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Action movies are bad for your health – and other neurological discoveries

March 14, 2012

 Well, I bet you never thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger would get a mention in Dancing Beastie. The time has come to confess: The Terminator and Terminator 2 are amongst my all-time top movies. For those of you who are not familiar with them, I can tell you that they are not at all what you’d expect from a girl who writes about the beauty of trees and whose other favourite films include A Room with a View, Chariots of Fire and The Young Victoria.

compare and contrast:

Nonetheless, the dark, dystopian fable conjured by James Cameron in the first two Terminator movies still grips me, even if my attitudes have evolved since I first saw them as a student. (The casual violence disturbs me more now, and in the heroine, Sarah Connor, I see less the awe-inspiring feminist icon who thrilled me in my twenties, more a deeply damaged woman whose take on motherhood is deeply damaging her child.) So it was inevitable that I would eventually get round to watching the two follow-up movies in the Terminator franchise, despite misgivings about sequels written by committee. Our big Friday-night-in DVD last week, then, was Terminator: Salvation.

This is not going to develop into a movie review. Suffice it to say that I’d rather be out hugging trees any day than waste another couple of hours on such turgid and humourless rubbish. As a faithful fan of the original films, though, I had to see how the story panned out, so I sat through to the end. Or rather, I tried to. It gradually became clear, however, that science-fiction action movies are not designed for people with brain injuries.

There seems to be a rule that films of this type are mostly set at night, with the action lit by explosions and flashing lights. As someone who, since my accident, is made nauseous and panicky by stimuli as minor as a flickering cash machine screen or a news report with flash photography, I found the film increasingly uncomfortable. The climactic set-piece of the movie, which seemed to last about 20 minutes or more, was set (aren’t they always?) in some kind of dark factory with red alarm lights flashing constantly and white strobes and explosions being used more or less for the sake of it. This got harder and harder to watch – and not just because I thought it was a bad movie. Anyone might find this sort of lighting rather unpleasant on the eyes, I know, but it’s much more than that for me.

I find it very hard to describe how sustained flashing light makes me feel. Here is an attempt. A sort of pressure seems to build up in my chest and my brain. I feel slightly nauseous and sort of dizzy, disorientated. My heart rate rises, I feel anxious, almost panicky. Watching with one eye shut, or through one eye with my fingers latticed in front of my face, doesn’t help, as I discovered. In this particular movie, the final straw was a scene in which one of our heroes sees a flashback of his life history on a computer. Images flash onto the screen faster and faster, merging into each other, to give the impression of the vast amount of complex information which his (machine-made) brain is syncing from the main computer. My own (home-grown) brain couldn’t cope with this at all. I felt panicked, dizzy and overwhelmed. It felt as if something in my head was building up and was about to burst. I tried to ask to stop the film so that I could take time out, but was stuttering so badly (another consequence of brain injury, triggered by stress or exhaustion) that it came out as ‘C-c-can you p-p-pau-pau-pause the film…’. When it was stopped, I got unsteadily to my feet and reeled out of the room. I sat down in the bathroom and tried to calm my breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Steady, steady. My brain felt as if someone had lit fireworks in it. I shut my eyes, blocking out visual stimuli, trying to damp down the panic and the sparking in my brain. Would it help to be sick? I didn’t know how to release the horrible feeling of pressure. I found myself crying a bit, shaky sobs. Calm, calm. Deep breaths.

The last time that a movie made my brain feel so hyper-stimulated was two years ago, a fortnight after the accident which caused my injury. That was the first time since the accident that I had been able to watch the moving images of television at all, and was the last time I tried for several more weeks. I didn’t know that I could still be so badly affected. Despite knowing that flash photography is a real problem, the strength of my reaction to the stimuli in this movie took me entirely by surprise. If there is a moral to the story, dear reader, it would seem to be that action movies are bad for your mental health. In more ways than one, I’d say, but that’s another thread.

Ultimately it’s no more than a mild inconvenience to me if I can’t watch action/ sci-fi movies. Much as I once loved certain examples of the genre, I think I have largely grown away from them these days. (Well, OK, I’d miss being able to watch my other favourite feminist icon, Ripley in Alien.) It occurred to me the morning after this minor fiasco, however, that the statistics on traumatic brain injury show that the majority of victims are young men. According to Headway, the Brain Injury organisation, ‘Men are two to three times more likely to have a traumatic brain injury than women. This increases to five times more likely in the 15-29 age range’. In other words, brain injury overwhelmingly affects exactly the demographic at which action movies are targeted. I feel sorry for the lads who can’t watch their favourite films any more because the visual effects trigger at best a feeling of panic and nausea, at worst perhaps an epileptic fit. A mild brain injury can have effects on your life that you would never have thought of.

Trees are far better for your health than action movies

This would have been the end of the story, were it not for a meeting I had with my neurologist yesterday. (If you were looking for a post on trees rather than on Terminators, that’s what I was doing instead, I’m afraid.) It was the first time I’d seen him in several months, so there was a lot to discuss. We talked about my unabated feeling of sensory overload in busy places; how in the playpark with kids roaring about, or in a busy city with crowds and traffic, my anxiety levels shoot up. Anywhere where there is a lot of unpredictable movement and noise is enormously stressful: my heart rate increases, I feel defensive and anxious. It makes me want to get away and, if that is not possible, I get snappy with my children, frightened about how vulnerable they are. I never used to be like that before the accident. I know that I am over-reacting, but I can’t stop myself. This level of hyper-alertness leaves me completely drained afterwards too: a day negotiating my way around safe, civilised Edinburgh leaves me almost too tired to speak.

It seemed a separate issue to me when I raised the subject of my continuing difficulty with flashing lights, sudden loud noises and my extreme reaction to a movie. But at this point the neurologist suddenly leaned forward in his chair.

‘Have you had this problem with lights and noise ever since the accident?’ he asked. Oh yes. Then, ‘Can you remember the accident at all?’ Nope.

‘But your husband and other people saw it; they must have told you all about it?’ Yes. It’s odd: I can’t remember the actual accident, but my mind goes back to that scene, that day, all the time.

‘And how does that make you feel?’ Erm…well, how do you think, is what I didn’t say. ‘Do you find it upsetting?’ Well of course! I mean (gesturing around to the neurologist’s clinic, the hospital setting) here I am! Here I am, two years on from the accident, discussing my wonky brain instead of collecting my child from school.

I could almost see the light-bulb ping on over the doctor’s head. All these symptoms, he said, including the hyper-alertness, the fight-or-flight reaction, the feeling of vulnerability and over-protectiveness of myself and those I love, the extreme stress reaction to sudden light and noise: these are all classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Somehow a bundle of random symptoms sounds so much more impressive when you put a fancy label on it. For a moment I had an image of myself with a big army helmet on, as a combat veteran.

‘I’m not saying that you have full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,’ added the neurologist. My camouflage kit evaporated. ‘But I am going to discuss your case, if I may,’ (he is such a lovely tactful doctor) with the neuropsychologists, and I will get back to you.’

What is exciting about this discovery/ diagnosis/ whatever you want to call it, is that post-traumatic stress is treatable. No wonder it made the doctor sit up. Some of my remaining challenges are the result of physical injury to the brain, he explained. Others, however, may be psychological, and there are various methods by which these can be alleviated, or even overcome for good.

And this is why I am taking time out from the beauty of trees to publicise another snippet of my medical history. Because if there should, by any chance, be anyone with a mild head injury who stumbles across this blog, and recognises these symptoms, then they might like to know that treatable post-traumatic stress is one possible diagnosis. With the appropriate care, those young lads might be able to watch their favourite action movies again after all. And so might I. Arnie: I’ll be back.

P.S. I apologise for the formatting glitches. They have defeated me!

Going off at a tangent (ho ho) today is Pi Day – so you might be interested in A piece of Pi for the innumerate.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2012 12:41 am

    It does get better, DB.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2012 10:27 am

      Thanks, Gerri. I’m getting there! 🙂

  2. March 15, 2012 9:42 am

    How wonderful that things are moving on towards treatment rather than just hoping that your symptoms will get better. I can relate to some of the physical effects you mention – pressure in the head, dizziness, nausea, inability to watch flickering images or to bear noise and crowds – as they come with my Meniere’s, but not to the panicky extremes you have. Hoping that things progress for you with treatment. Your consultant sounds worthwhile. The one I saw about my inner ear stuff was obviously bored by my case.

    But as for Terminator films – nooooo! I got 10 minutes into one, where someone is impaled by a metal arm, and fled. You’re made of strong stuff!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2012 10:38 am

      Ah, well, you have picked one of the scenes that I have never watched properly: either I squint through my hands or (now that I know it’s coming) I just look away until it’s over! Bleuch.

      I’m sorry that you have to deal with such a catalogue of distressing symptoms with your illness. Living with them long term must be intensely wearing – not that you ever show that in your blogs about your packed life. In my own case, I feel really quite excited about the possibility of treatment being possible. And yes, I am blessed to have found – at last – a really exceptional specialist, who seems genuinely caring about the patient as a person with a life, rather than as a clinical conundrum. Would that all doctors were as good.

  3. March 15, 2012 10:58 am

    I don’t really understand why they have to do it. They know it’s a problem for some people as they have to put a warning on it, but why can’t they just pause and consider whether it is actually necessary, does it really add enough + to the viewing pleasure of those for whom it is not an issue. I don’t have your problems, but I dislike too much flashing light. Driving for example, in the dark, indicator lights. Also, why do people flash their lights at you as a thankyou? It hurts my eyes! You are thanking me by stabbing my eyes with your bright headlights! Madness. But good news that you can get some help 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2012 10:37 pm

      I know! You are so right! Night driving bothers me too now. There is so much flash photography on TV, both in news and in features. Half the time I’m sure it’s unnecessary.

  4. March 15, 2012 12:52 pm

    DB I’m SO glad that your wonderful specialist is giving you some real hope that things could improve. 🙂 It’s just such a shame that you have had to struggle so hard for two whole years before this possibility was recognised.

    I too think the first two Terminator films are excellent, though I liked the third less and have never seen the fourth. Nor do I wish to after reading your description, as my rather poor sight can’t cope at all well with films which are badly lit. Actually I listen to most TV nowadays anyway as I always knit at the same time and only glance up at the screen. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 15, 2012 10:45 pm

      Thank you, Perpetua, for your kind support. You have succeeded in amazing me: I would never in a million years have had you down as a Terminator fan! What a happy surprise to find another such unlikely connoisseur of dystopian sci-fi. 😉 You are missing nothing by avoiding the fourth.

      I have never taken to knitting – I have tried – but I do like to sew or do needlepoint sometimes as I watch telly. At the moment, however, we are hooked on DVDs of the Danish political drama ‘Borgen’. Unfortunately my Danish is not *quite* up to following the action without the subtitles (!), so I am just enjoying sitting back empty-handed while we watch.

      • March 15, 2012 11:08 pm

        Oh, I have hidden depths, DB, as well as eclectic tastes. 🙂 To be absolutely honest I doubt I would have discovered them without DH, but once I watched them I realised how very well made they are and also how thought-provoking.

  5. March 16, 2012 4:56 pm

    Sometimes “labels” can be useful! Yes! to the prospect of treatment! I can get migraines triggered by flashing/bright lights and panic attacks from other stimuli so I can imagine just a little of what you are going through. And it’s not pleasant. And if you are like me you feel weak and wimpish when you have those reactions. Sigh….. I too liked the first two Terminator films (which I watched at University – some obscure reference to space and place I think!). Don’t think I could stomach the later films. Also glad I’m not a “celeb” – I couldn’t take all those flashing cameras! LOL!

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 16, 2012 7:17 pm

      Goodness, that’s a good point about celebs. Of course, it weren’t for the flash photography, we would *both* be celebs, dahling… 😉 Yes, I do feel a bit of an idiot having these over-reactions, but it a comfort that there is a perfectly sane explanation, and that there is something that might help. Migraines and panic attacks are grim too, and not at all ‘weak and wimpish’. What a lot of stuff people put up with while getting on with their lives!

  6. hmunro permalink
    March 16, 2012 11:49 pm

    Oh, DB … what a beautifully written — but heartbreaking — post. I’m sorry you’re still having some struggles. But I still have hope that your symptoms will continue to fade over time and that you will one day again be able to enjoy Terminator 1, 2, 3, 4, and however many more they make. In the meantime, please do try to be gentle with yourself. You’re not “over-reacting” in the tough situations you describe; you’re simply reacting to stimulus that right now seems overwhelming. There *is* a perfectly sane explanation for how you’ve been feeling, and I think your doctors have perhaps begun to put the pieces together. As the French would say, “Bon courage.” We’re all rooting for you. xo

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 17, 2012 5:28 pm

      Thank you for such kind and wise words. Of course, I see that you are right about ‘not over-reacting…simply reacting to stimulus..’. These are things that we can see when we sympathise with a friend, but which are so much harder to apply to ourselves. Thank you for reminding me to be a bit gentler with myself, as of course I would be to anyone else in the same situation! Anyway, I am lucky that there is definitely progress in my case. Rooting for you too, you know. x

  7. barb permalink
    March 18, 2012 12:39 pm

    Hello DB and congrats on hitting your 2 yr mark on the rd to recovery from your TBI.
    My husband will be hitting his 10 yr this May.

    I am suprised no one has talked to you about your filters…….or lack off.
    My filters are fine, they block the extra noise, lights and stimuli I do not need to pay attention to in my day. I can listen to the radio and play games on the computer at the same time.
    Some one with a brain injury cannot allow their brains to take time off to rest, the brain still needs to function to keep you alive. But you are now having to build new pathways, your filters are gone so everything hits you at once and you forget this everyday.
    Allow your brain to rest and give it a vacation.
    Turn off the TV/Radio.
    Do one thing at a time.
    No one multitasks, it is an illusion.
    Allow yourself the luxury of silence.
    Ask for help.
    Be kind to yourself, you are still healing.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 18, 2012 10:53 pm

      Hello Barb, thank you so much for taking the time to write. What you say is full of good sense. Some of it I have already realised I have to do – silence, one thing at a time etc. – but what you say about filters is new to me and really interesting. You have given me plenty to ponder and to remind myself of. It is clear that you and your husband must have learned by painful experience. Thank you for sharing your hard-won wisdom.

  8. March 19, 2012 10:17 pm

    Hello. How annoying to be beat up by a movie. (Guess the brain in overload with all the flashing. Your post reminded me: One of my uncles was injured in the early ’50’s when he fell from a dam during a construction period – after that fall / head injury he did have to be careful around rapidly blinking lights or he would feel sick. Still he lived a long time and worked as an engineer. Your injury wasn’t that long ago – you are still healing. Hang in there. (If it makes you feel any better, all the noises and frantic pace of the big city exhausts many of us “normal people” – that why we left it!)

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 20, 2012 1:03 pm

      Thanks, Philosopher Mouse. Cities are fabulous when you’re ‘up for it’, but the slower pace of life in the countryside has just got to be better for us. I remember being so wired by a trip to Manhattan that I barely slept for a week! That’s fine when you’re young and healthy, but I couldn’t sustain a life like that. I always knew I’d be happier out here in the sticks sooner or later. 🙂

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