What Can Horror Films Teach Us About Anxiety?
Do you remember a time when you watched a scary film, or stayed up telling ghost stories in the dark and felt scared afterwards? Maybe you enjoyed it at the time or maybe you were just trying to be brave.
I remember, as a child, sitting around a campfire in the middle of the woods hearing all sorts of different spooky tales in the flickering firelight. I didn’t find any of them particularly frightening at first. There was a moment where I didn’t think I was scared and then realised I was clutching my hot chocolate a lot tighter than I would if the tension of the story wasn’t gripping me more than I was willing to admit to myself in the moment. Even so, it was just a little tense, not really scary.
The stories came to an end, the fire was allowed to start burning low and it was time to go to bed. I remember heading off to go for a wee and it was only then that I began to feel scared. It wasn’t the stories themselves that made me feel that way. None of the stories even really related to being out alone in the woods. It was partly the atmosphere around it all but more than that it was that I was aware that I didn’t want to be scared. I was only young and I wanted to prove to myself that I was big and strong and able to hear the grown-up scary stories (that probably weren’t really very grown-up at all) without getting jumpy or frightened.
It was this very thought that really caused me trouble. The focus on not feeling scared made me hyper aware of every thought and feeling that could relate to fear. I began moving faster to get to the toilet block faster. This made my heart beat faster which, in turn, made me notice my heart beating. I took this as a further sign that I was scared which served only to make my heart race even more. The shadows of the trees, cast by the moon, spread ominously in front of me, my eyes opened wide taking in everything and searching for more things that I might be frightened by, desperate to not get more scared but ultimately making it worse for myself.
“You have nothing to fear but fear itself” feels incredibly relevant as I look back at the way my fear spiralled. Had I not been so determined to prove to myself that I could handle those stories and not get scared I probably wouldn’t have got myself anywhere near as worked up as I did. I believed that feeling scared meant I was weak. In reality, I don’t think it’s possible to be brave if you don’t have some level of fear to be brave in the face of. I didn’t think that way at the time though.
How does this relate to what horror films can teach us about anxiety?
It’s often the case that people become more scared after the film is over. It makes sense really, during the film the fear is proportionate to the setting and you know that the fear is a response to the film. The fear has a place and can be explained away more logically. After the film ends there is more space for awareness and you are more likely to look for other causes of fear and concern. To the point where you can find them in places where they are not. The curtains moving, the shadow cast on the wall that looks like a figure looming over you, the shapes that seem to make an evil face staring at you. They are all created in your mind because you are searching for threats due to the heightened state of awareness. When you’re watching the film, the only stimuli you need to look to are on the screen.
I think this parallels a common experience that people often have with anxiety. Firstly, not wishing to acknowledge it means that we keep ignoring it and pushing it down (ironically adding to the combat and threat perceived by the part of us that feels vulnerable already). The longer we succeed in ignoring it, the bigger the problem feels by the time we can no longer ignore it. By then, it feels too late to do anything about it. Recognising it sooner makes everything so much easier to deal with than waiting until it’s even more of a problem.
The scary thing itself (or the perceived cause of the anxiety) is often no where near the level of concern as the fear (or anxiety) that we feel about it. Because we worry about how the anxiety may affect us, we become hyper-aware of any signs of growing anxiety and allow them to impact us even more than they otherwise would.
How can we use this understanding to improve the situation?
Just changing the way you think about it, being more accepting and acknowledging how you are feeling can help in itself. Rather than fighting against it and expecting it to get worse, looking at it for what it is and letting go of it.
The threat is not real
Much like the scary film, the cause of the anxiety influences the way that you feel, but it doesn’t have to. The perceived threat is not the problem, the belief that it’s a problem is what causes the anxiety. Worrying about worrying creates the problem. Feeling scared from a ghost story is perfectly acceptable and seeing it that way makes the fear far easier too accept and therefore gives it less power. It’s the same for anxiety.
When you finish the scary film but still feel fear, your body is preparing to fight or run away. As there is no real threat there is nothing you can fight or run from. The same is often true with anxiety. The stimulus that led to the anxiety in itself is not likely something that requires a fight or flight response. Recognise it for what it is and by all means find a constructive way to release some of the excess adrenaline that has built up as a result.
Key lessons about anxiety form scary films
The way that we respond to fear from scary films can help us to find some good short-term coping strategies to reduce the impact of anxiety. (I say short-term as any ‘tool’ or ‘technique’ which focuses on the symptoms is limited compared to addressing the cause and eliminating the anxiety in itself – get in touch when you’re ready to do that and I can help you).
Leave the light on
One of the best ways to feel more comfortable if you’re scared is to leave a light on. It allows you to see what’s around you in more detail. It gets rid of the scary shadows that are easy to misinterpret. Shining a light on the situation that has led to feeling anxious allows you to see it for what it is. It can be illuminating to change your perspective. It’s much more useful that closing your eyes and trying to ignore it.
Remind yourself it's not real
One of the great things about horror films is that you know they are not real. Reminding yourself of that can make it easier to keep your cool. It’s the same with your anxiety. Most of the time it’s related to worrying about stuff that hasn’t even happened. The subconscious doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination so when you imagine everything going wrong you react physiologically as if it’s really happening. Reminding yourself that it’s not real can help ease this and calm you down. Take the time to focus on the moment and your immediate surroundings instead.
Look after someone else
Many people find that when then have someone else to care for (for example a child or partner) who needs support they are better able to ‘step up’ and overcome their own fear in order to be there for someone else. You can find someone else to support, imagine there is someone else or even speak to yourself in the way that you would speak to someone else. If it’s what you think someone will need to hear then the chances are it’s what you need to hear in that moment too.It’s definitely better to show yourself some love in those moments than to beat yourself up and feel bad for feeling the way you are feeling.
Take your mind off it
First, acknowledge how you are feeling, accept it for what it is and listen to what it’s telling you. Once you’ve done that you may find it helpful to take your mind off it. If you’ve been scared by a film then you’ve probably tried to think about less scary thoughts. Trying to not think about the scary thing is hard but deciding on some positive things that feel good instead can be helpful. Just make sure you have accepted the feeling first and recognised it for what it is otherwise you’ll just be ignoring the feeling and making it worse.
Hide behind the sofa
Another common thing for people to do when scared of a film is to hide behind the sofa or under the duvet. While this may not help directly with anxiety, the idea of building a safe place where you feel more comfortable is a good one. This could be a physical place or simply a place in your mind for you to ‘visit’ when you need that space and calmness.
A scary film and anxiety are not really the same thing but there are some clear similarities that work well for the purposes of this example. The ideas here are simply some positive coping strategies that may help you. Better still, of course, would be to overcome the anxiety all together and deal with the root cause rather than just battling the symptoms. If you’d like help with that, book a free initial consultation today and see if I’m the right fit for you.