Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

The Time Traveler's Wife: Successful Coping

Lessons on how to cope with stress

This is not the typical story of time travel. Far from the lone adventurer-scientist conquering a life long dream to explore the world in another dimension, this tragic plotline chronicles a romantic with common aspirations and abilities trapped in a time-space continuum nightmare. His name is Henry and he just so happens to be born with a genetic anomaly that catapults him from one "when" to another without rhyme or reason.

Although the film highlights this time-travel downside within the narrow context of his love affair with Clare, I would argue that such an affliction goes well beyond romantic difficulties.

The stress load attached to this unwanted proclivity is quite high. There are three major psychological pitfalls that Henry must contend with, all of which have been empirically shown to increase stress and, in turn, mental illness: harboring a concealable stigma, learning that life lacks any semblance of control and continuously losing the present-moment.

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A. Concealable stigma: In every interpersonal context Henry must determine who can be trusted to learn about this secret "time traveler" aspect of his identity. After identifying the select few trustworthy confidants, he must still negotiate the actual confession of self and exert the self-control to not spill the beans about his trips to the future. The psyche is like a muscle and these acts are akin to pumping too much iron. The result - widespread social problems: a generally solitary and alienated existence, a lack of acceptance from his father, enduring skepticism from potentially helpful doctors and perpetual strain on his primary attachment, his wife Clare. He is denied the critical social buffer that humans need to feel safe and secure. He is stonewalled into sharing all aspects of self with attachment figures and close friends, and even his soul mate struggles to unconditionally love and accept him.

B. Lack of control: Any sense of perceived control is completely stripped away. The nature of Henry's genetic anomaly is such that, at any given moment, his "present" self can disappear and reappear at any point on the personal timeline, past or future, near or far. Not only is the frequency and destination of these trips relatively arbitrary, but a fifteen minute excursion into the future can mean a two-week absence from the present. Deprivation of control and predictability is arguable the highest predictor of mental illness. Take a sense of control away from rhesus monkeys in childhood and expect greater difficulties in virtually all domains of psychological functioning; do the same for humans and the gateway to anxiety and depression swings open much more easily; remove a sense of control from a traumatic event and the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder becomes likely instead of unlikely.

The core question arises, how does Henry cope so successfully with such overwhelming stress?

The answer is a proactive coping style. You see, every individual possesses a systematic, patterned response to stress that helps to shape general life trajectory. An emotion-focused coping style is a negative response to stress, in which problems are pushed away with procrastination. Then, when problems have ballooned and become unavoidable, emotions and impulsive decision-making serve as solutions. Deciding to sit at your desk and ponder from all angles the woes of failing tomorrow's exam - instead of studying for it - is a prime example of rumination, the central process of this coping strategy. In this light the three major psychological pitfalls mentioned are like road signs on the path toward an emotion-focused coping style.

But Henry overrides this negative undertow with psychological instincts and will power that engenders a proactive coping style. This is a much more adaptive response to stress that relies on a skill set designed to anticipate and reduce stress through problem-solving, self-control and emotional compartmentalization.

There is a psychological toolset to this coping style that Henry utilizes with ease and expertise. These tools or "road signs" are: acceptance strategies (about that which cannot be changed), distraction strategies (about that which is greatly feared), and a problem-solving attitude that emphasizes rationality and mastery of concrete tasks.

When Henry lands, naked, in strange and dangerous places he learns to pick locks, so that he can find clothes, so as to avoid getting arrested or beaten up (problem-solving approach). When he struggles to achieve financial stability he buys a single winning lottery ticket, just enough to live happily but not so much as to draw suspicion (self-control). When he learns of his own death he channels his energy toward cushioning the toll on Clare (compartmentalization).

The lessons that Henry provides about a mentally healthy coping strategy are significant. It's not about the stress that comes your way, but the ways in which you perceive and react to it that matter. Henry attacks major life stress with celerity, confidence and effort, the general attitudinal components that are associated with the aforementioned habits of a proactive coping style. As a result, his management of the dark forces of time travel demonstrate that even a doomed time traveler can live life fully in the present.

 

 

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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