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Why Do We Watch Stressful TV?

Lewis Jacobs/AMC(NEW YORK) -- We’ve all been there: hands over our open mouths in horror as we watch our favorite characters bite the dust on a TV show. Then comes the shouting at the television and the digging of our nails into the couch cushions as we wait for the next plot twist.

And with the Breaking Bad finale around the corner, fans are getting ready for the inevitable TV-induced freak-out.

But why do we watch shows that upset us? Shouldn’t we want to avoid the emotions that would be far less pleasant to experience in real life?

Not necessarily, experts say.

“It is tantalizing,” said Robert Simmermon, a psychologist in Atlanta who specializes in media. “We’re always drawn to that fantasy.”

Psychologist Mary Gregerson, who runs Heartlandia Psychology, located in Kansas, Missouri and Virginia, said watching tragedy appeals to an ancient human nature. It’s called the catharsis hypothesis, but it’s not yet proven.

“Look at Greek tragedies,” she said. “There’s something about watching tragedy happen to somebody outside of ourselves that seems to give us some emotional release.”

The rapid heart rate and heightened senses that come with fear and anxiety are almost identical to the physiological responses generated by excitement, Simmermon explained, which is why we enjoy fear from the safety of the living room couch.

“We all have a nose for excitement, whether we’re conscious of it or not,” he said.

Dr. Fredrick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University, said people watch suspenseful shows for the same reason they want to ride roller coasters.

“It’s a thrill but you come out of it O.K.,” he said. “It’s sort of a model on life.”

Nancy Mramor, a media expert and psychologist based outside Pittsburgh, said people often get hooked on the characters because they feel as if those characters are good friends or family members. When the plot turns suspenseful or violent, viewers can’t bear not knowing what happens to those characters, but there’s also a hint of escapism involved in watching these characters in exciting scenes, she said.

When the series finale ends and the credits start rolling, however, viewers will miss Walt and Jesse — even if they don’t die during the episode.

“It’s a little bit of a grief response,” she said.

Gregerson said television has also been shown to actually alter viewers’ behavior, but they’re not always aware of it. Miguel Sabido took a scientific approach to his telenovelas in Mexico starting in the 1970s, tying character development to social issues such as sex, abortion and AIDS. He eventually won an award from the United Nations for bringing about changes in reproductive health.

Sabido always had good characters and bad characters, Gregerson said, but one character, the “transitional character,” was always faced with difficult choices.

Although the Breaking Bad writers haven’t done the same kind of research Sabido did, Gregerson said Breaking Bad’s protagonist Walter White seems to be that transitional character.

“He’s someone who is just like all of us,” she said. “We can identify with that person. Maybe we someday will have a terminal diagnosis we will have to grapple with.”

And turn to meth cooks, murderers and kingpins. Totally.

But viewers should be aware that some violence can be too much for them to watch, Mramor said. If they have flashbacks, difficulty falling asleep after watching the show or nightmares, they should probably cut back on the violent TV shows.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio