On-screen portrayals of sexual violence left one 23-year-old woman feeling fearful and overwhelmed—so she got off the couch and took action. 

Jazmine Polk
November 15, 2017

As a proud homebody, one of my favorite things to do on the weekend is binge-watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I’m addicted to trying to figure out who committed the heinous crime and waiting for that shocking twist in each episode. I get so caught up in these marathon sessions that suddenly I'll realize six hours have passed and I haven’t moved from my spot on the couch.

Last weekend I was at it again with my favorite TV detectives. But this time my SVU binge-watching experience was different. Instead of cheering on Olivia Benson and clapping when offenders were caught, I felt on edge as each case played out. My heart was beating fast, I was biting my nails, and a sense of uneasiness and dread built up inside of me. But I was still fixated on the show; I couldn’t stop watching.

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That night I could barely sleep. I kept thinking about the characters’ stories and all the women across the country who are speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault, as well as all those who are still too traumatized to speak up. What used to be one of my favorite shows to watch for entertainment was now triggering anxiety and fear that I didn’t know I had.

Curious about what was going on with me and if it's something other women are dealing with these days, I spoke with Carole Lieberman, MD, Beverly Hills–based psychiatrist with a focus on violence in the media. Here's what she tells Health about why this happens and what to do when you've been triggered by what's on screen.

I'm not the only one triggered by TV

Dr. Lieberman says that it is not uncommon for television shows to trigger anxiety and depression in their viewers. In fact, TV producers almost count on this reaction from viewers to keep them tuning in. “It may seem counterintuitive, since it doesn’t make sense that someone would want to keep watching a show that makes them feel anxious or depressed, but they are drawn like a moth to a flame,” explains Dr. Lieberman. “When the show ends, they can feel reassured that they [the victims] survived and that the bad guys were punished.”

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Popular television series like The First 48 and Scandal that depict murder, rape, and terrorism are more likely to cause anxiety in viewers. Yet even science fiction shows, such as The Walking Dead and Stranger Things, which depict death, monsters, and zombies, can be triggering for some people, she says. As traumatic as these types of shows can be, Dr. Lieberman says that her research has shown that daily news broadcasts cause the most anxiety and depression, thanks to the heavy emphasis on violence and negative events.

More shows are depicting real-world trauma

While we all know that television programs are exaggerated for dramatic effect, today’s writers, directors, and actors do an eerily realistic job depicting traumatic events that resonate with audiences because they're derived from things actually going on in the world at the moment. Considering the breathtaking graphics, special effects, and dramatic displays of emotion on fictionalized shows these days, it's no wonder so many people feel like theyr'e really there and experiencing what a character is going through.

“People who are sensitive, emotional, anxious, or depressed are more affected by these shows," Dr. Lieberman explains. "In particular, if a viewer has experienced something in the plot line—like rape, or had a loved one die a violent death—they will be more affected." If you are watching a show like SVU, you might feel a connection to or identify with a victim, which might cause you to feel their pain. You might worry about something similar happening to you . . . or find yourself overwhelmed by recollections if it did happen to you.

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How I eased my anxiety

One of the most effective things to do if you feel triggered by a certain program is to stop watching it entirely. After all, television should be relieving your stress, not causing it. However, if it is your absolute favorite show and you can’t live without it (I’m speaking to you, Scandal gladiators), some steps can put you more at ease.

Dr. Lieberman suggests keeping the lights on while watching, sitting on a comfortable couch, eating a snack, cuddling with a pet, or watching with a family member or friend. She also recommends not watching emotional or frightening programs before bedtime—otherwise, you might be too wired with negative emotion to sleep.

As for me, I’m taking a break from my weekend SVU-binging and switching to Real Housewives. The shift from watching sexual assaults that are based on true stories to watching pointless but entertaining catfights has helped me feel less anxious but a little more catty, which is a trade I will gladly take.