BPD: Why Do We Get Triggered By TV, Movies, and Books?
One of my online DBT students is choosing to notice and pay attention to how she can be quite sensitive TV shows, movies, books, and the like, causing her to feel emotionally dysregulated. So, we got curious about this. If you find that you’re sensitive to certain media content (the news, stories about animals, conflicts in relationships), read on.
Dramatic, emotionally provocative media (movies, television shows, commercials) is designed to emotionally affect people in general. As emotionally sensitive people, we can be even more susceptible to being impacted, ultimately emotionally dysregulated, by emotional stories and situations. Why is this?
Our Nervous System Reacts to Protect Us
There are a number of reasons for this ranging from having a reactive sympathetic nervous system (perhaps due to past trauma) to the responses of the Reticular Activating System (RAS) portion of our Nervous Systems.
The RAS is said to process about 2 million bits of information per second, favoring (paying most attention to) information that confirms what we already believe to be true and, therefore, possibly coloring our world in a way that may not always be accurate.
For example, if we believe the world is a scary place, we will tend to notice things that confirm this. If we believe the world is a safe and peaceful place, we’ll tend to notice things that confirm this way of thinking. In the process, thoughts and emotions that may not fit the facts and serve our highest good may be reinforced.
For example, seeing a news story of a scary crime that gets coverage (for which the odds are very low that you’re in danger) can have you disproportionately afraid that something is going to now happen to you.
Here’s another more specific example of how the RAS works in everyday life. Let’s say you go hiking and someone approaches you in the parking lot near the trail and says that a mountain lion must have been very hungry because one was spotted in the parking lot a few days ago.
As a result of hearing this, you become nervous. You really want to go hiking, so you check the facts to ground yourself, “The park is open and the park ranger let me in. She didn’t say anything about a mountain lion.”
Even with this rational thinking in place, if you choose to go hiking, you might jump out fear when a bush the rustles in the breeze or any other thing in your environment is perceived as possibly being a mountain lion approaching. It’s your nervous system’s way of protecting you.
Shift gears to back to being on the couch watching television. A drama is on about a troubled marriage consumed with conflicts… and then experiencing, the same day in real life, your partner saying something that you felt was insensitive — and wham — dysregulation. Fear. Anger. Annoyance. The media consumed before the comment was made may have created a vulnerability factor, meaning the effects of taking in the media reduced your emotional resiliency to such a comment.
If you’d been watching something uplifting earlier in the day, your response (or reaction) may have been quite different. Perhaps you would have had more patience or the comment would have just rolled off of you without much impact.
What Are Our Options?
Knowing how sensitive we feel to certain media, should we avoid all potentially upsetting or triggering content and live in a bubble believing all marriages are bliss, there is no violence in the world, and not learn to tolerate some uncomfortable feelings that may come up in an otherwise enjoyable film, book, etc?
That’s for us to decide on a case-by-case basis from our Wise Mind. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills suggest that we ask ourselves “What’s most effective?”: in each situation. In this case, we can expand upon that and get specific: “Is there anything to gain that feels worth the possible distress, upset, or trigger to which we may expose ourselves?”
An Example of When It’s Not Worth It
Personally, I no longer watch shows that show any harm to animals. As a vegetarian (and a vegan for many years), there was a time I thought it was important for me to see the reality of what was happening to animals. Man, did I see some graphic, totally dysregulating things that I may never forget.
I now believe I know all that I need to on this subject, have my own personal convictions that lead me to make plant-based food choices, and I know that I have nothing to gain in exchange for subjecting myself to material I am pretty sure will cause me to feel distressed, upset, and dysregulated. So, I choose to abstain.
An Example of When It Might Be Worth It
Maybe you love watching old re-runs of the X-files because you enjoy the segments when Moulder and Scully are partnering up to solve a mystery, but you feel really uneasy or even triggered by the opening scenes, which tend to show violent or gory content.
You could start with some problem-solving to see how you could be most effective because you do enjoy the show and want to watch it. What are all of the options you can list?
- Watch the show and include taking in the beginning of it so you have the whole story, knowing it may be upsetting or dysregulating.
- Mute and look away at the beginning and enjoy the rest of the show.
- Fast-forward at the beginning and enjoy the rest of the show.
- Do you believe it’s best to give up the show and not watch it at all?
It is ultimately up to you, in each situation, to evaluate and choose whether participating in or viewing media is for your highest good and if you stand to benefit something that feels worthwhile — part of your life worth living — in the face of potential upset or dysregulation.
What are your thoughts on this topic, and how do you typically handle upsetting media?
I welcome you to join the conversation by commenting below. I look forward to your shares!
Debbie DeMarco Bennett, B.Sc., CLC
Founder of DBT Path | DBT Skills Educator | Certified Life Coach
Author of Stronger Than BPD and The Stronger Than BPD Journal
(written under the name Debbie Corso)
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For me personally I have given up on watching the morning news like I use to. I tend to get nervous or anxious while watching stuff that is negative which is about 90 percent of news these days. I really want to be able to handle such things because i feel like i’m making my own rose tinted glasses for my life. Avoiding this, not doing that. I really don’t like making it a habit but I tend to do so.
Amber, thank you for sharing! Avoiding the news can be a healthy choice. Generations back, our ancestors barely knew what tragedies were going on in the next village, let alone every tragedy around the globe. The question is, is the choice effective. Thanks for reading and commenting! ♥
I always wondered why I would be the only one in the room crying during emotional parts in a movie…sad or happy and feeling it so deeply. I learned that I had to stop scrolling my FB news feed early in the morning because I was getting so drained from the emotional rollercoaster it created. One post is about cute puppies(happy) and the next post is about some form of violence or abuse (sad, angry or scarred) Keep scrolling and find inspirational quotes (inspired), the next post is about the government or war (i feel unsafe). Next post is a family members new baby(excited) and then another about losing someone(devastated whether I knew them or not) Way too much for me to deal with…not to mention the negative or sad posts seem to affect my thoughts all day….and usually all night. Now, I scroll later in the day when I’m more alert and aware of the state of my emotions and mind…..and If that’s not today, that’s ok.
This is me 100% I cannot watch TV movies anything that I don’t know what’s going to happen so I am considered a spoiler Queen in my life and everybody knows it I can’t watch who dies if I don’t know who this what happens I can sit back and watch knowing I’m going to lose this person in a fight way and then I can emotionally that just it but movies absolute with cut me for days and dates that said even knowing the ending and every single scene of when a star is born I was wrecked for a week just listening to the soundtrack over and over overwhelmed by the loss the inhumanity to each other I was just crushed so you’re right you have to actually think is this worth it and for me I really wanted to see that I love Lady Gaga I love Bradley so it was worth it but yeah movies and shows that me and my only way to get around that is to know exactly what’s going to happen don’t even get me started of worrying about Marvel’s endgame that’s just killing me right now
I have recently accepted having BPD, although I was diagnosed in 2015. I have often felt these times of emotional dysregulation after watching something upsetting. In many cases, I have a really hard time not thinking about what I’ve seen or read. At those times, I also feel myself dissociating.
Finding this site and reading this has been very helpful. Thank you.