What Stranger Things Teaches Us About Psychology

*SPOILER ALERT*: This article contains spoilers for some scenes from season 1 through 4 of the Netflix’s show Stranger Things.

Have you been spending your free time, or maybe your not-so-free time binge watching Stranger Things on Netflix? Ever since part 2 of Season 4 came out, it feels like everyone is talking about Demogorgons, Vecna and the Upside-Down. Following the adventures of Eleven, Max, Will and the whole group has been a perfect mix of mystery, comedy and teenage drama. But underneath the surface, the show is far from just entertainment. If you look close enough, you can find many mental health and psychology lessons hidden in the heart of Hawkins. 

Here are 5 lessons Stranger Things teaches us about psychology and mental health.

1. Effects of childhood neglect

When Will, Lucas, Dustin and Mike first met Eleven, she didn’t really speak much. She knew how to say “no” and “Eleven”, and often needed an explanation for some common words. Her lack of social skills and verbal fluency point to the damaging effect childhood neglect has on intellectual and social abilities. 

Eleven’s flashbacks later showed that her upbringing was far from loving and motivating. She was stolen from her Mama and brought into the laboratory to train her powers. She probably never got to read fairytales and sing the alphabet. 

Research has shown that children who were neglected and deprived of a warm environment rich with different kinds of stimuli are predisposed to deficits in intellectual functioning, compromised language development and low social skills. A recent 2020 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in adulthood, they even have smaller brain volumes.

These findings emphasize how important it is for children to have a guardian who helps them learn and discover the world. Luckily for Eleven, she found her family in Hawkins and managed to make up for the lost time. 

2. Survivor’s guilt

Guilt is a feeling that follows the friend group throughout the show. When Vecna looks into her mind, we see that Nancy feels guilty for hanging out with Steve while Barb was dying. At the same time, Max is also battling some complex emotions. When she prepares to face Vecna and writes a letter to Billy, we find out she blames herself for what happened to him. Later on, she mentions wishing that something bad happened to her too.

What Max is experiencing is called survivor’s guilt. This feeling develops in people who have survived a life-threatening situation or saw someone’s death.

In a 2018 study, researchers found that 90% of participants who had survived an event when others had died reported experiencing feelings of guilt. One reason for this could be survivors holding false beliefs about their role in an event. They might have exaggerated or distorted ideas about their ability to prevent an outcome or their role in causing negative outcomes. We can clearly see some of these beliefs in Max: she thinks she could’ve done something for Billy. She believes what happened to him is her fault for “just standing there”, and these thoughts ultimately bring her to the darkest of places.

3. Smiling depression

Before starting the most metal concert ever, Eddie said: “Chrissy, this is for you”. And even if we didn’t really know Chrissy that much, she still taught us a valuable lesson. As she kept having nightmares and hallucinations, she thought she was losing her mind. She was severely depressed, and tried to find some escape with drugs. But after she was gone, everyone refused to believe it. Especially Jason, her boyfriend.

In other people’s eyes, Chrissy was a happy, popular cheerleader with a handsome, popular boyfriend. It was hard to believe she could be depressed or hang out with people like Eddie. 

What happened to her is commonly known as smiling depression. It’s a depression just like any other – but people who suffer from it hide their feelings behind a smile. To someone looking from the outside, a person with smiling depression might look like an active, high-functioning individual, holding down a steady job, with a healthy family and social life, and appearing to be cheerful, optimistic, and generally happy.

But beneath the surface, even the ones with the widest of smiles can be secretly unhappy.

4. Importance of self-disclosure

After Will escaped the Upside-Down, he had some trouble opening up to family and friends. Max, after going through her own trauma, withdrew from those around her. And Vecna, with the ability to look into his victim’s hearts, took it against them. He sent the Mind Flayer into Will’s mind, and accused Max of “hiding from her friends” while trying to take her soul too.

The self-isolation Max and Will put themselves through could have made them vulnerable to being the victims of Vecna’s curse. By choosing to suffer alone, they allowed the darkness to spread even more. 

Talking about our problems with others is what psychologists call self-disclosure, and they believe there’s a link between sharing our thoughts and mental illness. Research published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found a link between depressive symptoms and reduced emotional disclosure. Another study published in journal Crisis even showed a significant relationship between low levels of self-disclosure and suicidal behaviors.

Just like Vecna, depression is an evil demon. If you choose to be alone, it pulls you into your own Upside-Down. Don’t suffer in silence! As Joyce and Will showed us in the first season – let the ones you love guide you towards light.

5. Music therapy

“The right song, particularly one which holds some personal meaning, can prove a salient stimulus”. This is what the head of the Pennhurst Mental Hospital says to Robin and Nancy as they walk through the hospital’s yard, next to patients with headphones covering their ears. But did you know that this is not fiction at all? 

Music therapy is actually a recognized practice! In fact, what Pennhurst Warden describes closely resembles how music is used in Alzheimer’s therapy. A catchy beat can stimulate nerve pathways and therefore help those with neurological conditions. In a recent study from 2021 published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, scientists found that listening to their favorite song lit up patients’ brain areas linked to cognition, which could suggest improvements in cognitive functioning. 

Music therapy helps with PTSD symptoms, too. In those with PTSD, music can evoke emotion, influence mood and arouse memories that need to be accessed and processed during the healing process. In a way, we see this happen with Max – when “Running Up That Hill” started playing, she finally managed to escape Vecna’s grip. 

Closing thoughts

Tragedy and loss is a common theme in the show, but if you look deeper, Hawkins is far from cursed. It’s a place where those with even the darkest wounds find family, friendship, loyalty and love. And that’s why we can’t get enough of it!

What is the hidden lesson you see in Stranger Things? Do you have a favorite character you resonate with? Let us know! 

Until Season 5, take care!


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