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Mental Health

How Watching ‘Euphoria’ Affects Your Mental Health

For the past two months, millions of viewers have tuned in every Sunday night for the next episode of Euphoria on HBO. The series, which originally premiered in June 2019, follows a group of high school students who struggle with addiction, trauma, body dysmorphia, and toxic relationships — all while trying to find their place in the world. Over the course of the first two seasons, viewers get a rare and intimate view of the dark side of high school and the challenges it can bring. Euphoria’s depiction of drug use, sex, partying, and mental health has led it to be one of the most highly-Tweeted-about shows of all time, and the series continues to spark widespread conversation about mental health struggles young people are facing today

The show’s gritty-yet-glamorous aesthetic, dramatic storylines, and nuanced characters combined with triggering scenes of violence, overdose, and abuse make for a gut-wrenching watch. Even Zendaya, who plays troubled teenager and lead character Rue, says that season two is “difficult to watch,” and even expressed concern about young viewers having access to the heavy subject matter (i.e., addiction, violence, death) within the show. Even so, viewers have consistently tuned in every week to watch the drama unfold — and audiences are already gearing up for season three.

Euphoria depicts harsh realities about adolescent mental health, drug abuse, and more; from Zendaya’s character Rue battling addiction and overdose to Jacob Elordi’s character, Nate, who becomes abusive. While many viewers find Euphoria personal and relatable, largely due to its raw depiction of adolescence, the series can also be difficult to process, both emotionally and psychologically. At the end of the day, is a high-intensity show like Euphoria beneficial for our mental health, or harmful? Is the series hurting our minds and emotions more than it’s helping? I spoke with mental health experts to find out.

According to a neuropsychologist, TV shows like Euphoria can serve as a form of escapism. 

Since Euphoria originally premiered, the show has mesmerized viewers. The creative cinematography, all-star cast, and up-close-and-personal view of relationship drama, drugs, and danger make it difficult to look away. The series provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the challenging, unglamorous side of being a teenager, and according to clinical neuropsychologist Kendal Maxwell, Ph.D., it’s common for shows like Euphoria to feel addictive to watch. She tells Her Campus that the show itself can serve as an “escape” from our current reality.

“Individuals are drawn to high-intensity shows for several reasons, with one being to escape real-life stress,” Dr. Maxwell tells Her Campus. “If we watch something that is worse than our current stressful scenario, our life will feel less stressful in comparison.”

Regina, 23, a graduate student at The School of Health Sciences of Touro College, says that watching Euphoria typically serves as a distraction from her everyday routine. “Despite the high-intensity moments and unexpected twists and turns throughout Euphoria, I’m drawn to the characters and their captivating storylines,” she tells Her Campus. “I feel like watching Euphoria on Sunday nights provides me with escapism that I often seek while trying to juggle everything in my life.”

Watching Euphoria can impact your brain’s pleasure and reward center.

Although Euphoria is a fictional show, Maxwell says that witnessing intense subject matter onscreen can make us feel a sense of urgency and anticipation. “High anxiety shows can be mistaken in the brain with excitement, which releases similar chemicals such as dopamine and norepinephrine,” she says. “The former is associated with the reward center of our brain.” So, if you feel a rush of adrenaline while watching Euphoria — even during super stressful scenes — it is natural to feel like you can’t look away.

Dr. Michelle Solomon, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist, says that the dramatic plot and visual effects also lead to a more pleasurable — and at times, more enticing — viewer experience. “Euphoria slams viewers with adrenaline-rushing elaborate motion shots, mood music, emotional blasts, and human trauma. Overexposure to such content for a growing brain can leave a neurological impression,” she says. 

Whether you’re watching Rue lie about being sober (when she clearly isn’t) or witnessing Cassie hook up with her best friend’s ex-boyfriend, you may even find yourself wanting to “fix” the characters’ complex issues and see them resolved. This tension can lead Euphoria to feel more addictive; according to Solomon, our brains naturally seek closure, which can feel rewarding.

"Viewers want to know how [the show] ends; they want to see a resolution,” Solomon says. “Human beings naturally seek happy endings. We pursue closure, and we want to know that everything will be okay."

Euphoria activates your nervous system, which can make it addictive to watch.

Unlike lighthearted shows like New Girl and Friends that rarely deal with dark topics, Euphoria focuses on the heaviest parts of adolescence. Whether we're watching Rue struggle through Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings or Nate becoming physically abusive to his girlfriend, when we watch characters deal with situations that we rarely see in person, it can spark our nervous system to respond.

This phenomenon has led viewers like Becca, 20, a student at Marymount Manhattan College, to have a visceral experience watching Euphoria. “The show tends to shock me…I’ve never seen anything quite like it on TV before,” she tells Her Campus. “[Euphoria] is hard to watch and I feel drained afterward, but strangely enthralled. I think about the show between episodes more than I would another.” 

Euphoria isn’t the only intense series Gen Z viewers are drawn to, either. TV shows like 13 Reasons Why, Skins, and You, which include raw, vulnerable, and often uncomfortable content, (read: explicit or violent sex scenes, dangerous drug deals, substance abuse, suicide) have also garnered mass followings. According to Dr. Solomon, these intense shows can have a direct impact on our nervous system and send us into “fight-or-flight” mode.

“Watching disturbing content can elicit the fight-or-flight mechanism that was once used by cavemen for everyday events like, you know, fighting bears,” Dr. Solomon says. “Without mindful awareness, our nervous system does not know the difference between a perceived and actual threat.” So, when watching a show like Euphoria, our fight-or-flight response becomes immediately activated — much like it would if we were experiencing a threat IRL. 

for some members of gen z, watching 'euphoria' feels personal.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that Gen Z presents a high risk for addiction, with “90% of substance use disorders (SUDs) start during the teenage years.” The topic of substance abuse is front-and-center for Euphoria’s main characters, especially Rue, who faces addiction and mental health disorders head-on. Throughout the first two seasons, Euphoria renders a raw representation of the many layers of addiction — which is not a “one-size-fits-all” experience — and shows viewers what substance use is really like for young users. Not only is addiction at the forefront for Euphoria’s lead characters, but it is for many young viewers, too, as Gen Z continues to grapple with the ongoing opioid epidemic in America.

For some Euphoria fans, watching harrowing scenes of substance abuse onscreen feels personal. During episode five of season two, Rue hit “rock bottom” and grappled with the climax of her addiction. Spoiler alert: In the episode, she relapses and is ultimately forced to run from the police and into the home of a dangerous drug dealer. After the episode aired, viewers took to Twitter to express their concern about how the show glamorizes drug abuse and being under the influence. Many said that the episode hit “too close to home.” Other Twitter users debunked those criticisms, instead arguing that Euphoria provided a highly accurate depiction of addiction.

Shelbi, 23, a student at Marymount Manhattan College, says that she hopes Rue’s relapse scene will remind viewers about the “ugly truths” of addiction and perhaps encourage them away from it. Shelbi also believes that Euphoria is meant to push viewers outside their comfort zones. She tells Her Campus, “Euphoria isn’t a ‘comfort’ show; it was never intended to be. I honestly think a problem would come in if audiences didn’t feel some type of stress or discomfort after an episode — at that point, I’d argue the realities and darkness these characters are facing wasn’t represented properly.”

If you’re feeling anxious while watching Euphoria, here’s how to cope.

According to Dr. Solomon, if you choose to watch Euphoria (or intense shows like it), it’s crucial to practice self-awareness and determine your boundaries. First, she recommends taking a moment to recognize how you’re feeling and writing it down.

“Journal out how you experienced the episode, what it made you think about, what stuck out for you, [and] how you feel,” she says. “After watching something that can elicit a stress response in the body, it is important to process, feel, and release that energy.” 

Sometimes, this involves taking a step back, remembering that the show is fictional, and recognizing the separation between the show and your own life. “Although a stress response may have been triggered, there is no actual threat in your environment," Dr. Solomon says. "You should help your body relax and bring yourself back to the present moment."

To unwind, Dr. Solomon suggests practicing “mindfulness grounding activities” like meditation, going for a walk, slowly eating a snack, cuddling with your pet, running a bath, or moving your body to release the pent-up energy. Additionally, it might be helpful to speak to a therapist. If you go this route, Dr. Solomon suggests exploring Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is used “to teach people how to live in the moment, develop healthy ways to cope with stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their relationships with others.” 

You know yourself best, so watch at your own pace.

Despite there being a trigger warning at the beginning of each Euphoria episode, it can be hard to find the balance between jumping on the Euphoria bandwagon and protecting your mental health. Although the series can be challenging to watch, it can teach viewers valuable lessons about addiction, family, friendships, and love.

As Zendaya reminds fans on Instagram: "[The] show is in no way a moral tale to teach people how to live their life or what they should be doing. If anything, the feeling behind Euphoria, or whatever we have always been trying to do with it, is to hopefully help people feel a little bit less alone in their experience and their pain. And maybe feel like they're not the only one going through or dealing with what they're dealing with." 

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Experts
Kendal Maxwell, Ph.D.
Michelle Solomon, Psy.D

Hi there! I am a senior at Marymount Manhattan College, double majoring in Digital Journalism and Politics & Human Rights. I am an Editorial Intern for Her Campus and I am the Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus MMM. Fun Facts: I love playing tennis and creating amateur TikToks in my free time.
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