How does Cinema Impact Mental Health?
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
We call ourselves Breakfast@Cinema in an ode to Blake Edwards’ 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, loosely adapted from Truman Capote’s 1958 novella. The protagonist, Holly Golightly’s character arc teaches us that happiness is within us all, but it is our choices and our responses to the world around us that will ultimately help us find it. Similarly, our work began with the experience of having found solace in the movies in our most troubling times. When we had nothing or no one else to fall back on, cinema was there for both of us, as individuals and when we were in the company of others, to be our friend, philosopher and guide in the most constructive ways.
It was a few years after we launched Breakfast@Cinema in 2014 that we came to know of many renowned universities and psychologists conducting research around the use of cinema in the realms of psychotherapy and counselling, in which, like all other art forms, cinema or any audio-visual media is used as a therapeutic tool for healing and growth through conscious engagement.
The first thing film viewers must appreciate about cinema is that it is not merely using a camera to tell a story. Cinema employs sound and visuals, and most importantly, the
techniques of cinematography and editing, because of which, a movie does not remain a story only about a character or the unfolding of a plot. It captures psychological and emotional movement from frame to frame in powerful ways that makes it distinct from other fine or performing arts. This speciality of cinema makes it an art form by itself, the reading and appreciation of which requires us to study it and be cinema literate.
Naturally, just watching any movie at random may not be the right way to approach cinema as a healing medium. Watching certain films when we’re already upset or feeling disturbed can worsen things rather than be advantageous. Always speak to or consult your therapist or a specialist counsellor if you wish to explore films for improved mental health.
Here are some ways in which cinema can help us achieve a healthier mind:
1. Watching movies encourages us to be emotionally expressive – Some of the most stoic people find themselves moved by cinema because of its quality to stimulate us sensually by engaging us through more than one sensory organ. That is the reason those who have trouble expressing their emotions might find themselves laughing or crying during a film. That is the reason we feel goosebumps when we watch something inspirational or an intense action sequence, a tingly cold shiver during a scary moment, or an appetite for pizza when we see the stringy cheese in an advertisement. This release of emotions can have a cathartic effect and make it easier for us to become more at ease with our current state of mind, which is usually the first step to finding a way to deal with pent-up feelings. A friend going through a terrible breakup in a long-term relationship found solace in watching films like Blue Valentine, Marriage Story and In the Mood for Love, and could then verbalise their angst, hurt and regret.
2. Cinema brings us a sense of relief – Research has revealed that the audio-visual stimulus of cinema has a direct impact on the hormones in the body. Watching something suspenseful is known to release cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain, followed by dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure, explaining why some people get such a kick out of watching mystery and horror movies. Fast-paced action films like Mission Impossible and John Wick, and superhero flicks and leave us buzzing with adrenaline even as we walk out of the multiplex after the screening. When we watch films or series in loop, we are known to be finding comfort in the familiar, so as to calm down and feel in control of our anxieties. Watching sad films, like listening to sad songs, while we are feeling low has the body release endorphins, which increases our tolerance to pain, leading to us feeling better overall.
3. Films make us empathetic and help improve relationships – Films show us different kinds of people in various settings, give us a glimpse into why they are the way they are and then one realises that most often people just need some kindness and understanding to be better versions of themselves or simply be able to function efficiently in their day-to-day lives. Personally, the more we have watched movies, the better we have been able to appreciate people just as they are and it has helped us build stronger connections based on empathy. Look back and think, we all felt compelled to help the struggling classmate, student, or child when we watched Taare Zameen Par. That is how films help improve relationships.
4. Movies help us make sense of our real lives - Movies, just like, orally told stories or books offer us different perspectives and help us understand and make sense of our inner world. A technique used very often by many psychotherapists is to recommend a film which exposes us to a character who is going through a similar emotional experience. Even otherwise, we do tend to look for films mirroring our situations. It encourages us to look at circumstances from a different point of view and provides us with coping methods we would not usually pick on our own. In doing so, they also help us become aware of our behavioural loops which tend to put us in undesirable situations and hold us back. Watching Darlings helped someone I know realise that they were dismissing their partner’s abusive behaviour, gaslighting and breadcrumbing because of a few shared tender moments. This was a big revelation for them and they decided to seek professional intervention. Similarly, Bridge to Terabithia is a film that can help us come to terms with the grief of losing a dear friend, or Lost in Translation can encourage us to get out of ennui and loneliness by actively seeking companionship or community involvement.
5. Cinema inspires social and cultural reflection – Just as films heighten our awareness of our inner worlds, they also make us more knowledgeable about the world around us. Watching films that take on tough topics is a thought-provoking experience, and while we may or may not agree with the stand a film takes, it definitely helps to know that there are ideas and perspectives that differ from ours and why. Whether we wish to learn about race relations in the US, political turmoil in Maoist China, the difficult conflict-laden past of African and Middle Eastern nations, the European economic crisis, or gender, culture, art, literature, the contrasting views about youth and beauty today and in the past, cinema, fiction as well as documentary, has covered it almost all, at least in setting the context for the stories it has told. Whether you want to better understand a current social issue or spark a conversation about an opposing point of view, watching films could help educate and enlighten you. This combination of improved self-awareness and worldly knowledge makes us confident, and surer of our actions and the way we contribute to solving problems around us, leading to a constructive and positive frame of mind.
6. Cinema is a healthy way to take a break from everyday life – There are days, good or bad, when you would rather be by yourself and just indulge in the solitary experience of watching a contemplative or meditative film like Sacrifice, Life of Pi or The Red Turtle. There are other days when you want to be in a packed auditorium speaking out aloud the very familiar dialogues of Sholay or enjoy the collective experience of watching Lagaan, 83 or Iqbal with others. Whatever mood you may be in, there’s always cinema to keep you company. Picking a good film for a well-deserved break is like finding a great companion, and not just for the duration of the film, because just like memories of times spent with a good friend, the feeling a movie evokes stays with us for long afterwards.