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Press play: The link between stress and re-watching the same TV show on repeat

When the pandemic took hold in early 2020, and it became clear many of us would be stuck in our houses for the foreseeable future, Australian subscriptions to streaming services skyrocketed. Services such as Netflix, Stan, and Disney+ gained 878,000 subscribers in just three months

Although the pandemic-induced lockdown seemed like perfect time to watch that new show you’d heard all about, so many of us chose instead to watch something familiar.

Whether you watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy more times than you can count or have blasted through all nine seasons of The Office in a matter of days, lockdown was a time where many people reverted to re-watching movies and television shows they have already seen.

But why is it that in times of great stress and uncertainty, we turn back to things we’ve seen before? We talked to Associate Professor Linda Byrne from Deakin University’s School of Psychology to find out more.

It all stems from stress

A lot of the behaviour we’ve seen during the course of the pandemic can be attributed to stress. The stress of possible health risk, the stress of being stuck at home, the stress of the unknown; it all works together to produce behaviour and reactions that would not normally occur.

According to Assoc. Prof. Byrne, when the brain begins to feel stress, it releases chemicals that increase the stimulation of the body.

‘Our brain’s reaction to stress is to release these hormones like adrenaline and cortisol throughout the body because they’re preparing us for that classic fight or flight response,’ she says.

‘A little bit of stress can be good for us because it might motivate us to do certain tasks. For example, when we’re about to give a talk in public, we get a little bit stressed, but that’s okay, as it will make us more alert. The key is to find positive ways of managing that stress.’

What is our reaction to extended periods of stress?

Stress can come in various forms and intensities, when it is in shorter bursts, we are usually able to handle it in a more positive way. However, when the stress we are experiencing is constant and over a prolonged period of time, that is when it can begin to have some serious negative impacts.

'A little bit of stress can be good for us because it might motivate us to do certain tasks. For example, when we're about to give a talk in public, we get a little bit stressed, but that's okay, as it will make us more alert. The key is to find positive ways of managing that stress.'

Associate Professor Linda Byrne,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Long periods of sustained stress and isolation may cause us to indulge in overeating or self-medicate with alcohol. These activities may initially reduce our stress, but as Assoc. Prof. Byrne points out, these temporary measures do nothing to address the fact that the stress will still be there tomorrow and can be quite harmful.

‘With these extended stress experiences, like the lockdown, a glass of wine easily becomes three or four glasses, and the stress doesn’t go away the next day,’ she says.

‘And so, it’s very easy for what was a stress management technique to actually be very damaging to us.’

Why do we fall back on familiar content?

However, in terms of relieving stress, it’s not all doom and gloom.

Many people have taken the opportunity of limited options to increase their exercise and physical activity, learn new skills like cooking, and many have been able to spend increased quality time with the family household.

One really effective way to reduce stress for many people is to re-watch or revisit something they have already seen or done before. Assoc. Prof. Byrne tells us that in stressful times, our brains and bodies’ desire comfort and one of the places we find comfort is in entertainment we have consumed previously.

‘When people play familiar content, they know what to expect. In the current environment, where there’s so much uncertainty around, we retreat to something familiar because it’s reliable and reassuring and can be calming for us’ she explains.

‘It can also serve as a way of nostalgia for a better time when things weren’t so stressful. It arouses those positive feelings and can become the new way of “switching off” from work.’

So, if you are still feeling some stress and anxiety, sit back, relax, and press play on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the 64th time.

We won’t judge.

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Associate Professor Linda Byrne
Associate Professor Linda Byrne

Deputy Head of School, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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