Movie Therapy - How Mirror Neurons Help Heal Trauma

Movie Therapy – How Mirror Neurons Help Heal Trauma Movies can be used as a tool to release our frozen emotions and heal

Movies can help us explore our psyches and heal our past traumas, Watching an emotional film triggers our mirror neurons and recreates within us the emotions felt by characters we watch.

Most of us who suffered trauma as kids were forced to bury our emotions. We become numb and disconnected from our feelings. Moreover, we no longer know how or what to feel.

Movies can help us reconnect with our emotions via our mirror neurons. Watching stories unfold and characters emote is an effective method for eliciting similar emotions within us. Movies make us cry, laugh, experience love or fear. They make FEEL again.

Experiencing secondhand the emotions that we locked away can help release, process and heal us.

Watching Meadow Soprano with her father helped me grieve for the loss of my father’s love

Movie therapy mirror neurons heal sopranos.
Image Source: Wiki

Post my mother’s death at age 11, I had to suppress my emotions. It was the only way to survive the heartbreaks and emotional woundings Keeping a lid on my feelings I had forgotten what is felt to be happy, sad and all the myriad emotions in-between.

How could I, when I armored my psyche and body against feeling vulnerable and being hurt? I felt emotionally flat.

Getting Unstuck

Between periods of numbness, I’d be overwhelmed with uncontrollable anger and rage, more a cognitive distortion due to my childhood trauma.  However, I had to learn to reign that in tightly to avoid it affecting my son. Thank God, I never forgot my father’s brutal rages and how it affected me.

Nonetheless, to heal I need to process my frozen emotions and learn how to express the good, bad and ugly without emotional overload and getting stuck in a limbic loop unable to move onto the next thing.

It was serendipitous luck that I began watching the TV serials the Sopranos followed by Downtown Abbey and they were just the therapy I needed to process my dammed up emotions and feel alive again..

Mirror Neurons & The Movies

Watching someone do something or experience something fires up the mirror neurons in our brain. Moreover, watching someone do something fires those same areas in our brain as if we are actually doing the task.  Empathy is built on the mirror neuron system – literally, they enable us to put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes.  Movies and TV shows can trick our senses in believing something is real.

During truly intense sensory perceptual states—such as watching an absorbing movie, that part of the brain responsible for our sense of self shuts down. Though we don’t ever lose the sense of “me” when watching a film but our sense of self is diminished us allowing us to feel, empathize and mirror their experiences.

Neurocinematics is the study of how the brain responds to movies.

Watching moving film can be an intensely emotional perceptual experience and it can transform us for better or worse.

Emotion Contagion and Secondhand Emotions

Emotions are contagious and we are affected by what we see and hear. Due to our mirror neurons, the muscle fibers in our face and body can be activated unbeknownst to us, at much lower levels than if you were to perform those movements yourself. We are also affected by the way people express themselves through tone of voice and the words they choose.

Movies and TV are powerful visual and auditory experiences that can deeply affect us, even though they are vicariously experienced. Secondhand emotions can revive long-forgotten feelings and can help us feel human again.

Just as I felt I was reaching a stalemate and could not move past a block that prevented me from going to the next step in my healing, I had a breakthrough – the Sopranos.

Logically, I knew I had ‘Daddy Issues’ that longing to be rescued but emotionally I was unable to feel my loss.  However, watching the Sopranos pushed open that door to feeling and processing my grief.

The Soprano Family and Me

At the start of the series, the daughter Meadow Soprano is arguing with her mother when her father Tony Soprano intervenes. I remembered how I’d argue with my mother and my father would placate me. I remember after one particular battle I told my mother, that my “daddy takes better care of me’ and my mother’s retort was ‘I know what care he will take of you.’  Her words turned out to be so true.

Watching Meadow go through her teen years battling with her mother, going out with friends, finishing school, going shopping, dealing with her brother brought out feelings of loss and sadness. I felt jealous and angry about what happened in my life. That carefree teen which was my right was instead forced to grow up overnight at 11 and become a responsible woman. Being parentified was emotionally and physically damaging.

Grieving For My Dead Mother and Turncoat Father

I grieved for what I could have become and the loss of what could have been a beautiful father-daughter relationship.

In one episode Meadow is trying for admission to a colleague, her mother Carmela goes to one of the member-trustee and uses strong-arm tactics to help her daughter’s chances.  I wept for that little girl who lost her mummy –  no one was there to fight or understand or support. I wept for the loss of my mother and the lonely struggle of having to survive on my own.

In one scene Meadow’s father, Tony Soprano warns her boyfriend,As far as my daughter goes I only want the best for her and I am going to be very protective over her. I sobbed remembering how my father made me kiss the cousin who he knew had sexually abused me. I had to comply or my father would have whacked me. No, my father did not protect me, or support me or respect me or really care about how I felt. It was painful to acknowledge that my father failed me.

In my search for a father’s love, I ended up in a relationship with a man who was 20 years my senior and he just wanted to use me.

Supportive Women In Downtown Abbey

I was expecting Downtown Abbey to be one of those opulent period dramas where people show off but was pleasantly surprised as the story unfolded.  The recurring theme was support for each other despite them disagreeing on many things. If only it were like that in every home and society no one would need the services of professional mental health services.

Grandmother’s Job

The grandmother character – Violet Crawley  emphatically states, “It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.” And interfere she does to protect and help her family, particularly her granddaughters. From trying to save Lady Mary’s fortune. Supporting Lady Edith to get over being jilted at the altar and protecting her when she becomes an unwed mother. And intervening in the two warring sisters quarrel.

And my grandmother, hiding food, silently supporting my narcissistic aunt when she accused me of seducing her husband, or constantly telling me how good her youngest daughter was. Never ever thanking me for helping her out. I don’t ever remember her treating me like a feeling woman. I could never tell her what I was going through and she never really cared, I was a nuisance.

Watching Downton made me realize that it was not bad, shameful or wrong to expect support while traversing the pitfalls of adulthood or expecting to be forgiven for any transgression. I realized that my grandmother had failed me It was cathartic to watch the Downton matriarch go out of her way to solve issues. It helped me acknowledge and accept the betrayal I felt. I could let go of the shame of feeling I was not worthy of some care and support.

Role of Older Women In The Family

The other women characters were equally supportive of the younger women as they navigated their way through romance, marriage, childbirth and a host of other life’s challenges.

There was the kindly mother Cora who did get angry when her daughter had pre-marital sex but nevertheless stood by her or the feisty Isobel Crawley who encouraged her daughter-in-law to remarry after her only son died or the understanding aunt Lady Rosamund who covered up for her niece Lady Edith when she had a child out of wedlock or the stoic but sensible  housekeeper Mrs. Hughes who helped her maid navigate the travails of unwed motherhood and find a resolutions. And gutsy Mrs. Patmore who was never short of a sharp intuitive quip. She encouraged her under-cook Daisy, an orphan to study further and even paid for her tutoring.

At the end of the series, all the young women have happily settled in their choices thanks to these wise and supportive characters guiding them.

Unsupportive & Devious Women In My Family

One aunt consoled me in front of my mother’s dead body ‘think of me as your mother’. Then at the first available opportunity took me to her home and expected me to help her in her housework. The number of dirty dishes I washed in her home was really traumatizing. Added to that I had play counselor and listen to her spewing hatred about her husband. Her favorite line was ‘anyone else in my place would have left Rudy long back.’ And they were the Key members of the Marriage Encounter Movement in the Catholic Church. Talk about deceit

Or my mother’s sister the narcissist who falsely accused me a 13-year-old of trying to seduce her husband. I am still getting over the trauma. And to think that this was the woman my mother entrusted her kids to be safe.

Or the great career woman who popped out 2 kids in quick succession because she was at that ripe age of downward fertility and then expected her mother-in-law to be responsible for the kids’ well-being. Of course, my grandmother expected me to be the chief babysitter. And did this woman never thanked me or bother to help out when my son was small and his father was dying of cancer.

I wish I had a grandmother like Violet Crawley, life would not have been such a struggle

Watching those 2 serials was intensive therapy. Processing emotions of that deprived teen, and my bitterness about the lack of support in dealing with life’s challenges. All I got was judgment, burdensome expectation, and denial of being valuable.

Movie therapy helped me unfreeze my memories and release the pain of being rejected, used, invalidated, trampled upon, and shunned. It helped me acknowledge that my rights were grossly abused and that the adults in my life failed me miserably. That I was not wrong but they were the evil ones.

Life Imitates Art & Art Influences Life

They say life imitates art and very often movies show us snippets of existence that are universal to all humans. All of us share the emotions and struggles. Movies can help us make sense, vent and find closure. We can also find the modeling which we never had

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, states that movies “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.”  – we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” And the chance to unravel, process and release could be easier than in normal talk therapy.

Movies can be an easy therapeutic tool to release emotions and build a new awareness of how to recreate our shattered selves

Recovery from trauma is about getting unstuck, learning to feel again and forming a new sense of self. We cannot think our way into another state. but via our mirror neurons, we can embody what we see.

Explore and find the movies, dramas, serials that resonate with you and use them to heal and become whole. Who says healing cannot be pleasurable too.

Further Reading

In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Peter Levine

The Inconsequential Child: Overcoming Emotional Neglect by Anthony Martino

Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors by Janina Fisher

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