Reading Suspense Thrillers Calmed My Anxiety During the Pandemic
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health expert. If you are in crisis, please contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1–800–662-HELP (4357), where trained mental health professionals can help you. SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
I have lived with PTSD, depression, and anxiety for two decades now, and in that time, I have learned a lot about what self-care means for me. Hint: it has nothing to do with hot baths or facials. Before the pandemic and subsequent stream of lockdowns, my go-to DIY mental health treatment revolved around a predictable and reliable routine that meant spending at least some time in public and with friends to help balance me out.
Since March 13th, 2020, I’ve been trapped in a new reality that has meant giving up the safety and comfort of the routine I had come to depend on. Gone was my ability to leave my house, which rushed in a new era of heightened anxiety. And since I am one of the millions of Americans who cannot afford therapy, I often find myself turning to Google for ideas about how to calm my heart palpitations, irrational fears, and racing mind. And what I landed on was — for me and my particular mental health struggles — a game-changer.
Science says horror can calm your nerves.
In a fascinating 2018 study, researchers figured out that exposing people to simulated threats through horror movies can calm anxiety. In other words, watching scary movies can actually make you feel better. But I’m too much of a wimp to stream anything spookier than Scooby-Doo on Netflix.
Researchers know that patients can find relief from symptoms of several mental health issues through exposure therapy, including PTSD, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias. The treatments target the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that houses fear and fear responses. By exposing a patient to simulated and controlled experiences with the thing they fear, they can learn to reduce their anxiety.
Curiously, it turns out that people with anxiety can benefit from consuming horror or suspense thrillers in entertainment. In the 2018 study, researchers noted how this works.
“They brave the initially aversive response to simulate threats and so enter a positive feedback loop by which they attain adaptive mastery through coping with virtually simulated danger.” — (PsycInfo Database Record © 2020 APA, all rights reserved)
I am too afraid of horror, though.
When I was a kid back in the 1980s, I got a little cocky and told my mom that I wasn’t afraid of anything. My friends and I wanted to see a new movie called The Poltergeist (just writing that gave me chills) so I lied to my mom and said that all my friends had already seen it. She figured I wouldn’t make it through the first scene, but she agreed to allow me to watch it anyway. What ultimately happened was that I was scared shitless and gave myself mental and emotional scars. Don’t judge my mom, though; she truly didn’t think I’d sit through the film.
When the pandemic hit, and I was looking for ways to calm my brain down, I read about that 2018 study. But I knew that I could not handle watching any scary movies so, I turned to books.
At first, I was nervous. Would a book get into my head and screw me up the way that horror movie did when I was a kid? I had read rave reviews about Ruth Ware, so I started with her book The Woman in Cabin Ten. It was not a horror, but it was a thriller, and it did leave me white-knuckling my way through the pages. By the time I got to the end, I had found myself feeling overwhelmed with relief by what happened to the characters.
And I realized that Ware’s book was a masterful example of what I think these researchers were seeing. Ware created a world with simulated threats that activated my fears — sometimes in a real way — but the story had a positive ending. And also, nothing terrible happened to me as I read the story.
The rush was addicting. So, I got more books.
I read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t put that book down. My imagination was on fire with the luscious descriptions of the haunted house — which is one of the main characters! — that sounded like the scariest place on earth.
My brain wasn’t racing anymore.
I read In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and was astonished by how eerily similar the setting in the book matches the neighborhood where I live, and I devoured that book while shivering fear until the satisfying end.
My heart palpitations were going away.
I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley, and for a week, I questioned if I knew my friends as well as I thought I did. But just like the other thrillers, Foley masterfully guided me through terrifying situations that would send me over the edge in real life.
I started sleeping better at night.
These books allowed me to feel fear in a simulated manner and to manipulate my fears by vicariously experiencing bravery and adventure. And by the time the stories ended, the characters that I felt close to in my imagination were generally ok. And so was I.
And that is the whole point. I was ok.
I am not saying that books and movies should replace serious medical attention, but I am saying is that while I feel helplessly trapped in a pandemic, I am learning how to cope with my mental health stuff in a safe way.
For me, the uncertainty about the virus is what makes my brain feel frazzled. Rationally, I know that if I take precautions, then I can safely run errands in public, but my anxiety is not rational; it is emotional. Fear isn’t always something that has to make sense. And so I worry about getting sick every time I leave my house.
There are other ways that I am using self-care to tend to my mental health. Things like making sure my body is healthy, creating routines at home, and having healthy boundaries with friends and family. Creating a safe outlet where I can express my stuff helps too. But the soothing balm that meant giving my mind some relief has come in the surprising form of reading thrillers, a genre that I would have thought ill-suited for anxiety.