The 15-Minute Grief Timeout From 'Shrinking' Has Therapeutic Value

by Katie Brown
April 12, 2023 at 9:05 AM UTC

Shrinking 15 minute grief timeout.

Clinical Relevance: Taking a short break to grieve for a loved one may help a patient keep their loss in perspective

  • In the TV show Shrinking, a therapist recommends a 15-minute exercise to help people cope with grief.
  • The technique can work in real life too, but does not have to involve listening to sad music like the characters on the show do.
  • Success is more likely for someone further along in the grieving process versus someone for whom the loss of loved one is fresh.

In the new Apple TV+ show, Shrinking, therapist Jimmy (played by Jason Segel) grieves the loss of his wife while at the same time treating his own patients. 

In episode 3, entitled Fifteen Minutes, his boss, Paul Rhodes (Harrison Ford) recommends a therapeutic exercise to both Jimmy and his teenage daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell): Set a timer for 15 minutes, turn on a sad song, and lean into the grief. When the timer dings, you’re done. Move on with your life.  

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The practice does seem to help Jimmy’s and Alice’s frame of mind. And it provides a bit of comic relief. A sobbing Jimmy works through the exercise while riding a bicycle and listening to the morose tune, I Know The End, only to crash into an open car door. He screams as he hits the ground,“F*** you, Phoebe Bridgers!” 

A moment of levity for sure. But does the whole idea of 15-minutes of timed heartbreak have any real therapeutic value? 

Mental Rooms and Boundaries

“They’re kind of making it dramatic, but the technique is very simple—it’s about internal boundaries,” Roland Evans, a Boulder, Colorado-based psychotherapist and author of Seeking Wholeness: Insights into the Mystery of Experience, told Psychiatrist.com.

Evans, who has a background in hospice grief counseling, added, “Healthy people have abilities to have ‘rooms’ internally, and they move between the rooms. When you have a major loss, it’s like someone has stripped all the walls out, and there are no rooms.”

As a therapist, Evans noted that it’s important to help a client in mourning set up “a room in their mind” dedicated to their sadness. This is exactly what the 15-minute stop-and-cry strategy attempts to accomplish.

“The person can go in and completely feel what they need to feel, but they can actually come out, shut the door, and get on with their life,” he explained.

Healthy Coping

Evans admitted taking a grief timeout does have merit even if the show presents it a somewhat silly way. By providing the patient with a mental container of sorts to hold the cacophony of emotions and hormones that accompany their sadness and loss, it allows them to otherwise go about their regular lives, he said.

I don’t know if it’s common,” he said. “But if you think about it psychologically, it makes sense.” 

Evans said that he has recommended a similar exercise to his own patients, though listening to depressing music is not typically part of his prescription. 

“What would work better is to find a picture of the person that really reminds you of the time you had together and really just feel into that,” he advised. 

If listening to Phoebe Bridgers or some other sad tunes isn’t your thing, looking at a photo of a lost loved one can help achieve a similar outcome. By providing a visual cue, a photo can help access the pain a person may have suppressed and allow them to focus their full attention. Once their set time for sorrow has elapsed, the grieving person can put the photo away or press pause on that song, thus creating a healthy boundary between their “rooms.” 

Timing is Everything

Compartmentalization might not be feasible for those who’ve recently lost a loved one, Evans said. But it can be extremely useful for those further along in the grieving process, especially because grief is not a linear or consistent emotion. A patient can become triggered by a loss even years later.

And of course, there is no one right way to cope with grief. Whether visual, auditory, or otherwise, the tool one chooses to build their mental room is ultimately up to them. “You don’t have to cry. You don’t have to do anything,” Evans said. “You just have to be in that state fully.”

While a timed emotional exercise does have its place in the therapeutic process, Shrinking gets a lot of other things wrong, Evans cautioned. Most notably, its fictional therapists over-involve themselves with their patients, overshare about their own lives, and cross countless other ethical boundaries, all for comedic and dramatic effect. 

Clinicians are allowed to have lives and feelings of their own, Evans said. However,  it’s important to remain stable for patients.

“They need you to be reliable, consistent, predictable, and there. Self-awareness is key,” he said.

Apple TV+ recently renewed Shrinking for a second season. 

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