For many folks, Halloween is a great fun time. Nonetheless, we don't all experience special days and holidays in the same way.
In my work with clients I've learned that if our trauma is related in any way (even in ways we cannot recall), we can be triggered. For instance, the goulish images, mock death scenes and frightening rituals of Halloween can evoke powerful flashbacks for some folks.
Does this surprise you?
Halloween is celebrated as a way to help us playfully deal with our fears. But if fears are rooted in unresolved trauma we might experience this event a little differently.
You see, if trauma is not resolved both emotionally and psychophysiologically it doesn't matter to the body that it happened years ago. The part of the brain that records trauma doesn't time-stamp it. There are good reasons for this.
The brain needs easy access to information that's critical to our survival. It's important to understand that trauma memories are very different from memories of people, places or book learning. These latter types of memories are prone to decay...like, "where did I park that darn' car of mine!"
The Brain that Ate Milwaukee
A friend once told me that she used to enjoy horror flicks. Emelia said it was the only time she felt 'normal' because she knew that everyone in the theatre was feeling the same paralyzing fear that she felt every day.
Our tolerance for suspense and what's considered scary is miles away from what it was a mere fifty years ago. Some folks might say, we've become more "sophisticated".
Others suggest we've numbed ourselves to the horrors. With the increasing numbers of stress-related illnesses and the spread of anxiety and depressive related symptoms, this might be the more plausible explanation. It certainly confirms what I see in my therapy office.
Stress-related illness, anxiety and depression are symptoms of intense levels of activation. And, the higher one's level of activation--that is, the higher our internal rate of buzzing--the less conscious we are of what's around us. It takes more to grab our attention.
Not that we don't notice things. Some folks with high activation are hypervigilant about changes in the environment. But the higher our activation the less choice we have about what we can focus on. It's like seeing all the trees in front of you but failing to realize it's a forest.
But Emelia's comment just might be the biggest clue. With all of us buzzing a little higher these days, it takes a lot more to get an emotional reaction out of us. Horror flicks today more closely "match" our internal rate of activation.
Danger and Activation
Activation is a measure of how dangerous the world appears to us. That's how we get more activated - the brain learns through direct experience. With each negative or traumatic episode our brain buzzes a little higher.
The most important part of the equation is that the higher our activation the more the brain is dominated by the primitive, reptilian brain. The reptilian brain manages basic functions such as eating, breathing and sleeping including the survival mechanisms associated with fight, flight or freeze.
Not that we need to physically move into flight or fight to know we're operating in reptilian mode. We do it seamlessly as fantasies enter our consciousness.
The higher my activation the more I tend to notice things in a movie theatre that for others would be totally unimportant (i.e. where the exit doors are, or how many people are sitting near me). So in effect I've become a little more "street smart". The downside is that I'm less internally reflective, less conscious of social niceties, and less able to concentrate objectively.
It's a strange paradox. While high activation renders us hypervigilant to particular cues in the environment, it can also make us less aware of the wider world around us. That's because more brain resources are being dedicated to survival-related needs. And, none of this is under my conscious control.
Movies have the potential to evoke powerful emotions including fears. It's probably why most people go to them. Moreover, our reactions to movies can often illuminate some curious aspects about ourselves.
In fact, I believe some folks experience deeper emotions in movie-land than they do in their everyday lives.
Watching a movie is actually one of the few situations that approaches being in therapy. Indeed, the potential for us to shift emotionally when absorbed in a movie is quite high.
Moreover, choosing the right movie at a critical juncture in one's life can challenge and inspire us.
In the days following the opening of "Rocky" (or "Chariots of Fire") sales of running shoes shot through the roof. And how many couples tried a little harder after watching "Kramer vs Kramer"? Almost everyone could describe at least one movie that has inspired them.
But, not all movies are inspirational and they needn't be. Some are just for fun. As a psychotherapist, I've often "prescribed" such movies as "The Gods Must Be Crazy" or "Analyze This" for resourcing a depressed client between sessions.
And then there are those movies that are downright chilling. Even so, sometimes this experience has less to do with the movie and more to do with who's watching it. In other words, it all depends on what's going on in the reptilian brain.
Movies are triggering.
I remember the first time I watched the movie "Speed" and how I was on the edge of my seat when the car chase finally ended. My shoulders were tense, my breathing was shallow, my gut was tight. I wasn't upset though. I was excited. My body was responding in a patterned way, a survival-based pattern that's arisen through the milenium of human evolution.
Terry, a friend of mine, watched the same movie. But his response, although similar, was different than mine. His arousal pattern didn't reach the height that mine did. We know each other well around movie scenes like these and we have our own quirky ways of managing activation. Terry is constantly up and about, fixing this, putting away that, during the action highs and lows.
When I anticipate a scary part coming up, I run into the next room and wait until he says it's safe to come back!
Movies and Your Health
What few people know is that how we experience a suspenseful or scary movie, depends to a large extent upon the health of our nervous system, reflected in how activated we are.
A healthy nervous system that's frightened easily recovers, returning to its baseline (i.e. homeostasis). It bounces back to normal faster.
However, if a nervous system is compromised by too much activation, there is literally not enough "room" to contain increasing excitement or fear. This extra energy spills over into symptoms such as increased anxiety, feeling speedy or wound up, being fidgety or restless.
...that is, until months and years later of unrelenting overstimulation we finally tap out. It's at this point that the body moves into a low arousal state called "dorsal". We're all born with the ability to move into dorsal.
In fact, dorsal is the dominate state we're born with. It's that flat, low energy
You might recognize it if you found it hard to concentrate or focus on task. At the movie theatre you just might find yourself falling asleep.
The level of activation in your nervous system is a gauge of the latter's resiliency. You can think of activation on a continuum ranging from relaxation at one end to increasing tension at the other.
High activation in the nervous system is like a tightly wound coil that's on a hair trigger. The more activated the nervous system, the less likely you'll enjoy the exhilaration of tense movie moments. So, as Emelia became more in tune with her body, she could no longer tolerate the activating charge of over-the-top movie images.
A movie that's too activating for the nervous system can imprint upon your memory so strongly that you may have a hard time letting go - think of the dead girl climbing out of the TV screen in The Ring! A frightening scene can keep you buzzing and haunt you long after the movie's over.
There came a point where Emelia, for instance, could no longer handle being at a horror flick. Her body said "no more". She learned that if she saw a scary movie she'd become even more agitated and reclusive in the days that followed. She'd be haunted not only by the graphic images she'd seen but also by flashbacks triggered by her own personal history.
We're not always aware of what triggers us.
A scene from a movie can launch the nervous system into heightened arousal by triggering a traumatic memory that's been totally forgotten. When this happens, you can leave the theatre and have no idea why you're feeling disturbed, agitated or unsettled.
I remember seeing "The Shipping News " for the first time. It was an afternoon matineé and the theatre was mildly crowded; I was looking forward to seeing Kevin Spacey, one of my favourite actors. Wouldn't you know it, a few minutes into the movie and I couldn't sit still. I couldn't find a comfortable position, and fidgeted, twitched, and shifted constantly in my seat. I drove my partner nuts!
On the plus side, this provided some good material for a few therapy sessions of my own...
Why we get triggered.
Movies easily trigger our excitement, our fears, and our emotions. In other words, they increase our activation. In the darkness of the cineplex, we can experience a range of sensations and emotions. But, good or bad, that's why we love 'em!
Movies are triggering because the raw images and sounds are processed directly by the reptilian brain.
It's only after this sensory information is processed by the lower brain that the neocortex (i.e. the thinking brain) gets involved (albeit milliseconds later). It's that brief delay between the reptilian brain's reaction and the neocortex's realization (that "it's only a movie") that accounts for why we get triggered.
In other words, when high activation is triggered in an artificial situation like a cineplex, the neocortex ends up having to override the reactions and compulsions of the reptilian
So you can tell yourself it's only a movie (your cortex is online), but your reptilian brain says otherwise. To the primitive brain, those images are the real deal!
So, here's what happens...
One technique that movies use to reel us in is scaring us through the use of sound, including music. They take advantage of the fact that the brain is wired to process each and every note. We can shut our eyes but it's impossible to ignore the soundtrack.
Try closing your eyes during a scary movie. Your body will still get agitated if the score is effective in communicating threat.
From an evolutionary point of view, this all makes sense. The brain is wired this way so we can hear danger approaching even when we're asleep. Sound travels to the "front of the line" claiming our attention, whether we're awake or asleep; it's our built-in "early warning system" for survival. We don't become consciously aware of it (i.e. it doesn't get assessed by the cortex) until after it has been processed by the reptilian brain.
It was only after Emelia learned how to lower her activation level, that she could return to the joys of carefree movie-watching. Even so, her choices are very different today. They reflect a new appreciation and a wariness for what she allows into her brain--and into her life.
How did she reduce her activation level
Through a body-based therapy. The primitive brain is the power source for our emotions. Body-based psychotherapy works directly with the reptilian brain by accessing and modifying the neural wiring that underlies physical and emotional symptoms.
So the next time you're at the cineplex, here are seven signs to look out for to tell if you've been tirggered:
Seven Signs of Being Triggered
When you look back at your reactions to a particular movie, remember that your body-based state before see the movie can also have an effect. For instance, if crowds
Other things that can influence your movie enjoyment:
If you've become too charged up watching a movie the best strategy--in the short term--is to dial down on your sensory overload. This gives your body an opportunity to discharge the hormonal energy that got triggered. Try lowering the lights, shutting off the radio, having a hot bath with candles, for example.
Don't be surprised if your body still has a few twitches here and there. This is normal. That's how your body releases excess energy.
The long-term solution to reduce your overall activation and forgive the obvious plug, ...the best way I know how, is through a body-based counseling. For an introduction scroll below and check out Julie DiJoseph's Mp3's on Mind Body Relaxation.
So, the next time you go to a movie for pure entertainment, remember you're in for a full body experience. After all, the reptilian brain never sleeps.
Can't let go?
Feeling pent up?
How to be calm and centered when you can't relax:
Mind-body therapy is the mind-body connection in action! Here's why.
The stress and anxiety we feel always shows up in the body...shoulders feel tight or hunched, chest feels constricted, stomach's in a knot. Sometimes we'll get uncomfortable and unfamiliar sensations: tingling, shaking, buzzing, aching.
Many people try to talk themselves out of stressful or anxious feelings, but this left-brain "thinking" strategy has limited results in changing the way your body responds.
A more effective strategy is to work directly with the right brain to change how you physically feel (i.e. to take a body-based approach). We've learned this from mind-body therapy and now we're passing it on to you.
A mind-body therapy approach to relaxation and stress relief.
For over 20 years Julie DiJoseph has successfully used mind-body therapies and techniques to resolve trauma and stress-related symptoms. And she's put the wealth of her experience into these three CD's.
We chose to highlight these MP3's on MyShrink because Julie's approach is an excellent example of the principles of mind-body therapy in action. We're proud to offer them to you now.
Based on the work of Dr. Peter Levine (Somatic Experiencing), Emilie Conrad and Susan Harper (Continuum Movement) and Dr. Donald Epstein (Somato Respiratory Integration), together they provide a fundamental model for changing how your body responds to stress.
Volume 1: Grounding & Releasing