Play Undead: The Hidden Healing Power of Self-Triggering

For trauma survivors, triggering yourself might be good for you.

Play Undead: The Hidden Healing Power of Self-Triggering
Art Panda

A year after my mom died, I started binging horror films. I did it late at night, after my family had gone to bed.

I wasn't sure why.

It started with The Ring, a movie I'd been avoiding ever since it came out. Something unexpected happened.

I slept better.

My horror binge happened to coincide with Halloween season, so I made a ritual out of it. A few times a week, I watched a horror movie. I marched my way through all of the Paranormal Activity franchise. I watched the Insidious and The Conjuring movies. I worked my way up to Sinister and The Babadook, widely regarded as the scariest movies ever made.

The next day, I always woke up feeling more relaxed. Things didn't bother me as much. Painful memories started to resurface, but my brain could deal with them. It could process them. It was prepared for the flood of emotions. It was ready for the catharsis that followed.

Horror movies helped me grieve an abusive parent.

It jived with the rest of me.

I'd always been attracted to dark art and literature. It had a profound impact on me. I remember listening to The Road on audiobook and watching Eraserhead in college. In my 20s, I drove all the way to Philadelphia just to stand in front of Rodin's gates of hell. Something about all of that gave me a strange sense of spiritual cleansing. I needed it.

Everyone wanted me to mourn the way they did. I remember one conversation with my boss's wife. She kept asking me about pleasant memories with my mom. Finally I said, "I'm not sure I have any."

She said something like, "Of course you do. Everyone does." She talked about her own mom's perfume and her cooking.

I started to feel sick.

My brain didn't want to remember my mom. There was nothing there but a bunch of broken glass, slivers of trauma. There were the times she assaulted me or my brother. There were the times police dragged her out of the house screaming that I was an alien imposter. There were the times she threatened me in front of my friends. There were the times she didn't let me come inside the house. There were the times she soiled the couch and the carpet.

There were all the nights in emergency rooms.

Then there were all the times between when I tried to talk with her, but they turned into bizarre explorations of my faults and imperfections. Every conversation contained some kind of snare. She promised connection, but it was just an excuse to say something that caused pain.

It was like talking to a demon.

Horror movies gave me something nothing else could. They let me relive all that trauma in a safe place, so I could unpack it.

There's a growing body of research on horror as therapy. As one writer explains, horror movies essentially retrain your brain's fear response. They give you something tangible to focus on. For trauma survivors, they give us what we never found, a safe place to experience the stress.

They simulate the closure we missed.

The films gave me a narrative framework to reflect on my trauma. My childhood and adolescence felt like a horror movie.

My mom's death was the end of it.

If you've lived through trauma, maybe you get it. Our brains can't make any sense out of the events. There's no story, just a bunch of random tragedies with no overarching meaning. That's part of the problem. Thinking about my life as a horror movie helped me find meaning, or at least a shape.

A psychologist at the University of Chicago named Coltan Scrivner has been doing some of the most innovative work on horror.

In 2020, Scrivner teamed up with a psychologist at the University of Kansas named Kara Christensen for a study exploring horror as a form of therapy for anxiety and trauma. As they note, the hidden healing powers of tragedy date all the way back to ancient Greece, when Aristotle noted their ability to help audiences "purge themselves of difficult emotions."

According to Scrivner and Christensen, trauma survivors often report "self-triggering," a process where they "remind themselves of their trauma through films, books, and other methods."

A 2020 study by psychologists at Harvard explores self-triggering in more depth, confirming that "self-triggering is uniquely associated with more severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder." In other words: The worse your trauma, the more you might feel the need to revisit it. Some of the survivors in the study didn't understand their need to self-trigger. "I purposefully overload myself with memories. I'm just not sure what the purpose is...."

The practice of self-triggering was most common in combat veterans, survivors of sexual abuse, and orphans.

That sounds counter-intuitive.

And yet, it rings true.

Some self-triggering trauma survivors do understand why they do it. Some of them report feeling a greater sense of control over their emotions. It helps them reflect on how their trauma shapes their behavior.

It makes them more self-aware.

Other trauma survivors believe it's inevitable that something will trigger them, so they do it in a preemptive way where they control the environment. They report feeling less triggered and calmer later. It puts them in a position of power, and makes their stress more manageable.

Finally, those who self-trigger report a desire to engage in what psychologists call "affect matching." They seek to "reduce the discrepancy between one's internal emotional state and their external environment." If you feel an internal sense of dread or doom, matching it with a horror movie makes you feel better. Forcing yourself to smile or go out and socialize can make you feel worse, because it only enhances the sensation of mismatch.

In fact, psychologists tend to believe that trauma persists when survivors avoid artifacts, cues, and memories. They believe they can push their painful memories out of their minds. It makes things worse. Their mind might forget, but their brain and the rest of them remember. Their body continues living through the trauma. They live in fear of normal, everyday activities that might make them remember something about their past.

It's not healthy.

I can attest to all this. For years, I used to go around thinking I was fine. Then all of a sudden I would lose control of my emotions for no apparent reason. I would lash out at someone. I would start crying.

Sometimes I tried to force myself to parties or out dancing. It made things so bad that I had panic attacks and left. Other times, I drank a little too much to lubricate my personality and embarrassed myself.

In other words, it didn't work.

I should've stayed home.

If I'm stressed, I've found that one of the best things I can do is watch a horror movie. Even better, I've discovered dark ambient music on channels like Cryochamber or SpaceWave. It's like meditation for broken souls. It doesn't try to lift you out of your sadness. It matches your affect, and sometimes that's what you need to feel better, not cheering up.

This new research explains why some of us get so angry at the lazy advice peddled by goop gurus on the internet. Unfortunately, it's also winding up in mainstream news outlets now. Even NPR recently published an embarrassing wellness piece that tells people with depression to just get better sleep, exercise more, and stop staring at their phones.

This is horrible advice for someone with depression. It establishes expectations with no way to get there. It sets us up for failure.

Sometimes, that feels like the point.

These gurus act like they don't have any responsibility to take personality types or neurodiversity into account when peddling this advice. They ask who they're hurting. Well, they're hurting us.

They're perpetuating harmful stereotypes about depression, anxiety, and trauma. Worst of all, they're suppressing the kinds of treatments and habits that could actually help. They're often telling us not to do things like self-trigger, and they're not basing it on any evidence.

They're basing it on lore.

They're not listening to anyone who's actually been through trauma. They're not listening to anyone who's actually dealing with anxiety or depression. In some cases, these gurus are even pretending to have "severe mental illness" brought on by trauma that never happened.

The advice we get bombarded with on a daily basis often amounts to a second wave of trauma. It's a bunch of people who don't know what's best for us insisting they know what will solve our problems.

They add stress, judgment, and alienation.

That makes sense.

Now I understand what I was doing. I was grieving my mom by self-triggering with horror movies, and it helped. Horror and suspense became a refuge for me during the pandemic as well. It continues to offer a kind of therapy for those of us dealing with grief over climate change.

Some of these horror movies imparted powerful lessons. The protagonists never "defeated" their demons. In some cases, they wound up living with them. Sometimes, they even made them pets.

Sometimes, that's what you have to do with your demons.

You have to pet them.

There's growing evidence that engaging in "unhealthy" behaviors like self-triggering through horror makes you more resilient in the face of actual disasters and emergencies. In 2021, Scrivner published a study that showed horror fans and "morbidly curious individuals" have demonstrated more resilience during the pandemic. The researchers even found that fans of dystopian cinema and shows like The Walking Dead kept a more upbeat attitude and dealt with uncertainty better, because "these experiences can act as simulations... from which individuals can gather information and model possible worlds."

They offer us opportunities to "practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations."

All of this reminds me of a song by Bjork, "Play Dead." The lyrics explain how some of us feel about lazy advice for depression and anxiety that comes from people who haven't experienced it. She describes what she does to deal with her depression. "I have to go through this," she says. "I belong here, a place where no one cares and no one loves."

She's talking about self-triggering.

Sometimes, you have to wonder how many beneficial therapies and coping strategies we've given up because some affluent gooper with no personal history of depression or trauma decided they were "bad for us," simply because they didn't fit their version of a normal, healthy individual. You have to wonder how much advice out there is designed to simply make us stuff our pain and our difference inside a closet, to make ourselves more palatable. You have to wonder how much damage it has caused to how many people over the years.

It's probably a lot.

Look, you have to be careful.

Self-triggering can be dangerous. Before you try it, you'll probably want to read the studies and talk to a therapist. It works for some of us. Maybe it won't work for you. Maybe it'll make things worse. As for me, I was already self-triggering before I knew what it was. So, don't listen to the gurus. Think sad thoughts. Listen to sad, angry music. Watch horror movies.

Play undead.

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