Cinema Therapy: Entertain Your Brain

Movies and can be profound. They shock and awe us, they laugh and cry us, they make us think and they help us escape reality. There’s nothing like a great movie to capture peoples’ imaginations. Film, indeed all art forms, can make a deep impact on one’s life. While struggling with mental illness I’ve found the right movie at the right time changes everything for me.

Psychologists and psychiatrists recognize the therapeutic value of film. It doesn’t come as a surprise – movies lifted my spirits countless times. A bad day became good after seeing The Fantastic Mr. Fox from director Wes Anderson. Years ago Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid turned my melancholy into hilarity with Kingpin.

Doctors call it “cinema therapy” and some even base their services around it. In practice it is a bit more than just getting cheered up by gross comedy.

Movies are chosen which deal with issues similar to those of a patient. The patient then relates aspects of the movie to themselves in constructive ways. When they watch the film they might absorb problem solving strategies. They could better comprehend their difficulties. They might note favorable character traits to apply to one’s self.  It can be done in groups or individually, adding convenience as a self-help tool and supplement to other treatments. Personally I love to curl up in bed with popcorn for my cinema therapy.

Myself being a cinephile, I’ve seen no shortage of movies that made a positive impression. Great films have left me with a sense of well-being. It eventually dawned on me that I engage in cinema therapy without even knowing it. Three years ago I was going through some adversity. A rough breakup and financial troubles challenged my mental health. It was film and music that got me through.

So I started thinking: which movies helped me the most? The list was too long. There are thousands of helpful movies out there and I watch a lot of them. Two films, however, kept coming up in my mind. They could not be any more different. In fact one is not a movie at all but a celebrated TV series.

 

SPOILER ALERT!

Mad Men is a 1960’s period piece about trials and tribulations in the world of advertising. The story centers on Don Draper, a serious ad man with his share of vices and damaging secrets. A myriad of lessons can be gleaned from Mad Men. Anxiety, alcoholism and addiction, identity, marriage problems – all these topics and more are addressed in the show, and productively. But two characters stuck with me.

Betty, Don’s ex-wife, is consumed with depression and anger after their divorce. Their daughter, Sally, begins acting out in response. In a bid to reign in her daughter’s behavior Betty sends Sally to a child psychologist.

The first thing I noticed was the portrayal of therapists – and the importance of finding the right one. Earlier in the show Betty visits a psychologist who seems disinterested and barely offers any “therapy” at all. He then reports all his findings to Don – an ethical faux pas. Years later, Sally’s child psychologist does solid work. After seeing her for a while, Sally eases up and works with her to build empowerment and inner strength. The results are obvious as Sally becomes a self-assured, smart young woman. After a session one day her mother has a heart to heart with the therapist, inspiring her to take control of her own life.

Something about this got to me. Through all the tangled story lines, this therapeutic sub-plot was like an oasis of calm. It reminded me that when life seems out of control, talking to the right people can rescue me from despondency.

 

SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!

It was shortly after my breakup. I was already stressed about my future and the added emotions took a toll. For weeks the mist of depression stalked me wherever I went. One day it followed me to my living room and onto my couch where I randomly flipped on Pixar’s Inside Out.

I wasn’t expecting much because, for me, Pixar is hit or miss. Wall-E (a science fiction film about a lovesick robot) was the only Pixar production I truly enjoyed. Until now.

Inside Out is an animated movie about Riley, a young girl who whose family makes an unexpected move to San Francisco. She tries to stay upbeat but hardships arise, and she gets agitated enough to try running away.

However Riley is just a peripheral character. The real plot takes place in Riley’s brain. Inside Out personifies her emotions as colorful humanoid beings living and working in the “control room” of Riley’s mind. The emotions are cast impeccably – Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). Each voice adds a bit of comedy and likability to what is otherwise abstract.

Turns out, emotions portrayed by hilarious voice actors is cathartic. The film gave me control over my mind. Now if I got angry, I could envision a small red fellow with Lewis Black’s voice screaming at the top of his lungs. If I got scared I could see a wiry purple dude who sounds just like Bill Hader.

Most important to me, however, was Sadness. Phyllis Smith’s cuddly voice paired with little blue Sadness was too much for me. She stole my heart. Now when I felt my depression rise I just thought of short, adorable Sadness.

Indeed a key lesson from Inside Out is the importance of sadness. Without Sadness moping about in Riley’s mind she might not decide to stay and be with her family. It reminds me that yes, there are reasons to be sad but they exist for a reason. With a bit of imagination I could even make the best of it by thinking of a silly cartoon character.

Described above are just a couple examples of cinema therapy. If I unwittingly did cinema therapy and it helped me so much, perhaps even more could be gained with the intention of doing so. If someone is going through hard times and they already love movies, this is definitely an approach to discuss with one’s doctor.

Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.

References:
Dumtrache, Sorina Daniela. (2014, April 22) The Effects of a Cinema-therapy Group on Diminishing Anxiety in Young People. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 717-721. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.342

Mann, Denise. (2007, February 21) Movie Therapy: Using Movies for Mental Health. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/movie-therapy-using-movies-for-mental-health#1