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When you kick back for quality couch potato time at the end of the day, what programs or films are on high rotation on your television? Though some of us dabble in current affairs and cooking shows, most nights we’re also watching murder mysteries, thrillers, long drawn out Scandi-dramas tracking serial killers or tense, dark Netflix ratings winners like the documentary, Making a Murderer or the spooky retro-70s suspense series, Stranger Things.

These shows may grab your attention and give you an energy boost after a tiring day. But have you ever stopped to think what impact all those edge of your seat and nail biting moments are having on your hormones and health?

TV Can Trigger Your Fear Response
Your brain and body are primed by evolution to trigger an immediate fear response when you’re exposed to danger. Studies show that MRI scans that simply exposing people to photographs of snakes or spiders can trigger the parts of the brain that process fear. So, big anxiety can result from a threat that is not even real or directly present.

What does this mean when you’re watching tellie? If you’re viewing an entire episode or film packed with spooky or disturbing scenes crafted by skilled directors, special effects teams and sound engineers to make you feel fear, your brain may trigger your kneejerk fear response over and over for 30, 60 or 90 minutes.

Hello amygdala! This part of the brain, which is made up of two almond shaped little organs, is known as our ‘fear centre’. It switches on your fight or flight (FFR) response, which gets you ready to either take on an enemy or run from them. When that response is triggered, a whole range of physical and mental responses kick in even though you are kicking back on your couch. Horror and action films aim to provoke this suspense and fear. But even crime shows, road films with baddies, grizzly murder mysteries and blockbuster films about killer animals can leave you totally hyped up on stress chemicals.

Red Alert
When your Fight or Flight response is triggered, your body releases the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol. So though you might feel that you’re relaxing on your couch, you’re actually experiencing a cascade of stress impacts. Your heartrate and blood pressure increase and your blood thickens in case you are injured and it needs to clot (again, your body just doesn’t fully grasp the fact that this is not a real threat). You also perspire more and your breathing pattern changes, which might leave you feeling breathless or dizzy or both.

In short, your body enters a state of red alert, which means it is not relaxed, or performing normally. As a result, your digestion and immune system often slow or get briefly put on hold as your body mobilises all systems so that you’re ready for fight or flight. The adrenal hormones you have released can also affect your blood sugars and insulin in unhealthy ways and over time, this may even contribute to weight gain and an increased risk of developing diabetes Type 2.

Sleep may be the other big casualty of that crime show or re-run of a blockbuster horror film. Every person takes different amounts of time to come down from their stress fight or flight response – if you take hours then you might find that grizzly murder mystery show that glued you to the TV also leaves you so pumped that you get to bed and suffer insomnia.

Rethinking Your Viewing Diet
In the same way a person vulnerable to diabetes has to be careful with foods that trigger high blood glucose, a person who is emotionally or mentally vulnerable has to be more careful with ingesting negative information in their leisure time. And just as beautiful music can make you feel calm or uplifted, a horror movie might have an unhelpful impact that makes you uptight or edgy, could lead to aggressive behaviour or disturb your dreams all night long, leaving you exhausted in the morning.

This is important in a world were live at a sprint, work long hours and juggle too many responsibilities. More people are reporting feeling stressed out, wired and unable to fully relax. So coming home to watch TV that triggers our fear and anxiety responses could mean we don’t give ourselves enough respite from stress chemicals every day. As a result, you could be lowering your immunity and even undermining your heart health.

Give Crime Shows A Rest
If you have a sensitive anxiety trigger or have been going through a super stressful time, think carefully about what images you are feeding your brain while you try to unwind at day’s end. Give yourself some TV-free nights where you read a good book instead of watching serial killers, zombies or drug dealers running for their lives.

It’s still okay to view these kinds of programs sometimes if you really enjoy them, but don’t watch them every night. And on days when you’ve been really slammed at work or worn out by parenting, a romance film or sitcom might be a better choice. Alternatively, check out a documentary – just make sure it’s not packed with upsetting footage about historical atrocities or animals being killed otherwise, your amygdala may still be triggered, with heightening responses due to emotional distress.

Should You Try a Tearjerker?
That depends on your emotional status. If you’ve been feeling pretty down maybe give them a miss. Research from the University of Toronto found that after watching sad movies the brains of people who had recently suffered depression showed an increase in the front and medial areas, associated with ruminating and worry. That means a tearjerker could kick start a low mood if you’ve been struggling with your emotions lately. Better to go for a comedy and laugh out loud.

When you enjoy a good giggle while watching the Big Bang Theory, Modern Family or re-runs of Woody Allen or Ben Stiller movies, you give your health a boost. Laughing at funny films and TV shows lowers your blood pressure to the same extent that you’d lower it while doing physical exercise.

At the University of Maryland’s Center for Preventive Cardiology, research found that our blood vessels dilate by as much as 22% whilst watching funny films and that dilation is healthful for the heart. These benefit kicks in after around 15 minutes of a good big belly laugh. So make sure that some nights when you switch on your tellie, you laugh it up instead of riding a rollercoaster of fear.