April is Stress Awareness Month. On HelloGiggles, we are talking about the routines, habits, and activities that unexpectedly keep us calm and grounded in a society where harmful, high levels of stress are dangerously normalized. (Trigger warning: This article discusses trauma from sexual assault.)
I was sitting next to my fiancée and we both had our eyes on the TV screen in front of us. Villanelle (Jodie Comer) had broken into Eve’s (Sandra Oh) home. Eve grabbed a knife; Villanelle, a trained and skilled assassin, obviously noticed and called her out on it. My fiancée and I eyed each other nervously throughout the scene, wondering if either woman would end up injured or dead. Eve ended the scene soaking wet and sweating—and I ended it feeling calmer and more in control than I had in days.
I started binging Killing Eve recently after reading about the show for several months on Autostraddle, my go-to resource on what queer women should be watching right now. It seemed like the perfect escape: We’d just recently finished You, the Lifetime psychological thriller that found new life on Netflix, and there was a high-stress media hole in my heart.
It may sound counterintuitive, but watching highly stressful media—horror movies like Jordan Peele’s Us, intense dramas like How to Get Away With Murder, and everyone’s favorite titular serial killer, Dexter—helps me relieve stress.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. According to research by Margee Kerr, a sociologist, fear researcher, and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures In the Science of Fear, a high-arousal negative stimuli, such as watching a horror movie or a show about murder, can improve mood significantly. Watching horror movies can also cause adrenaline levels to spike, resulting in viewers feeling less anxious or frustrated, according to a 2012 study.
“Viewing high-stress media can feel exhilarating and stress relieving,” says Dr. Allison Forti, an assistant professor at Wake Forest University’s Counseling and Human Services graduate program. “Two defense mechanisms, displacement and projection, can explain this. Rather than confront the co-worker who gossiped about you at work, your frustration and anger release through the serial killer’s violent acts in the movie.”
Consuming high-stress media can serve as a way to channel negative emotions like humiliation, rejection, shame, anger, regret, and spite.
This isn’t a universal experience. Kerr’s research only included people who wanted to voluntarily scare themselves, and Dr. Forti explains that some people experience serious psychological distress when they watch high-stress media: “The sympathetic nervous system activates and the body gears up to fight or flee.” So while someone like me, who loves fictional serial killers and haunted houses, might feel happier after a heart-racing experience, this probably won’t be true for people who hate those things.
It doesn’t entirely surprise me that the more I’ve been binge watching Killing Eve, the less stressed out I am.
My adoration for watching high-stress shows as a coping mechanism actually started after I was raped in college, when I found watching The Vampire Diaries and Dexter oddly cathartic. I felt like I’d lost my own sense of agency and control, and there was something comforting about actively choosing to make my heart pound instead of waiting for it to happen because I’d woken up from another nightmare about the attack.
“When our stress level is escalated, using coping strategies that have a similar intensity can often provide a sense of relief,” explains psychotherapist Beth Scarlett.
After I was assaulted, I found it hard to wake up in the morning and concentrate in my classes; I’d start thinking about what happened and feel overcome by a surge of panic or anger. I wanted a way to deal with my emotions that wasn’t overwhelming and wouldn’t completely consume me. In addition to going to a therapist weekly, I started binge watching high-stress TV series in my dorm room.
The characters always felt a sense of urgency: Maybe they were on the edge of being caught as a serial killer; maybe they were the one being hunted. It gave me the opportunity to safely process my trauma.
“High-stress media can be used to channel unconscious or conscious thoughts and feelings that are too psychologically risky to address in a healthier way,” explains Dr. Forti. I didn’t feel it was safe to confront my rapist, but I could channel my anger into Season 5 of Dexter, where the titular character helps a rape victim track down her assailants and kill them.
The impact of high-stress media can be even more powerful if it’s a rewatch, like Dexter was for me after I was assaulted. I’d already watched the show in its entirety in high school. “Many people find comfort in watching and re-watching movies where they know the sequence of the story,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman. “This knowledge provides a sense of a mastery over scary material, and offers an escape and distraction from the unpredictability of real life.”
High-stress TV shows and movies can also serve as a safe way to expose yourself to something that scares you or makes you nervous, Dr. Dorfman explains.
“This gradual exposure desensitizes the person to the stimulus and reconditions the brain to respond differently,” she says, and the viewer retrains their brain to react more calmly to stressful content.
Watching scenes of Lumen surviving rape in Dexter’s fifth season helped me cope with the trauma of my own assault without leaving my twin XL bed. Seeing a main character onscreen dealing with the impacts of post-traumatic stress, like nightmares and panic attacks, helped me realize that I was capable of healing someday too—even without the help of a serial killer to literally murder my rapist.
It’s been seven years since the assault and my daily life is nowhere near as stressful. I’m planning a wedding with my partner and balancing my career and social life with my disability, but I also have a lot of support. I don’t feel the same sense of urgency every morning when I wake up as I did for months after I was assaulted. But I still reach for the remote to turn on shows like Killing Eve and You, which my partner and I finished almost immediately after starting it. Dr. Dorfman calls this perspective building, which is when viewers use high-stress media to help them keep the stress of everyday life in perspective.
My stress now is mainly over minor things like taking my cat to the vet because she has an infection or realizing when the day is almost over that I don’t have a key ingredient for dinner. But stress can still take a toll on me. A couple of weeks ago, my partner came home exhausted after several crises at work and I was drained after planning out an enormous project.
As soon as we sat down to eat dinner, I suggested Killing Eve, which we’d recently started watching. “You know killers always make us feel better,” I said, hovering over the Hulu play button next to Sandra Oh’s distressed expression and incredible hair.
She laughed. At the end of the episode, when we were met with an enthralling cliffhanger, she asked, “One more?”