In the spring of 2015, my life seemed bleak. Shuttered in at home, I spent most of my time in bed, eating delivery and watching Penguins of Madagascar, a Nickelodeon children's cartoon about a team of James Bond–like penguins who run the Central Park Zoo. Watching it provided a momentary distraction from my depression. While discussing that period of darkness with my now partner, I admitted that I often watch cartoons meant for children as a method of self-care. He confessed that he still watches Tom & Jerry in times of turmoil.
The coincidence struck me. Undoubtedly, I needed therapy during that period of my life, but instead I self-medicated with cartoons, as did my partner. Could there actually be some medical benefit to this coping mechanism?
"Is it a go-to strategy? No. But I'm open to it," Dr. David Rosmarin, founder and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York City, told me. "We would use it primarily to treat depression. I also could see it being helpful for people who have chronic worry because that co-occurs with depression."
Rosmarin uses "behavioral activation" to treat these types of mood disorders. The method entails not talking with patients about their inner demons, childhood traumas, or job stress, but rather encouraging them to increase their pleasure activities.
"TV could be a pleasure activity. Watching something funny, that could be a lift," Rosmarin said. "I don't think that it has to be specific to cartoons or kid's television. You could go to a comedy show, or watch rom-coms, or The Office."
There are some benefits to watching cartoons specifically, though. The penguins'—Skipper, Kowalski, Private, and Rico—adventures were my antidote to the complexities of adult life. In the zoo, there were no worries about money, no heart-wrenching relationships to leave one feeling worthless. Watching the animals navigate their flattened version of basic human issues—frustration, conflict, loneliness—made it easier to cope with my own much more nuanced reality. In the world of the penguins, the human emotions that I had such trouble processing—sadness, especially—were easily resolved as long you had the moxie to express them to your friends. They could comfort you, remind you of the bright side of life.
"Kids' cartoons can be a support treatment because they incorporate themes like community order, friendship, family, teamwork, that good always wins over evil, and that the sun will always come out tomorrow," Dr. Laurel Steinberg, a New York–based psychotherapist, told me. "They can help restore optimism and give someone a break from worrying or feeling sad, all of which can elevate [your] mood."
Effective children's television is supposed to be educational as well. Some shows teach kids to count or say the alphabet; others try to convey abstract emotional concepts, preparing their young audiences for an adulthood in which they may apply these lessons to their interpersonal relationships and interactions.
"Cartoons model higher frustration tolerance and activate a person's problem solving abilities," said Steinberg. She believes that building up these basic problem-solving skills can, in the long run, improve life circumstances and "further reduce anxiety and depression."
Live-action television could probably achieve the same ends, but I'll watch Nickelodeon over The Office every time I'm feeling depressed, even though the NBC sitcom is funnier and provides the same benefits that Steinberg outlined. So what might make a depressed person turn to a cartoon instead?
"I don't think it's as simple as wanting to watch cute animals over people, but [instead] wanting to see an unreal character tackle real problems," Tony Celano, a professional animator and comedian, told me. "Animation lightens the load of a normally rough subject. If a character in live action runs into a wall, we wince. If a cartoon does it, we laugh at the slapstick humor."
Though cartoons might relieve symptoms of depression in the short term, Rosmarin stresses it's just one part of a "larger context of actions you can take." In fact, there's an actual medical term for taking part in any activity that distracts you from feeling "stressed, anxious, angry, or sad": opposite action.
"You engage in an action that is exactly the opposite of the way you feel in order to regulate your emotions. If you're feeling really anxious, then to do something very bold. If you're feeling socially anxious, get dressed up and go to a party," Rosmarin explained.
In the case of a depressed or anxious person, the answer might be to just watch something that makes you laugh.
"Laughter can be very therapeutic," Dr. Julia Sampton, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating mood disorders, explained. "Freud conceptualized defense mechanisms, a mental process that is used to avoid anxiety or conflict. Mature defense mechanisms are used by healthier people, and humor is categorized in that way."
In fact, the Mayo Clinic recommends laughter as a form of stress relief, explaining that not only can it soothe tension but even improve your immune system. A study from the University of Maryland Medical Center showed that laughter may help prevent heart attacks. Of course, a cartoon won't magically cure depression, but if it makes you laugh? Then it's done its job.
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