Because of the effects of film, there is growing interest in using it as a therapeutic tool. Although the field is still new, my review of research to date suggests that film therapy can be effective in helping people process difficult emotions—which may help improve mental health.
Movies have the ability to appeal to people's emotions in a therapeutic way. It feels more comfortable to talk about movie characters than to discuss issues directly because it gives people some emotional distance from what they're going through. Movies can also help people learn life skills from how movie characters deal with challenges.
My review also found that film therapy reduced conflict between parents and teens, increased empathy and dialogue between them, and helped improve communication skills. It has also been shown to reduce anxiety and make treatment more engaging.
Movie therapy has also been shown to be particularly beneficial for certain groups of people. For example, research shows that film therapy can help young people with autism identify their positive strengths and build resilience. It can also help people with mental illness express their thoughts and feelings. Another study also found that watching and discussing superhero movies allowed young people diagnosed with schizophrenia to find strength and meaning in the difficulties they faced.
But because research in this area is just beginning, it is important for continued research in this area to explore how people use film to support their health and who benefits most from film therapy.
How movies can help
Aristotle noted that the audience of Greek tragedy seemed to undergo a beneficial process of emotional purification (or catharsis) through sympathy for the characters. Watching movies and television works similarly, providing a safe space to feel and express emotions without experiencing real-world repercussions.
Films combine images, stories, metaphors, and music—all of which have been shown to have therapeutic benefits. Movies and television are also accessible and can provide something familiar and easy to talk about as a basis for therapeutic conversations.
Although research suggests that film therapy may be beneficial, there is little guidance on how best to use films in therapy. So, following this review, I developed a method that combines current research and practice to create a series of steps for reflecting on film that can be used in therapy or on your own.
I call it the "film method," which stands for mindful engagement, observing reactions, expressing experiences, identifying personal relevance, and exploring new possibilities. If you're experiencing mental health issues, it's recommended that you work with a therapist, but anyone can use the cinematic method to more mindfully connect with the movies and TV shows they watch.
The first step in the movie method is to carefully examine how you feel and whether today is the right day for you to watch the movie of your choice. Consider the effects that watching or reflecting on the film might have.
If you feel you can continue, be mindful and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and body reactions as you watch. Detach from your feelings and don't judge them, rather than going with the flow.
After watching the movie, name or express any emotions you felt. It may be useful to write these down. Be curious about how you feel and notice if you have physical sensations of certain emotions in your body, such as tension or relaxation. Sometimes when we notice a feeling, it can change. You can also think about what the feeling requires (such as kindness or understanding) and imagine accepting the feeling.
Next, decide what this movie means to you. Notice who you identify with and how the character’s journey reminds you of your own challenges and achievements. While movies can provide insight into the lives of different groups and cultures, be sure to think critically about how these characters or issues are portrayed. This helps prevent reinforcement of stereotypes or inaccurate representations.
Consider how this film can help you explore new possibilities and strategies for growth. Think about how movie characters solve problems and what you can learn from them. Pay attention to the connections between the movie's story and your personal story, and whether you would change the story or write a sequel. Reflect on what you learned from the activities you might have carried out.
The next time you sit down to watch a movie, think about how you can make the most of the experience. Applying movie therapy can help you focus more intently on what you're watching and may help you learn new things about yourself.