Like the rest of America, I spent my 4th of July weekend watching the cast of "Stranger Things" try and clean up the Russian's supernatural mess in Hawkins, Indiana. I finished the entire thing in less than 48 hours, hoping that last episode would resolve the emotional turmoil I'd endured along with the cast.
But once the final scene of season 3 came to a close, a wave of emptiness washed over me. I'd just invested so much time into finding out what happened, all to be left still wondering. What was I going to watch next that could even begin to fill the void that had just been left? And more importantly: what the heck is wrong with me that I feel this emotionally drained after watching a TV show?
Ending a show with a cliffhanger isn't a new tactic. But as Andrew Selepak, Ph.D., media professor at the University of Florida, points out, the way we consume these shows has changed dramatically, increasing the impact an unresolved ending can have on its audience. "We become more emotionally invested in a show we binge than a serial that airs once a week because we spend multiple continuous hours experiencing and living in the environment of the show," he says. While we can still become connected to characters we tune into on a show that airs once a week, Selepak says having that time in between episodes to disconnect makes it less addictive.
"When we binge a show, we are not leaving that environment for hours or days at a time and develop a closer connection to those characters because we are experiencing their storylines in a very concentrated dose," Selepak says. "Binging a show is like a person with a gambling addiction going to Vegas for a weekend. When binging, you continue to feed the addiction without getting relief from the emotional attachment, which only causes the individual to dive deeper into a need to see how story arcs play out and how characters develop from one episode to the next."
Not being able to feed the addiction at the end of a series is traumatic in itself — but as Beth Sonnenberg, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in New Jersey, states, throwing an unresolved cliffhanger onto the end of a binge can really take its toll. "When the show ends in a cliffhanger, it is a sharp reminder that the show that they have invested so much time and energy in is fiction," she says. "The realization that they can’t do anything to affect the outcome may leave some feeling helpless, frustrated, manipulated and ripped off."
It's a real loss, Selepak states. "We can actually start to grieve believing that we might lose a favorite character that we have developed a connection to."
How to cope with the post-binge blues
If you've been left reeling after the end of a binge watch, here are a few ways to cope.
Start a new show (at your own risk)
After Stranger Things ended, I desperately wanted something else to fill the void. And while it may help in the moment, Sonnenberg says to be careful what you chose. "Adopting another show to focus on in order to help cope with the dissatisfying ending may help get your mind off of things in the short term, but isn’t effective in dealing with the frustration from a lack of power and control in the way it plays out," she says. "You just become a victim to another writer's whims."
If you are going to use another show as a temporary coping mechanism, Dr. Jane Greer, a New York-based therapist, recommends something with less twists and turns (think, the latest stand-up special from your favorite comedian vs. binging an intense new crime drama). "If you watched something really powerful or riveting or filled with conflict, choose something lighter for your next show, like a comedy," she says. "Look for a show that’s easier to emotionally digest, and that will give you some relief from negative feelings."
Do something else
Obviously, this is easier said than done. But if you know you're planning a binge, Forrest Talley, a psychologist practicing in California says scheduling an activity you enjoy directly afterward can be helpful for moving on. "Throw yourself fully into some activity that you are deeply interested in or passionate about," he says. "This shifts one's focus, enlivens 'living in the moment/in the present', and makes real life much more compelling than the fantasy television series that had riveted your attention earlier." Schedule a post-binge workout class, make plans with friends or have that project you swore you'd get around to laid out and ready to go once the credits roll.
Talk about it with fellow fans
Chances are you're not the only with unresolved feelings after your binge ended with a cliffhanger. Michal Strahilevitz, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Marketing at St. Mary's College of California, says finding others who are going through the same thing can help. "Sharing with real people is a healthy way to get reconnected with real life, but it also helps deal with the disappointment, sense of loss or whatever feelings are coming up," she says. "By talking about a show with others, we are connecting our fantasy entertainment life and the characters we were engaged with to our real life, and the real people we have real relationships with. That is a healthy way to take care of our health, happiness and sanity after a TV series binge."