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What Happens to Your Brain When You Binge-Watch a TV Series

Is watching the entire second season of "Stranger Things" on your weekend to-do list? Here's what you need to know.

by Danielle Page /
Image: Woman Watching TVharpazo_hope / Getty Images

You sit yourself down in front of the TV after a long day at work, and decide to start watching that new show everyone's been talking about. Cut to midnight and you've crushed half a season — and find yourself tempted to stay up to watch just one more episode, even though you know you'll be paying for it at work the next morning.

It happens to the best of us. Thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, we're granted access to several hundred show options that we can watch all in one sitting — for a monthly fee that shakes out to less than a week's worth of lattes. What a time to be alive, right?

And we're taking full advantage of that access. According to a survey done by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends around 2.7 hours watching TV per day, which adds up to almost 20 hours per week in total.

361,000 people watched all nine episodes of the second season of 'Stranger Things' on the first day it was released.

361,000 people watched all nine episodes of the second season of 'Stranger Things' on the first day it was released.

As for the amount of binge watching we're doing, a Netflix survey found that 61 percent of users regularly watch between 2-6 episodes of a show in one sitting. A more recent study found that most Netflix members choose to binge-watch their way through a series versus taking their time — finishing an entire season in one week, on average (shows that fall in the Sci-Fi, horror and thriller categories are the most likely to be binged).

In fact, according to Nielsen, 361,000 people watched all nine episodes of season 2 of 'Stranger Things,' on the first day it was released.

Of course, we wouldn't do it if it didn't feel good. In fact, the Netflix survey also found that 73 percent of participants reported positive feelings associated with binge-watching. But if you spent last weekend watching season two of "Stranger Things" in its entirety, you may have found yourself feeling exhausted by the end of it — and downright depressed that you're out of episodes to watch.

A Netflix survey found that 61 percent of users regularly watch between 2-6 episodes of a show in one sitting.

There are a handful of reasons that binge-watching gives us such a high — and then leaves us emotionally spent on the couch. Here's a look at what happens to our brain when we settle in for a marathon, and how to watch responsibly.

This Is Your Brain On Binge Watching

When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high.

When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high.

Watching episode after episode of a show feels good — but why is that? Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, says it's due to the chemicals being released in our brain. "When engaged in an activity that's enjoyable such as binge watching, your brain produces dopamine," she explains. "This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain's signal that communicates to the body, 'This feels good. You should keep doing this!' When binge watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine."

According to Dr. Carr, the process we experience while binge watching is the same one that occurs when a drug or other type of addiction begins. "The neuronal pathways that cause heroin and sex addictions are the same as an addiction to binge watching," Carr explains. "Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine."

Your body does not discriminate against pleasure. It can become addicted to any activity or substance that consistently produces dopamine.

Spending so much time immersed in the lives of the characters portrayed on a show is also fueling our binge watching experience. "Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, read in a book or imagined, as 'real' memories," explains Gayani DeSilva, M.D., a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California. "So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into story lines, become attached to characters and truly care about outcomes of conflicts."

According to Dr. DeSilva, there are a handful of different forms of character involvement that contribute to the bond we form with the characters, which ultimately make us more likely to binge watch a show in its entirety.

"'Identification' is when we see a character in a show that we see ourselves in," she explains. "'Modern Family,' for example, offers identification for the individual who is an adoptive parent, a gay husband, the father of a gay couple, the daughter of a father who marries a much younger woman, etc. The show is so popular because of its multiple avenues for identification. 'Wishful identification,' is where plots and characters offer opportunity for fantasy and immersion in the world the viewer wishes they lived in (ex. 'Gossip Girl,' 'America's Next Top Model'). Also, the identification with power, prestige and success makes it pleasurable to keep watching. 'Parasocial interaction' is a one-way relationship where the viewer feels a close connection to an actor or character in the TV show."

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If you've ever found yourself thinking that you and your favorite character would totally be friends in real life, you've likely experienced this type of involvement. Another type of character involvement is "perceived similarity, where we enjoy the experience of 'I know what that feels like,' because it's affirming and familiar, and may also allow the viewer increased self-esteem when seeing qualities valued in another story." For example, you're drawn to shows with a strong female lead because you often take on that role at work or in your social groups.

Binge Watching Can Be a Stress Reliever

The act of binge watching offers us a temporary escape from our day-to-day grind, which can act as a helpful stress management tool, says Dr. John Mayer, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand. "We are all bombarded with stress from everyday living, and with the nature of today’s world where information floods us constantly," Dr. Mayer says. "It is hard to shut our minds down and tune out the stress and pressures. A binge can work like a steel door that blocks our brains from thinking about those constant stressors that force themselves into our thoughts. Binge watching can set up a great boundary where troubles are kept at bay."

A binge can work like a steel door that blocks our brains from thinking about those constant stressors that force themselves into our thoughts.

Binge watching can also help foster relationships with others who have been watching the same show as you. "It does give you something to talk about with other people," says Dr. Ariane Machin, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. "Cue the 'This Is Us' phenomenon and feeling left out if you didn’t know what was going on! Binge watching can make us feel a part of a community with those that have also watched it, where we can connect over an in-depth discussion of a show."

Watching a show that features a character or scenario that ties into your day-to-day routine can also end up having a positive impact on your real life. "Binge watching can be healthy if your favorite character is also a virtual role model for you," says Carr, "or, if the content of the show gives you exposure to a career you are interested in. Although most characters and scenes are exaggerated for dramatic effect, it can be a good teaching lesson and case study. For example, if a shy person wants to become more assertive, remembering how a strong character on the show behaves can give the shy person a vivid example of how to advocate for herself or try something new. Or, if experiencing a personal crisis, remembering how a favorite character or TV role model solved a problem can give the binge watcher new, creative or bolder solutions."

The Let Down: What Happens When the Binge Is Over

Have you ever felt sad after finishing a series? Mayer says that when we finish binge watching a series, we actually mourn the loss. "We often go into a state of depression because of the loss we are experiencing," he says. "We call this situational depression because it is stimulated by an identifiable, tangible event. Our brain stimulation is lowered (depressed) such as in other forms of depression."

In a study done by the University of Toledo, 142 out of 408 participants identified themselves as binge-watchers. This group reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than those who were not binge-watchers. But in examining the habits that come with binge-watching, it's not hard to see why it would start to impact our mental health. For starters, if you're not doing it with a roommate or partner, binge-watching can quickly become isolating.

When we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will 'starve to death' emotionally.

"When we substitute TV for human relations we disconnect from our human nature and substitute for [the] virtual," says Dr. Judy Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of the Psychological Healing Center in Sherman Oaks, CA. "We are wired to connect, and when we disconnect from humans and over-connect to TV at the cost of human connection, eventually we will 'starve to death' emotionally. Real relationships and the work of life is more difficult, but at the end of the day more enriching, growth producing and connecting."

If you find yourself choosing a night in with Netflix over seeing friends and family, it's a sign that this habit is headed into harmful territory. (A word of warning to those of us who decided to stay in and binge watch "Stranger Things" instead of heading to that Halloween party.)

How to Binge-Watch Responsibly

The key to reaping the benefits of binge-watching without suffering from the negative repercussions is to set parameters for the time you spend with your television — which can be tough to do when you're faced with cliff hangers that might be resolved if you just stay up for one more episode. "In addition to pleasure, we often binge-watch to obtain psychological closure from the previous episode," says Carr. "However, because each new episode leaves you with more questions, you can engage in healthy binge-watching by setting a predetermined end time for the binge. For example, commit to saying, 'after three hours, I'm going to stop watching this show for the night."

If setting a time limit cuts you off at a point in your binge where it's hard to stop (and makes it too easy to tell yourself just ten more minutes), Carr suggests committing to a set number of episodes at the onset instead. "Try identifying a specific number of episodes to watch, then watching only the first half of the episode you have designated as your stopping point," she says. "Usually, questions from the previous episode will be answered by this half-way mark and you will have enough psychological closure to feel comfortable turning off the TV."

Also, make sure that you're balancing your binge with other activities. "After binge-watching, go out with friends or do something fun," says Carr. "By creating an additional source of pleasure, you will be less likely to become addicted to or binge watch the show. Increase your physical exercise activity or join an adult athletic league. By increasing your heart rate and stimulating your body, you can give yourself a more effective and longer-term experience of fun and excitement."

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