Our brains respond to what we expose ourselves to.
That sounds simple, obvious. But we often seem to forget it.
Our brains respond to the pictures we put in front of our eyes. That is to say, what we watch.
We often like to think that we can watch violent or sad or infuriating things, with no emotional repercussions— that we’re sufficiently “tough” that our entertainment choices don’t affect us.
We need to keep in mind that television and movies did not exist when our nervous systems were evolving.
As organisms, we are ill-equipped to meaningfully distinguish between things that are seen on a television or movie screen, and things we see right in front of our eyes.
When we’re children, we’re VERY responsive to things we see on TV and in movies. Our parents and caretakers often have to remind us that what we’re seeing is “just a movie,” and we have to be shown that the actors involved survived to make other movies.
That’s a distinction understand with our cerebral cortex— the part of our brain responsible for higher-order thinking and reasoning.
That top/front part of our brain gets that “it’s just a movie.”
But our limbic system— the deeper, lower part of our brain, which doesn’t really communicate with language and doesn’t really respond to well-reasoned argument— continues to respond to things we see as if they were real.
This is why, even though we know it’s “just a movie,” we still get sad at sad movies, we still get an adrenaline rush while watching action movies, we still hate the bad guys on the screen, and we still root for the heroes of the story.
It makes no sense to assume that we can repeatedly expose ourselves to sad, violent, infuriating, or otherwise negatively activating entertainment, day in and day out, and remain unaffected.
Of course it’s “just a movie” or “just a show.”
But does every part of you know that?
When we close our eyes, the images we see are highly dependent upon the images we’ve seen.
When we go to sleep, our brain has to somehow make sense of everything we’ve seen and experienced during the day.
When we’ve fed ourselves a steady diet of violent or activating entertainment, our limbic systems are working overtime to sort out what we’re “allowed” to react to emotionally— and what emotions and reactions we need to keep “bottled up,” because we’re not “supposed to” react.
Why is any of this relevant? People like the entertainment they like.
It’s relevant when we’re trying to heal emotionally.
When we’re trying to return to a sense of normalcy after trauma.
When we’re trying to regain emotional equilibrium on the other side of depression.
When we’re trying to convince our anxious brain that we are effectively safe.
It’s not that we can NEVER distinguish between real life and violent or depressing entertainment.
It’s that in exposing ourselves to a steady diet of violence or powerfully negative images and stories, we are asking our brains to work overtime.
And when we are in recovery, our brains already have a lot to do in just helping us function every day.
Does this mean we can NEVER expose ourselves to potentially triggering entertainment if we want to be happy and stable?
Not necessarily. Everybody’s going to have a slightly different tolerance for violent or otherwise heavy entertainment.
The point is: pay attention.
Maybe consider mixing up the kind of entertainment you expose yourself to.
Maybe consider putting some limits on things that could be triggering.
As usual, there’s no “one size fits all” fix to this issue. Everybody needs to take responsibility for what works for them.
All I know is that, especially in the early stages of recovery, I strongly encourage my patients and clients to devote serious thought to what they are putting in front of their eyes every day.
Emotionally, we are what we watch, what we read, what we expose ourselves to.
Make good choices.
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