When Pop Culture Takes on Mental Health

Dr. Dawn O’Malley — April 8, 2019 — 4 min read
It’s becoming more common to see movies, TV, and social media with a focus on mental health and addiction.
For example, during her Oscar award speech this year, Lady Gaga said she was proud to be part of a film that is about mental health issues. Last fall, Serena Williams opened up about her struggle with depression after the birth of her daughter. And just a few days ago, Justin Bieber said he was stepping away from music to focus on his own mental health. 
Knowing that those in the public eye face the same struggles we do, is important because it highlights that addiction and mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, are more common than we think. It also may help us to feel less alone. This kind of openness and attention can go a long way toward increasing awareness and reducing the stigma of mental health disorders. And most importantly it gives people the courage to get help. If Justin Bieber can have a break from his music career to take care of his emotional well-being, we can too! 
While there is the possibility of lots of good coming from this increased media focus, there is also some risk. Watching a movie about a character struggling with major depression and dies by suicide or reading social media posts about a pop-star entering rehabilitation for drug addiction can be difficult for those facing similar struggles.
One reason for this is that seeing or hearing (smelling or sensing too) something that reminds a person of a past traumatic event can “trigger” the same feelings they had during the actual event. When a person is triggered, their body responds as if it’s still facing the trauma. Recognizing exactly what triggered the surge of distressing feelings can be difficult because the connections our brains make are extremely complex. Re-experiencing a traumatic event is scary and could cause setbacks in treatment and well-being.
There are some things you can do if you find yourself or a loved one in this type of distress. Understanding what is happening and knowing how to respond can reduce the impact. Most importantly, being able to identify, understand, and respond to these events goes a long way in relieving the pressure.
1. Regulate Your Feelings. If you have a sudden increase in difficult feelings, simple relaxation strategies can bring those feelings back into normal range. Deep breathing is one of the best relaxation strategies. It can be done anywhere, requires no special equipment, and can significantly “cool” your emotions.  

Engaging the thinking part of your brain can also go a long way toward calming your body. Simple brain exercises will help you to come back to the present and away from the past event. Some ideas:
  • Focus deeply. Pay close attention to something that is happening right now: what it feels like like to sit in your chair or to have shoes on your feet, for example.
  • Pick a shape. Look around the room and note every object of that shape.
  • Use your large muscles. Put your back against a wall, move into a sitting position, and let your quads do their work. 
If you’re trying to help another person move past their trigger moment, make sure you don’t go into high action mode or overreact. Simple steps to help bring the person back into the moment are often all it takes to bring them to ease.
2. Learn. For a week or two, keep a record of all your activities and how you feel while doing them. Record your responses over the course of several days or weeks. Then, look back over the details you’ve written down and try to see if you can find any common factors or patterns. From there, take some time to plan how you might reduce activities that cause distress and increase activities that cause pleasure. You might:
  • Stop doing an activity that is particularly distressing.
  • Practice polite ways to change the topic of conversation.
  • Turn off the screen.
  • Schedule time to do things that you enjoy every week. Yes, actually put them on your schedule.
3. Prepare. There are many ways you can help yourself be prepared to respond to situations that have caused you distress in the past. Making your well-being a priority will boost your overall resilience! You might try:
About the Author
Dawn O’Malley, Psy. D., is a licensed psychologist and a Peer Advisor at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. She has spent more than 25 years working with children and families, with specialized expertise in trauma therapies. 
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