourself constantly drawn to true crime shows, or you have a real need and desire to watch them, it may be time to consider why you find these TV shows so appealing. It can be hard to pinpoint an exact moment in your life that triggered this desire, so speaking to a professional who specializes in trauma is advised. A therapist or counselor can help you process unresolved trauma and reset your nervous system so you no longer need to rely on shows like Law and Order to settle yourself.
Whether or not watching true crime documentaries or listening to murder mystery podcasts is bad for you is entirely dependent on your unique situation. If it’s impairing your sleep or affecting your relationships and daily functioning, it could be time to reduce the hours you spend consuming that kind of content. Complete recovery is a long process, and usually, it’s best to consult a mental health professional to help you on your journey to healing.
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