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Chronic Pain and Horror Films

People in a movie theater

Did you know that Horror films may be beneficial for those with Chronic Pain?

Surprisingly, we noticed a while ago that some of our clients often turn to horror films to help with their pain. When you start digging, there is some research to show why that may be the case.

Probably the most interesting reason behind a potential explanation, is that a lot of research suggests brains have an awfully difficult time producing both pain and fear at the same time! So, for some, sitting back and watching a slasher, may give them at least some temporary respite from chronic pain.

In fact, some studies even suggest that Horror movies can be as beneficial to an anxious mind, in the same way that exercise helps. Which is great, I would choose to watch a film over going for a run.. every time!

Movies also give us a chance to experience stress in a controlled environment. Helping us to engage the flight or fight system, ultimately shifting our ruminating thoughts of chronic pain, onto something more important at the time. Likewise, there is a stark difference between causing yourself stress on purpose, as opposed to it being thrust upon you. You know you can turn off the TV at any time.

Then there is the cascade of chemicals involved in watching films when you have chronic pain. The release of Endorphins is a common occurrence when watching horror films, and as one of their main purposes is to mask pain and stress, it doesn’t take long to see how this could help someone with chronic pain. Dopamine is also another thing that’s regularly released when watching films. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that whilst helping with(amongst other things) motivation and motor control, also gives you that feeling of pleasure or reward. So, when little Suzzie finally gets away from the Axe-wielding maniac, you also get a little hit of the reward of staying alive. Some research even suggests that over time, exposure to dopamine may actually lessen your overall reaction to fear!

Another reason that horror films may be so popular amongst those in pain, is emotions. It’s not uncommon for those with chronic pain to often have difficulty expressing their emotions due to the physical and psychological strain of living with constant discomfort or disability. Watching a horror movie could also potentially allow people to release these built-up emotions in a safe environment without having to deal with physical repercussions or the social stigma of showing emotion publicly! Which for the guys reading, can often be a big factor.

Horror movies and just about any film in general really, can provide an escape from reality. Many people living with long-term conditions report that even just an hour of their favourite Tv shows can help distract them and bring down their pain. Interestingly, a study looking at psychological resistance during the Covid 19 outbreak, found that individual differences in both media preferences and personality were associated with resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Namely those who watched Horror flicks, finding that they benefited through preparation and practice of both specific skills relevant to particular situations and more general skills associated with emotion regulation.

Personally, my favourite explanation as to why Horror films may be so helpful with chronic pain is because of the very specific sensory input that they provide. At a whopping 11 million pieces of sensory data received every second, your brain has a lot to do. So, potentially drowning out some of the noxious stimuli that you use to help create pain, seems like a likely contender to help. Horror films help to sharpen your senses as you look out for danger in the film, taking your mind off your pain. Infrasound, the sound that can’t be heard, doesn’t stop it from causing a reaction in your brain when watching horror flicks. Add in some creaking door noises, jump scares, and everything else that builds up that ominous feeling, and that is a lot of rich and novel sensory data, that may give you some respite from pain!

So, there you have it, a little run done on chronic pain and horror films. We would be really interested on your thoughts around not just horror films, but films in general when it comes to pain: does it help you ?

Adam Foster
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