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