CINEMA Therapy ... What is it?

by: Jomel Bajar, PT, DPT, MS

If year 2020 would be a movie genre, I will classify it as a thriller. Thriller movies are suspenseful movies known to put people on the edge of their seats. In this movie that we are living in, we are the protagonists, and fighting against us is the great COVID-19 pandemic. We are still in the middle of this thriller movie, so we still do not know how this movie will end. But so far, we are in a gray area between the climax and the falling action because people have different opinions about the state of the pandemic. This confusion about the state of the pandemic is one of the causes of our stress and anxiety. As of today, there are now 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide. Many individuals still worry and gets stressed when they learn that COVID cases still going north. Often, when we worry, we feel that problems and frustrations do not seem to end. Experts says to change the channel, listen to your inner voice and time to de-stress. One of the best ways that people do to de-stress is watch movies. Watching movies are entertaining and they are also a great bonding experience for the family. They are accessible and come in different varieties. It’s ability to keep people entertained and feel relieved explains why a lot of people choose to make this a favorite pastime during quarantine.

In the field of psychotherapy, psychologists have what they call “Cinema therapy” or movie therapy where they use movies, television shows and videos as a therapeutic tool in individual or group therapy. Cinema therapy, which was first coined by Linda Berg-Cross PhD, Pamela Jennings PhD and Rhoda Baruch EdD, has been around for four decades. But because of the lack of conversation around cinema therapy, it is easy to think that this form of therapy is relatively new. Today, a growing number of mental health professionals have been using cinematherapy in their practice. One of them is Bronwyn Robertson, who is a member of the American Counseling Association and a counselor. In a blog by, Robertson said that movies can be “a powerful, transformative catalyst”. Unlike other artforms used in therapy like books and music, Robertson said that cinema is “multi-sensory” and can immediately trigger perceptual, cognitive, and emotional processes. Cinema can engage people at a very deep level, according to Robertson. People resonate with its themes and elements which allows them to reflect deeply about themselves and their situation.

Do you remember the latest movie that made you cry? Or a movie that made you think about your existence in life? If we would share answers, our answers would probably be not the same. This is because, simply, we all have different backgrounds. We all have different likes and dislikes, passions, and problems. This explains why, most of the time, not all of us respond the same way in watching a movie. Robertson said, “Given the variability of our brain’s response to different movies, it’s critical that an experienced therapist choose the right film in order for cinematherapy to be effective”. She adds that the movie selections should resonate deeply on the person on multiple levels for it to be therapeutically effective.

With her clients, she said that the age, developmental level, and the client’s relationship with the movie selection are important factors in cinematherapy. As a therapist, she makes sure to meet the needs of her clients by giving careful consideration to the movie selection that she is prescribing. For example, for people who are struggling with substance abuse, Beautiful boy starring Steve Carrel is an appropriate movie for them to watch.

A 2010 study featuring three preadolescent-aged children with divorcing parents showed how cinematherapy can be effective. In the study, the three children had six individual therapy sessions with researchers who used cinematherapy. During the sessions, the study stated that the children were able to identify and articulate their emotions better after watching the movie. Towards the end of the sessions, the study said that the children found the experience to be cathartic. This 2010 study is just one of the few studies about cinema therapy. The surprising thing is that in almost all of these studies the people involved have a similar reaction after using movie therapy. The people involved developed a better understanding of themselves and their problems. At the same time, they felt inspired and had a better idea of what to do with their concerns. This only goes to show how movies have the power to change what people think. As the saying goes, movies are the mirror of society. It reflects our hopes and dreams. Also, it reflects our fears and insecurities. When we see characters and elements in the movie who are experiencing the same things that we are going through, we relate to them. We instantly have a connection with them. As the characters deal with the obstacles in their life, we also become aware of the problems and things that we need to face in our lives. When they find a solution to their problems, we become hopeful because like them, we think that we can also find a solution to our problem. Movies have a way of showing hard truths that in reality, we find hard to say. Through cinema therapy, movies give us the chance to face these hard truths and find a way to resolve them.

Therapy is not always a walk in the park. The end result of it may feel cathartic, but the process which involves digging up past experiences and heartbreaks makes it hard. Talking about your feelings can make you feel exposed which makes expressing your feelings feel burdensome. Movies make the process of therapy, in a way, easier because it allows people to indirectly talk about their feelings by relating themselves to the characters in the movie. In doing so, the focus becomes the problems and not you. Watching movies, in general, is an eye-opening experience. It introduces us to different ways of thinking and living which can be helpful in finding solutions to our problems.

Although a lot of mental health professionals swear by the effectiveness of cinematherapy, experts say that this should not stop people from attending therapy. Bruce Skalarew, a Chevy Chase Md based psychiatrist and co-chairman for the Forum for Psychoanalytic Study of Film, said that people should not use cinematherapy as a prime means of therapy. He said that mental health professionals should only add cinema therapy to a traditional form of therapy. It should only supplement it, not replace it as a main method of therapy. Cinema therapy, also, is not only used in individual therapy, but it is also used in group and family therapy. It has been particularly helpful to couples who pursue couples therapy. Movies are a good bonding activity for the family. It brings the family together and it is a good topic for a conversation. Movies have the ability to improve relationships. It allows them to communicate which is important in keeping a healthy relationship.

With movies, everything is possible. Underdogs can become heroes. The sick can be miraculously healed, and the lost can find their way. Although this may not always be the case in real life, movies still make us hope that someday this can be our reality. Cinema therapy doesn’t promise people who are dealing with anxiety, addiction, depression, and trauma-related disorders a happy ending. But cinema therapy helps people to be a step closer by helping them find possible solutions. Movies not only help us recognize our own problems, but it also makes us aware of the problems in our society. Movies may just be a source of entertainment for most, but it has the power to change ourselves and the world. So, if you tried everything and still looking for something to feel better, maybe a carefully curated, inspiring, positive maybe an answer. Stay safe and Live Well!

Further Reading: MovieTherapy

The Efficacy of Cinema Therapy

Cinematherapy: The Healing Power of Movies and Therapy

Movie Therapy: Using Movies for Mental Health