Over the past few years, America’s fascination with true crime has blossomed. Series from the podcast “Serial” to Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel have garnered huge followings due, largely, to audiences’ morbid curiosity and the taboo of it all: Why did they do it? How did they do it? What drives them? How were they able to move about society undetected? There’s also the desire to understand the dark side of the human condition. Women—who are often the primary consumers of true crime, according to a 2010 study—tend to view true crime as an educational tool, providing a framework on how to detect potential abusers and avoid dangerous situations. Plus, an unsolved mystery can be entertaining as hell.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a daily true crime habit, but if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, or paranoid, you may need to re-evaluate how much you’re taking in. Recent research showed that when people actively consumed crime news, whether through news outlets, radio, or television documentaries, they reported being more fearful of crime—regardless of actual crime rates. The same can be said for true crime fans. It’s important to monitor how you’re feeling as you’re listening, reading, or watching—which is easier said than done—and be aware of how these stories may negatively impact your mental health.
For starters, overconsumption of murder podcasts can give you the overinflated sense that serial killers are constantly lurking around us. (According to the FBI, serial murder accounts for less than one percent of all murders in a given year.) “I’m convinced I’m going to be killed on a daily basis and I know logically that is probably not going to happen,” Amanda Vicary, the chair of the psychology department at Illinois Wesleyan University and author of the 2010 study on true crime fan demographics, told VICE. “It’s hard to keep logic in mind when you're watching and hearing these stories all the time.”
Another problem is that the stories depicted in true crime series hardly represent the full scope of crime in the U.S.country. The cases that tend to be shared are ones that captivate an audience due to their uniqueness and even then, they tend to be sensationalized, psychologist Erica Rojas told VICE. “Ask yourself, Are they accurate depictions of the average event that happens? Not really,” she said. “On the one hand, it’s certainly healthy to prepare ourselves for this dangerous event out there, but on the other hand, living in this state of alertness can really lead to unnecessary paranoia sometimes.”
Vicary, who is currently studying people’s anxiety levels after they listen to a true crime podcast, said she has heard anecdotes from people who acted more cautiously because of true crime content. This caution becomes a problem, she said, when you’re unable to leave the house because of your fear, or when you’re hesitant to exchange small talk with strangers in public (something that has been shown to make you happier and feel more connected to your community).
A constant state of high alert, paranoia, and hypervigilance is helpful when we’re trying to protect ourselves from threat in a genuine crisis, Jessica Micono, a forensic psychology professor at Regis University and co-host of the podcast Psychology After Dark, told VICE. But persistent hypervigilance that stems from a diet of true crime can lead to increased overall stress. “That increased stress can subsequently lead to stress-related illnesses, things like cardiovascular disease or hypertension,” Micono said.
Prolonged exposure to true crime can activate the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response, Rojas said. “What happens when that’s activated is it produces these heightened levels of stress hormones,” she said. “So they're good in the moment, they get our adrenaline running, they make us run or avoid that physical threat. Where it can get tricky is if there's long term and chronic exposure to this, it can lead to mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, and physical health problems, like a decreased immune response or medical issues.”
After a year on high alert because of the pandemic, flooding your system with nerve-wracking entertainment may exacerbate problems in other areas of life. “If you're going through day-to-day life at this heightened level of fear as your baseline, how are you able to manage other stressors that might happen normally in your day-to-day life, like living in a pandemic?” therapist Erin Parisi told VICE. “Our baselines are already pretty high at that point. You have a bad day at work or you maybe have an argument with your partner and then it can quickly become too much. Everything piles on.”
Additionally, overexposure to terrifying stories, especially before bed, can permeate our subconscious and cause nightmares. Prolonged sleep deprivation can result in high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, obesity, depression, and more.
If your true crime habit is inhibiting your ability to leave the house, get work done, or live without an overwhelming sense of paranoia—feeling like you’re constantly being followed, assuming every noise you hear at night is a murderer breaking in, incorrectly assuming every stranger you encounter will harm you—experts suggest seeking help from a mental health professional. Especially if you already experience anxiety and depression, these stories could compound your symptoms, Vicary said, so a therapist can help you work through your triggers and trauma.
And, like most good things, it’s a good idea to enjoy your true crime in moderation. When you feel the weight of murder and deception bogging you down, switch up your entertainment to include some comedy or mindless reality TV to lighten the mood. “Some of us enjoy that little adrenaline dump from true crime, and others like playing armchair detective, and that’s all fine, that’s entertaining,” Micono said. “It’s important to honor those dark interests; it's also important to engage in light activities as well.”
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