Cinematherapy: Reel Therapy During the Holidays

Whether it’s A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Home Alone, Miracle on 34th Street, or the more contemporary Elf, chances are you have a traditional film you always watch around this time of year. It’s probably no surprise that in addition to their entertainment value, these films embody universal messages that have the power to help you sort out your psyche and take stock of your life.

Cinematherapy is a tongue-in-cheek term used to describe the use of cinema (movies) to help people explore personal concerns and gain insights about themselves. In fact, it is a method used by many therapists, particularly those who work with marital and family issues. According to, watching movies actually engages several forms of information processing: the logical (plot), the linguistic (dialogs), the visual-spatial (pictures, colors, symbols), the musical (sounds and music), the interpersonal (storytelling), the kinesthetic (moving), and the intra-psychic (inner guidance). Movies, like art, suggest mythic themes and fables, similar to the symbolic content of dreams—in other words, they mirror our lives, personal and universal struggles, and relationships.

Holiday films are particularly evocative, not only because of their content, but also because they air at a time of year when we are taking stock of our lives and relationships, reflecting on endings, and imagining new beginnings. But their messages reach beyond the season to more common themes. During the week following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, I worked at residential treatment facility with group of children who, like most people, were struggling with the television images of collapsing buildings, chaos, and tragedy. At a loss to explain the events the children had witnessed on TV, I asked the group if they could recall a story or movie that reminded them of what had happened. Almost immediately, one of the children said, “the Grinch!” The group members all agreed; from a child’s perspective, it felt like someone came and stole all the presents, leaving everyone wondering why something so horrible could happen without warning. The Grinch is not just a Christmas character, but also a universally recognized killjoy of epic proportions.

My favorite holiday movie is not really a Christmas movie per se, but the well-loved classic The Wizard of Oz. For as long as I can remember, I have watched Oz during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day; it always serves as short of a mini-life review of the past year for me. In the first half of 2009, I seemed to be caught in a tornado funnel, doing my best to escape Elvira Gulch (aka Wicked Witch of the West) and perplexed by the occasional cow or hen house flying by the window. I kept wishing I would just wake up and find myself back home. And eventually I did, with the help of good friends, travelers on the path who helped me relearn the true meaning of mind, heart, and spirit.

So have another look at that film that resonates with you for whatever reason and think about your life over the past year. Maybe it feels like the Grinch came by and took all your presents [house, retirement fund, or job] or there’s no plane, train, or automobile to get where you want to be, metaphorically or otherwise. Or you may recall those friends who made the road you traveled in 2009 just a little easier to navigate and helped you understand that you are wiser and braver than you ever believed. And you may realize, despite endless frustrations or delayed gratifications, it really is a wonderful life because your worth is measured not by your bankroll, Blackberry, or flat screen, but by your friends and family. Maybe it’s just a movie, but it’s also that once-a-year chance to "gain your wings" (ala Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) and enjoy a flight of imagination that inevitably leads us back home.

Published on December 24, 2009 by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT in Arts and Health

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