Recently I was telling my mom that when good things happen to me, I feel anxious instead of happy. She was like, “You should talk to someone about that.” 😅
The thing is, I have talked to therapists, lots of them, but my body’s fear reactions aren’t really something I can talk away. They’re automatic, so I’ve switched gears. Now I’m trying to trick my nervous system instead.
I struggle to rest because of my anxiety, so I end up having these days where I’m totally exhausted, can’t move and can’t think, but I also can’t just lay there, reading or watching something, because the anxiety is screaming through it. The only thing that quiets this screaming, I’ve found, is horror movies.
It seems counterintuitive to watch something that inspires anxiety in order to cope with anxiety, but it works, I think by giving my fear an outlet. I channel it into the movie, funnel it away from the problems in my head and into the fake problems on the screen, and I’m able to stop thinking for a while. Horror helps me rest — a fucked-up nervous system requires a fucked-up cope, I guess.
When you google why people enjoy horror movies, the answers usually involve triggering the fight-or-flight response to release adrenaline or dopamine, which supposedly gives us pleasure. But that’s not why I do it. I’m trying to get out of fight-or-flight, and a horror movie is the only thing that really distracts me enough that I’m able to calm down.
Not all horror movies work like this, though. I don’t watch anything that’s just straight-up disturbing instead of scary (no torture porn or splatter films for me), and I prefer the supernatural stuff over anything too real or true-crime related. I want the anxious, gripping, heart-pounding fear feeling, not the stomach-turning, disgusted disturbing feeling.
Some horror movies are both these things, some are further to one side than the other. But horror, for me, is about hijacking my fear response, so I gravitate to the Scary end of the Scary-Disturbing Scale.
I was posting about this in my IG story the last time I did a horror binge for burnout prevention purposes, and someone asked if I had any advice for people who want to watch horror but have a hard time with it. The genre often gets painted with a broad brush, but there are a lot of subgenres within it, and what you’re able to enjoy depends on what you fear and what makes you feel safe.
Personally, I don’t like slashers. Human killers are just too close to reality for me to get any enjoyment — if there’s murder happening, it has to be ghosts or vampires or zombies. Psychologically, this could be due to the need for a “protective frame” in order to enjoy being scared. You have to know you’re safe and be able to detach from what’s happening on the screen.
The subgenre of horror that scares me the most is found footage — I can’t detach from it as easily, because it’s shot in such an immersive way. My photographic brain tends to take over when I watch movies, so I’m always analyzing the cinematography and framing.
This is part of the reason I don’t ever really get too scared to watch something, because I’m subconsciously detached from it through the cinematography. But found footage films like Incantation and Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, with their POV style and shaky camera shots, don’t allow me this photographic distance, so they tend to scare the shit out of me.
I also just really love corny ghost movies — barring the Saw franchise, I will watch anything James Wan makes. Yesterday I was feeling shattered and restless after a 20-hour drive home over the weekend, but I couldn’t silence my anxiety demon, so I watched Insidious and Lights Out, two movies with just the right amount of nervous tension and ghostly ridiculousness to distract me for a few hours of actual rest.
Maybe it’s a weird cope, but it works for me, and it keeps me from doing other less-safe things, or from scrolling social media for hours, which makes my anxiety worse. I will admit, I did a little of that yesterday, and I stumbled across this video by Dr. Han Ren, who apparently got some shit on TikTok for saying that “maladaptive coping” doesn’t exist.
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What she’s pushing back on here is the shaming that’s so common in the psych field, and how professionals judge people for the ways they’ve learned to cope.
She talks about how she used self-harm to cope and was pathologized for it, something I can relate to — self-destructive behaviors used to be the only way I could get the fire alarm in my brain to turn off. But she doesn’t think we should be calling this “mal” adaptive, just adaptive, because:
“We as humans do what we need to do for as long as we need to do it, until we feel safe enough to do something else.”
Years ago, I would have responded to my distress by drinking, doing drugs, or hurting myself in other ways. I still get the impulse to do those things sometimes, but I don’t reach for them anymore, because I have a lot more support holding me up. I trigger the same soothing response with scary movies now (arguably a much safer way to cope) but I don’t look at my old responses with shame.
Those were things I did to get through the Terrible, and I’ve been able to grow past them, but I don’t think they were morally wrong. Abstinence is not for me — I still drink sometimes — but I don’t use alcohol to cope anymore. If someday in the future, I do turn back to a more destructive coping mechanism, I will turn toward myself with compassion instead of shame.
I guess my point is this: cope however you need to, in the least harmful way possible, and don’t feel bad if it’s a little weird, or other people don’t get it. We’re all just trying to stay alive in an increasingly hostile world. As Dr. Han Ren says, “All coping is adaptive, and all behavior is functional.”
Really like this! Funnily enough the only movies I can watch are those really badly made shark movies (like think jaws but even more ridiculous). I think maybe it’s that they’re kinda ‘scary’ and gory in a pretty tame way, and also pretty predicable and just way too ridiculous to actually be scary in an uncomfortable way
I’ve also actually been thinking a lot about the term ‘maladaptive’ lately. Professionals have specifically used this to refer to my very extreme dissociative experiences which always seemed really weird to me. Like the whole point of dissociation is my brain and body protecting me from experiences that are too painful to be present in. Like how is that MALadaptive? And like, none of them ever considered that maybe I was still going through trauma now. It was always just that this was a thing my brain did that was bad and needed to be stopped, despite the fact that through all this time dissociation is and has literally kept me alive
we love to complete the stress response cycle!