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In an uncertain world, rewatching your favourite TV shows helps to relieve stress and improve your mental health and wellbeing.

Find yourself scrolling past new TV programs in favour of old favourites like Friends, Law & Order or Gilmore Girls the longer the pandemic drags on? You’re certainly not alone. In uncertain times we’re turning to the certainty of shows we know we like.

The Office, which finished in 2013, was the most-streamed show in the US last year. Americans watched Full House, Roseanne and Family Matters in record numbers, and in the locked-down UK, views of The Sopranos increased by 122 per cent. Aussie viewers can’t get enough of shows like these, as well as popular local series like The Secret Life of Us and Offspring.

But there’s more to it than finally figuring out whether Ross and Rachel were on a break or whether Mad Men is the greatest TV show of all time. The therapeutic power of nostalgia TV is helping to improve mental health and wellbeing at a time of great upheaval.

Watching on repeat

According to Associate Professor Linda Byrne from Deakin University’s School of Psychology, rewatching old TV shows gives us back a sense of control and helps to relieve pandemic-related stress.

“We’re living in this situation where we have really high stress, and it’s a stress that’s compounded because we don’t know when it’s going to end, so there’s a real sense of uncertainty,” she says. “One way we can alleviate it is by engaging in something that’s familiar to us and where we feel that there aren’t going to be any surprises. That sense of the familiar is really important.”

Watching something you like that you’ve seen before is an efficient shortcut to feeling good.

“We know they give us comfort and we know what to expect, which arouses the pleasure centres in the brain and helps to relieve the stress as well,” Associate Professor Byrne says.

For legal professionals with demanding jobs, Associate Professor Byrne says relaxing in front of the box can be especially beneficial. “Any kind of self-care that reduces stress and makes you focus on something else is going to be helpful.”

Watching shows with maskless characters who hug each other in crowded rooms can also help us disconnect from social media, which can feel repetitive, and improve mood, explains Tamara Cavenett, President of the Australian Psychological Society and a practising clinical psychologist.

“It’s a little bit of a throwback to the way things were, a connection to what we’re all wanting, which is to go back to life as it was,” she says. “People are thinking, ‘I want to go back to the past when times felt good and my mood was up’.”

Mood booster

Health experts don’t usually prescribe hours in front of the telly watching reruns, but Cavenett says the mood-boosting benefits can outweigh sedentary time when you’re spending more time at home than usual or feeling stressed about the state of the world. The key is figuring out if the behaviour makes you feel better or about the same.

“If you’re someone who’s getting a lot of benefit out of it, if it’s feeling quite restorative, then there’s no issue with it whatsoever,” Cavenett says. “If your mood is improving, go for it.”

Associate Professor Byne agrees: “We still absolutely advocate getting up and moving around, but making sure you’re engaging in an activity that shifts your focus away from the stressful uncertainty of the day-to-day and takes you to another place is really important. Indulging in a couple of hours a day doing an activity that you derive a lot of pleasure from is really important, regardless of whether it’s sedentary or not.”

To maximise the mood-boosting benefits of nostalgia TV, Cavenett suggests using it as a social tool. Watch with other members of your household or remotely with friends in other suburbs or states and talk about your favourite characters and episodes.

“It gives you a laugh and a social connection, as well as watching something that’s nostalgic,” she says. “Talk to friends and use it to start conversations about something new.”

As for what to watch, whatever makes you feel good is an excellent choice; whether it’s a heart-warming comedy or gritty crime drama. “There is something very comforting about a show you’ve always liked watching,” Associate Professor Byne says.

But if going back in time courtesy of your TV makes you feel miserable, or you don’t notice an immediate mood boost, Cavenett says it’s best to switch off.

“TV is often something where you don’t get a massive mood improvement, so it’s often almost as if nothing happened during those hours, or it might draw attention to the things that are different right now in a very sad and upsetting way.”

Future focus

In time, as the pandemic recedes and life returns to a more familiar rhythm, Associate Professor Byrne recommends scaling back on nostalgia TV and watching something new – or, even better, getting off the couch and trying something new.

“This is a temporary state of affairs as we deal with huge uncertainty,” she says. “The danger of continually engaging in activities that are familiar to us and doing things that are not very challenging is that over time it can be detrimental to us.”

Why? Because new experiences and challenges help us develop new neural pathways in the brain, which are particularly helpful as we get older.

“It’s really important to continue to challenge ourselves rather than always re-engaging in things that are simple and easy that don’t take a lot of brain power,” Associate Professor Byrne says. “Falling back into very familiar routines can be a real danger as we get older, because in order to help our brain integrity we need challenge and change all the time.”