Movie therapy, also known as cinema therapy, involves the therapist-directed viewing of movies for therapeutic purposes. The combination of thematic elements—music, dialogue, lighting, and images—can often evoke deep feelings in viewers, both allowing for personal reflection and providing new perspective on external events.

Movies might be used as part of individual therapy, group therapy, or family therapy, but movie therapy has been shown to be particularly beneficial as part of couples counseling.

What Is Movie Therapy?

Metaphor, symbolism, and imagery might often be used by therapists as they help those in treatment explore thoughts and feelings and address areas of concern. Some therapists work with people in treatment to explore and analyze dreams, for example, and others may use guided imagery as a therapeutic technique. Thus, many may find the integration of movies and other forms of media, in which these and other literary elements are often widespread, to be logical. Not only do movies contain symbols, they also might generate empathy, increase communication skills, and allow those in therapy to become more aware of their own feelings and desires. Movie watching allows viewers to engage in a number of ways—linguistically, visuospatially, interpersonally, and intrapsychically. Proponents of movie therapy believe this may be helpful because learning has been shown to occur more quickly when information is processed in more than one way.

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Movie therapy developed along the lines of bibliotherapy, which is the therapeutic use of books and reading in clinical practice. The term “cinema therapy” was first used in 1990 by L. Berg-Cross, P. Jennings, and R. Baruch, who defined the technique as a form of therapy in which a therapist selects films relevant to a person in treatment's areas of concern, which the individual might view alone or with specified others.

The therapist and person in treatment will generally first discuss how to watch the film in a mindful way and how to recognize and explore reactions to the film. Reactions to the film are typically discussed in a later therapy session, where the therapist may ask the person in treatment to consider connections between the film and the person's own life. If a couple is in therapy together, they may be given a list of questions to consider and discuss together. Movies may often be easily integrated into therapy because they are widely available and accessible to many people. Further, most people find watching a movie to be an enjoyable experience, and some may prefer this form of therapeutic work to other modalities. 

How Can Movie Therapy Facilitate Healing?

Film can lead people to experience a wide range of emotion. Who has not walked out of a movie theater feeling sad, scared, inspired, or otherwise moved? Movies can potentially open a person's eyes to new solutions to any number of difficulties and may provide many therapeutic benefits in addition to entertainment. They might offer hope, provide role models, and reframe problems. Film characters may also serve to exemplify different issues people face. A person addressing alcohol abuse in therapy might, for example, find viewing a movie in which a character achieves recovery from the same concern to be both inspirational and helpful. 

Movies can potentially open a person's eyes to new solutions to any number of difficulties and may provide therapeutic benefits in addition to entertainment.Additionally, movies can provide a safe way for people to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Direct questions from a therapist may be intimidating to some people, especially those who have difficulty openly sharing their feelings. The use of film in therapy can provide a less overwhelming way to talk about feelings, as it allows people to explore concerns indirectly by relating them to those of characters in the film. Some individuals might also be more likely to realize the presence of certain issues in their relationships and personal life when they first experience them in a movie. A person in an emotionally abusive relationship might not realize the relationship is abusive, but a fictional depiction of a relationship understood to be abusive may give the person a greater understanding of what constitutes abuse. 

Film can help enhance the connection between people. It can be a great way to enhance rapport between the therapist and the person in therapy, especially if at first discussion does not come easily. Family therapy sessions may also be enhanced by the viewing of relevant movies: Families may find it easier to begin communication when they discuss fictional families who face issues similar to their own before connecting what they have discovered about these challenges to their own lives. 

The use of film has also been shown to improve marriages. A recent study found that couples who watched movies together communicated more effectively and felt more positively toward each other within five weeks. Simply watching one movie, assigned by a therapist, a week and discussing it by answering twelve questions had an improving effect on the marriages of the couples in the study. Increased levels of healthy communication decreased the divorce risk for these couples by 50%. 

Who Provides Movie Therapy?

Movie therapy is used by a wide range of therapists from different orientations and modalities. One study found that 67% of therapists surveyed used movies for clinical purposes. Although many therapists integrate movies into their clinical work without any specific training on how to do so, there are continuing education courses therapists can take in order to become more proficient in movie therapy. Films are typically used as a supplement to treatment rather than as the main method of treatment.  

Movies can also be used, without the guidance of a therapist, as a form of self-help. Just as books can help people to learn and integrate therapeutic tools, so can films, and watching movies may often lead to growth and positive change. However, when significant psychological issues are present, movie therapy may be better used with the guidance of a therapist trained in the implementation of movie therapy. 

Concerns and Limitations of Movie Therapy

Many clinicians believe that movies have therapeutic value. In some cases, an assigned film may have little effect. An individual might also find particular aspects of a film to be troubling or triggering, and a trained therapist will generally exercise care when considering which movies may be effective for certain concerns. 

Some individuals may not have enough time to watch an assigned movie. Others may be unable to watch movies at home because they do not have a television or computer. Thus, this form of therapy may not be accessible to some people. 

Despite the wide use of film in therapy, there is still limited research about the efficacy of movie therapy and its application. However, it is not known to be harmful, and further practice of this type of therapy is likely to generate wider knowledge about its efficacy. 


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