PAGE 09: Wellbeing and Films in Pandemic Times

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Dr. Rachana Patni

Have you heard of those brave-hearts, who strongly advocate having a cold shower in extremely cold weather? Apparently, it is a way to engage our parasympathetic nervous system. This only kicks in after the sympathetic one has first responded with a panic mode, and has eventually given way to a relaxed response. Many yoga headstands also lead us to the same nervous conclusion; when we willingly surrender our use of our autonomous nervous system response to a difficult scenario, we increase our resilience to that which was fearful. It is a way in which we can reprogram our body’s instinctive repertoire of responding to fear.

I attended this enriching session on somatic approaches in working therapeutically and one of the expert tips toward the end of the session was about the importance of watching horror movies.  Watching such films may help our nervous systems deal with the fearful aspects of life. This is because the body is completely involved in our resilience capacities and it is also completely involved in watching a movie. Reassessing and relabeling what was firstly considered fearful involves our whole body and our whole mind.

The pandemic has given a new meaning to movies and their use in our lives. There are several lists available online for pandemic movie watchers, from those that give a list of medical disaster movies to those that are prescriptions from Cinema Therapy or Movie Doctors. Then there are also those who assure us that watching pandemic-related films may actually amplify our anxiety about the pandemic. This is because ‘exposure therapy’, which is about exposing ourselves to that which we fear, only works if the exposure is of the right dosage. If the film recreates reality too closely or makes us over-fearful, then instead of a positive impact, it could backfire. Oh, how much we need to calibrate ‘what’ stimuli we feed ourselves!

Films have very much been a part of the pandemic experience because it has become common-place now to watch films on-demand and it was the only type of entertainment that was able to play with the social distancing norms effectively. People watched and shared lists of what they were watching with their close friends and were then able to discuss what they had liked or disliked about what they saw. This kind of interaction generated by the consumption of any media is to be encouraged as it has many positive effects. It builds relationships and therefore, it contributes to our social eco-system. However, sometimes binge-watching films and becoming obsessed with completing entire sets of prequels and sequels can also take us into a danger zone where we become disconnected from reality. Here, we use the media to disengage in an unproductive way rather than to stay engaged with the world and our present scenarios. It is a matter of maintaining balance in being engrossed and being present. Oh, how much we need to calibrate ‘how’ we feed ourselves stimuli!

I find myself going back to movies based on fairy tales and I realize how much each fairy tale is a horror story, designed to get the child to have the imagination for what might be dreadful about life. It seems that our capacity to recognize the horrors makes us better able to appreciate what is palatable and beautiful about life. On difficult days, with my young child, I am so relieved to read a horror story/fairy tale to him, especially one where the mother is uncaring and horrid. It makes him reconcile to his own mother being not as nasty as the one in the story and it gives me the much-needed perspective when I am being harsh on myself for not being good enough or patient enough or loving enough or kind enough or perhaps just not enough. This brings me also to how much we need to calibrate ‘why’we feed ourselves certain stimuli. The preparatory bodies for public health and disaster management in the United States have a serious approach that is called ‘Zombie Preparedness’. They have used all elements of successful Hollywood movies to create awareness about disasters and emergencies at a policy level. Anchoring new behaviors becomes easier when we have associations with films that we have seen, even at a cultural or national level. 

The pandemic has reorganized several aspects of our lives and we are now in an online film festival. There are so many advantages, such as not having to haggle with the guards in the cinema halls to get in. Yet, there are so many things about the inconvenience of human contact that make life what it is. Still, it feels good that the places where the film festival takes place are dolled up for the event, the light strings are out, and the peacocks are in place. It feels good to know that as part of our new normal, we shall all be part of the huge experience of a film festival in a pandemic!

Dr. Rachana Patni is a Panjim-based leadership consultant who works globally. She is the founder of The Centre of ME and writes on emotional wellbeing and mental health. 

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