Psychologists on How to Fill the Emptiness You Feel After Bingeing a Great Show

Oh, Naruto, I miss you so

A couple of years ago, I began the formidable but rewarding journey of watching the entire Naruto and Naruto Shippūden anime series, which consists of 720 episodes and 11 movies. I laughed and (almost) cried. There were times when I watched more than 10 episodes in a day and times when I left the show behind for weeks on end. I spent almost three years watching Naruto (the protagonist) and his companions grow up, and I grew up with them: I moved in with my girlfriend; adopted my treasure of a dog, Tucker; converted from party chaser to homebody; said goodbye to old friends and made some new ones. All the while, there was always another episode to watch. 

Until I watched them all.

I vividly remember watching the last episode of Naruto Shippūden. Peace is brought to the Naruto universe, Naruto gets married and all of the other important characters have their stories (no spoilers) closed in a similarly heartening way; a righteous ending to any series of such a colossal length. At first, I was satisfied and proud of myself for persevering through such a seemingly endless show. Then, my heart dropped: I’d been watching Naruto and forming relationships with the characters for years, and now it was all over. Where was I supposed to go from here?

I had the option of starting Boruto: Naruto Next Generations, a new series that follows Naruto’s son, Boruto, and his comrades, but as most OG Naruto fans know, Boruto is a mere shadow of the original show. So, I became depressed instead.

As anyone who’s fallen in love with a story knows, feelings of hopelessness and emptiness are normal after finishing a deeply engaging show or book. This experience is called post-series depression, and Urban Dictionary defines it well:

“It is the sadness felt after reading or watching a really long series or story. The bitter feeling when you know the journey is over, but you don’t want it to end.

“It is the longing for the words on the pages to move for you like they did the first time you read them. When you didn’t know what the next paragraph held and the world in which the characters found themselves was entirely without limit. Because any time you re-read the story, you know that they aren’t free to roam anywhere like they were before. They are stuck in a cart on a track and all you can hope for is to notice something about the scene you didn’t before, and to just try to relive those feelings you had the first time around.

“But it will never be quite the same.”

Finishing the story, then, is almost like going through a breakup. “When we get involved in a great story — be it a book, movie or TV show — we lose ourselves in the fantasy, romance, drama and action,” explains anxiety specialist Kevin Foss, founder of the California OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center. “Over time, we can develop an intimate relationship with these characters as we follow them on their exploits, share inside jokes and eavesdrop on their thought processes and emotional development. Even more so, we project parts of our personality onto these beloved characters, begin to identify with them and share in their trials and triumphs. While following their story, we get to live in an idealized world full of wonder, danger and mystery. So when we end the stories, we have to say goodbye to these people we’ve come to love, and seemingly end deeply cherished relationships. It’s very similar to mourning the loss of a close friend. In some ways, it feels like we’re also accepting that our adventure must stop.”

Moreover, the fantastic nature of fictional stories in particular can leave real life feeling boring and bleak. “Normal life doesn’t make for amazing storylines,” says clinical psychologist Margaret Rutherford, author of Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free From the Perfectionism That Masks Your Depression. “Flossing your teeth, taking out the garbage, making sure homework gets done or meeting one more work deadline aren’t the things that capture our imagination or curiosity. So when these intricately dramatic stories that you’ve relished come to an end, you may have to grieve — not unlike with a death.”

Not only the death of the story, but part of yourself as well. “The feelings of emptiness and depression after engaging with something so absorbing are because a part of you died when that experience ended,” says psychologist Jeanette Raymond. “In order to have enjoyed it so much, you put yourself into it and became part of it. That’s what made it so entrancing — you opened yourself up to all the richness of emotions. You were fed in a way that satisfied, but not just by giving you the good stuff — it was deep stuff that touched all emotions and vulnerabilities, safely, without destroying you. However, when it was over, it took that part of you with it; you ceded that part of you to the experience, and now it’s been taken, used up and spent.”

“No matter how good the experience,” Raymond continues, “reality now feels empty, and you may react with grief, depression and purposelessness. It’s a tribute to the experience that it gave you so much without actually putting you through the rigors of the hero/anti-hero life. You borrowed their life, and now you have to return it.”

But again, where am I to go once I say goodbye to Naruto and friends? How am I supposed to be me, happy and real again? Jumping back into real life, of course, is the obvious but oftentimes impractical option. “Reminding oneself about the positive qualities of their own life can help combat the obsessive comparison between the story and real life,” says Foss. “Actively participating in everyday life, relationships and responsibilities is also a great way of grounding oneself in reality and social functioning.”

Raymond agrees. “It’s not a bad thing to be a bit sad and feel rudderless,” she says. “It’s important that you hit bottom so that your survival instinct kicks in and searches for something in the real world that you can focus on and feed you in a different way. It’s a spur to come out of fantasy — in the book, movie or TV series — and create something that can stay with you longer, mostly interpersonal connections with reliable loved ones.”

What if real life seriously sucks, though? What then? “People can deal with this sense of loss by telling others about the story,” Foss says (my girlfriend, bless her, has listened to hours and hours of my Naruto fanboying). “Joining a book club or fan club of the story or series can also help someone reflect positively on the story while connecting with others and developing new relationships. Doing this can keep the memory and the excitement alive. Of course, there’s a fine line of being obnoxious — just think of some Harry Potter, Star Wars or Breaking Bad fans (you know the ones I’m talking about). People can also remember that they can revisit these stories whenever they want, however, it may come with diminishing emotional returns.”

Simply meditating on the story can help, too. “What can be soothing,” Rutherfood explains, “is to think or journal about how you were changed by that experience; how did you grow? Whether the book or series served as entertainment, learning or both, its impact on you is yours to keep. Recognizing this can motivate you to seek other experiences, knowing full well that they will end — but knowing when they do, others will take their place.”

Which, of course, is another option. “Reinvesting one’s energy and attention into another series can also help some move on,” Foss says. In fact, Raymond explains that people with uninspiring real-life connections might require a regular dose of fantasy to keep their head up. “Getting busy with jobs that have been put off, or an idea sparked from the book or film can boost their creative juices and move them in a positive direction,” she says. “But they’ll need to seek out more experiences like the book or film when they need to get absorbed into another world to escape the unreliability of their own.”

Fine. I’ll give Boruto a shot. Ugh.