Back during my Honours thesis when I was researching about Tragedy and how it functions, I came across the concept of fear/relief as experienced by the audience. Then, when I started researching for the PhD that I never wrote, I saw the same fear-relief brought up in “Leisure Studies” (what they started calling Adult Play Psychology after it became wildly unfashionable for Play theorists to say that grown men and women would ever do anything as frivolous as “play”) in the discussion of Extreme Sports, and again in the rituals of sport. Fast forward a few years, and I find it again in books on Trauma Therapy and overcoming PTSD. I even find it in books on nutrition and adrenal-related disorders such as Adrenal Fatigue or unusual cortisol levels.
Today, in the video on High Concept films, I heard Michael Hauge talk about the promise of emotion: the emotional journey that the viewer will take, through identifying with and relating to the hero. I guess Aristotle wasn’t far off, if these concepts are still being discussed today!
So what was the common thread that I found through all these varied discussions of us humans, fear and relief? When we talk about “adrenaline junkies,” or those who love horror or thriller films or violent video games, are we talking about people who have something seriously wrong with them, who are obsessed with “danger” or violence or something else unsavory and ultimately detrimental to our society?
Well, as far as I have read and reasoned, this couldn’t be farther from the truth (besides, that video pretty much ruined my life-long love of Back to the Future).
When we watch/see/experience something that makes us feel as though there are high stakes, we get stressed. We go into “fight or flight (or freeze)” mode, a state of “high arousal” where our adrenal glands flood us with adrenaline. But rather than worrying about all the things that does on a physiological level, psychologically we become just a little more used to being in a high-stress, high-stakes situation. Now, I can imagine the short-sighted response to that. “Normalisation of bad things like violence is bad and makes us more violent!” Well, no. Normalisation of “bad things” can actually be good, provided they’re talked about. Here’s what happens: we experience something “stressful,” but are subconsciously/consciously (developmental psychologists are pretty sure that it’s conscious but willingly suppressed from the “age of reason” ie “when the child starts playing make-believe”) aware that it’s not really stressful and we’re actually safe, so we use it as a way to prepare ourselves for the real situation where we find ourselves actually in danger. Now, I don’t know how widely accepted or agreed with Peter Levine is within the world of PTSD treatment (I can imagine them thinking his methods are too “hippy”), but he points out in his book “Waking the Tiger” that the individuals least likely to suffer PTSD are the ones who feel the most empowered to respond to the situation. Neither he nor I are talking specifically about Military PTSD, but any situation where we are “powerless” (Levine quotes Freud’s description of traumatisation).
So next time you watch a scary movie, ride a rollercoaster, read a book about war crimes, indulge in the original Tales of the Brothers Grimm, play an almost-R rated FPS, or even watch the news, be aware of your play-training. Because just like a puppy play-fights, by experiencing that “false fear” and the relief that follows, you’re learning to keep your cool in a tough situation, making yourself more resilient and more trauma-proof.