Why Watching TV Reruns Can Help Ease Stress

Couple watching TV on the couch

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When you're feeling stressed, you probably know that something like exercise or meditation will relieve your stress in the short run and build resilience in the long run, but sometimes you might find yourself more likely to climb into be and watch a rerun of a favorite show, then emerge from your cocoon with more energy and patience.

If you enjoy doing this (or if you're completely perplexed why anyone would enjoy this), we have some interesting news for you. It turns out that research sheds some light on why people are drawn to this type of stress relief, and it makes sense. Apparently, it's all about replenishing our energy reserves with a little low-stress, soothing "social" time.

What the Research Says

Two studies published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science analyzed the relationship between television habits and task completion. The results suggest an explanation as to why this practice may work for you.

In the first study, researcher Jayne Derrick, Ph.D. examined two groups of subjects. One group completed a difficult, structured task, and a second group completed a neutral task. The groups were then divided into two again, with one group describing their favorite television show and the other group listing items in the room (another "neutral" task). Those who wrote about their favorite show (rather than listing items in their room) wrote for longer if they had done the structured task than if they had done the less-structured task.

What this means, Derrick says, is that these participants were seeking out their favorite TV shows and they wanted to spend more time thinking about them. Derrick also asserts that writing about their favorite television show restored their energy levels and allowed them to perform better on the difficult puzzles they were asked to complete.

In the second study, participants kept a daily log in which they reported on their daily tasks requiring effort, their media consumption, and their energy levels each day. If they had to do energy-consuming tasks, they were more likely to seek out a rerun of their favorite television show, to re-watch a favorite movie, or to reread a favorite book. Doing so, then restored their energy levels.

"In other words, there was a measurable restorative effect from a familiar fictional world," Derrick asserts via a press release.

Key Findings

A key finding here is that people found that watching a rerun of a favorite show restored their energy levels, allowing them to do more afterward. Another important point to note is that it was reruns, not merely interesting viewing, that tended to make a difference.

"The restorative effect I found is specific to re-watching favorite television shows (or re-watching favorite movies or rereading favorite books)," Derrick says. "Just watching whatever is on television does not provide the same benefit. And perhaps surprisingly, watching a new episode of a favorite television show for the first time does not provide the same benefit."

She says that there is something about the "social surrogacy" of watching favorite characters, and there is a relaxing element to already knowing what will happen. In this way, re-watching a favorite television show can provide a less stressful encounter than real-life social encounters that may include conflict or other unknown potential energy drains.

"Although there are positive outcomes to social interaction such as a sense of feeling of being energized," says Derrick, "human exchanges can also produce a sense of rejection, exclusion, and ostracism, which may diminish willpower."

Ongoing Debate About Television

These findings add to the ongoing debate over whether television is a stress reliever, cause of stress, or neutral activity, and provides us with some guidelines for how television may be used as a stress reliever for the right circumstances and goals, without becoming an overall time drain. It also explains why many of us sometimes prefer a favorite old movie or TV rerun to the latest episodes or blockbusters.

"Based on my research, I would argue that watching television is not all bad. While there is a great deal of research demonstrating that violent television can increase aggression, and watching television may be contributing to the growing obesity epidemic, watching a favorite television show can provide a variety of benefits, which may enhance overall wellbeing," she says.

She also has other findings from her research. "I have found, for example, that favorite television shows can actually increase people's pro-social behavior. Specifically, after thinking about a favorite television show, people are more willing to forgive others, are more willing to help a stranger and are more willing to sacrifice for their romantic partner," she says.

Closing Thoughts

So sometimes when we feel drained from too much stress or a lifestyle that is too busy, we just need to baby ourselves and allow ourselves those simple pleasures like TV reruns.

Are there more effective stress relievers out there? Sure. Exercise and meditation both come to mind, as they build resilience and enhance overall health. However, if you find yourself shying away from stress relievers that require a greater level of effort or practice, it's entirely okay to indulge in simple pleasures like these, especially if used in moderation.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.