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Watching our favorite old TV shows has psychological benefits, experts say

All those "Friends" or "Golden Girls" reruns help us to feel calm in an increasingly anxious world.
Image: The Golden Girls
Watching "comfort TV" like "The Golden Girls" can help when we're feeling anxious.NBC via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Kimberly M. Wetherell loves watching television after a hard day at work. The 46-year-old audiobook narrator, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y, likes to binge on shows like “Good Omens” and “Fleabag.”

But when it comes time to unwind, Wetherell, like many people, finds herself craving what she calls “comfort TV,” favorite old sitcoms like “The Golden Girls,” or “Seinfeld.”

“When I go to bed, my mind is still racing. My brain will be going over the anxiety of the day. I start overanalyzing things and my brain just won’t turn off,” she told TODAY. Watching 'The Golden Girls,' she explained, is “like hanging out with old friends.”

Not only does she have every one of Blanche, Rose, Dorothy and Sophia's wisecracks memorized, she has a special place in her heart for the show's canned laughter.

When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting.

"Something about a laugh track brings me back to when I was a kid and I watched TV in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. There’s something familiar and soothing about it. It allows me to turn my brain off and drift off to sleep," she shared.

Reruns as a healthy ‘regression’

Will Meyerhofer, a New York-based psychotherapist and author, says watching our favorite old shows can be a useful tool for dealing with anxiety and mild depression.

"For my clients, these old shows are like the food they grew up with. 'The Brady Bunch' or 'The Facts of Life' or 'The Jeffersons' is like that beloved baloney sandwich on Wonder Bread with just enough mayo the way mom used to make,” he told TODAY.

The Jeffersons
Experts say laughing along with our favorite old sitcoms, like, for example, "The Jeffersons," can helps us feel calm and happy in a world that feels increasingly chaotic.CBS via Getty Images

A recent Facebook post on The Mighty health community got hundreds of responses to the question: "What TV show from your childhood would you want to marathon-watch on a bad flare day?" The answers ranged from "The Waltons" to "Barney Miller."

In therapy terms, it's an instant — and for the most part healthy — regression in the service of the ego.

That's because television from yesteryear can make us feel safe and secure in a world that feels increasingly chaotic.

“In therapy terms, it's an instant — and for the most part healthy — regression in the service of the ego,” Meyerhofer said, adding that he unwinds with old episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

The psychological benefits of nostalgia TV

Krystine Batcho, a licensed psychologist and a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York who researches nostalgia, says watching our favorite old TV shows satisfies our “nostalgic need” and packs real emotional benefits.

“When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting. It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled,” Batcho told TODAY.

Image: The Brady Bunch
Watching a rerun of "The Brady Bunch" may trigger happy childhood memories for some viewers.Getty Images

Depending on what generation you grew up in, a rerun of “The Brady Bunch” or “Full House” can trigger happy childhood memories.

Batcho likes watching old episodes of “Columbo” because it reminds her of how she adored Peter Falk’s lovable detective character. She also gets a kick out of seeing “big and clumsy” computers, VCRs and other 1970s technology.

“It’s harkening back to what we might, even erroneously, perceive as a simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities and obligations and fewer worries," she said.

Old favorites help us feel more secure about ourselves

That leap back may remind us we're still essentially the same people we’ve always been —or, in some cases, make us appreciate how much we’ve evolved.

For those who’ve experienced trauma or loss, reassurance about our identities can be “critical,” said Batcho.

Another way our favorite old TV shows can be therapeutic? They help us feel connected.

Re-watching “Friends” or “Beverly Hills, 90210” can literally “bring back memories and feelings of the friends you had back then and the fun times you had together,” said Batcho.

Friends Leaving Netflix
"Friends," which original aired on NBC from 1994-2004, is currently one of the hottest shows on Netflix.Getty Images

And, if we’re bonding with new friends — either in person or on social media — over our love for these olds programs, we feel connected even more. Some parents bond with their kids by watching retro shows together.

But experts caution about excessive binge watching and to be aware of possible deeper depression.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, symptoms of depression include:

  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of energy
  • Lack of interest