Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

The Grey: A Metaphor for Pathology

What "The Grey" teaches about survival of pathology

We live in a world filled with threat. It's an increasingly modern world with less immediate, less dangerous threats, and our minds/brains are still in the process of catching up to this fact. For most of us, we can feel assured that we won't go hungry and that we won't be inexplicably attacked and killed as we walk down the street.

My point is that unlike the world of our ancestors, today's world (particularly in 21st century America), life is not a minute-to-minute fight for survival.

Perhaps one way of thinking about individuals suffering from excessive anxiety and depression - whether it's generalized anxiety, panic attacks, major depression, obsessions and compulsions, etc. - is that their minds/brains, on some sub-conscious level, do not fully appreciate or gain relief from this disconnect in the two worlds. If you have a depressive or anxiety disorder then that means you are probably on guard for threat all the time, and negatiely biased with regard to how much threat to expect, and what the cues of impending threat looks like. And when threat does occur there's a heightened sense of catastrophic consequences and a relatively greater intensity to the accompanying negative emotions.

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Internally at least, your world is more chaotic, frightening and threatening. It's a world fashioned to unmet basic needs like safety, a vague but perpetual sense of danger and, quite naturally, a desperate pursuit for self-preservation.

Panic attacks are a prime example. On the surface panic attacks are a set of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. Imagine walking along - a normal, peaceful day - and before you know it your heart is in your throat, there's a sickening pang of fear overtaking your senses and your mind is shouting the only thing that seems to make any sense "I'm dying!" This is a panic attack. Now, technically, these symptoms are temporary, physically harmless (though a lifetime of untreated Panic might be a risk factor for illnesses) and treatable (learning and practicing strategies that calm physiology and ground self-talk), but that's not how the panic attacks feel. Living with panic attacks must feel a lot like living in, say, a bleak, frozen and harsh corner of Alaska. This largely unpopulated segment of Earth is where a plane crashes and the unfortunate cast of "The Grey" emerges to fight for their lives.

And sitting in the world that this film creates is not just a reminder of what the conditions were like for our ancestors (whose brains we've inherited), but perhaps a peephole into the internal life of an individual stricken with a disorder of distress.

Liam Neeson and a clan of survivors (all of whom work in the Arctic oil fields and are self-proclaimed 'brawlers, drinkers and lost souls') emerge from the wreckage of an inexplicable plane crash shocked, traumatized and frightened. And the world that awaits them is even more threatening than expected. Every second of their post-crash lives is spent enduring an utter scarcity of food/water, hypothermic temperatures, freezing winds, and blinding snow. And if the taxing physical conditions weren't enough, they are being tracked and slowly picked off by a sizable pack of bloodthirsty wolves. This film is a story of a handful of survivors who don't survive very long. A few are viciously attacked by wolves (scenes that will absolutely send a shock-wave through your system). The others either freeze to death, drown, fall from a cliff, or simply give up hope and stop moving forward (presumably to die of starvation or wolf attack).

The main character, Liam Neeson's Ottway, demonstrates an interesting character arch. At the beginning of the film he is thoroughly depressed to the point of hopelessness and suicidality (there's a simple if not clichéd explanation for this given at the end of the film). What's striking is that this depressed individual, when faced with this primitive, overwhelmingly stressful situation, adapts. And the world 'adapt' underestimates what he does. He truly succeeds in living life in an intelligent, resilient and full manner throughout the horrific experience of life in "The Grey."

Meaning, I can sit here and catalogue some qualities of his experience that not only aid in survival of the wilderness but in survival of an internal world of pathology that can mimic the wilderness.

Here a few highlights:

Immediately after the crash Ottway stumbles upon a severely wounded passenger and counsels him through his final minutes of life. It's a tearful scene in part because Ottway boldly declares that the passenger is dying. He says and does some other things in the service of helping the man to accept this emotion. Imagine how tough it would be to accept that you are about to die. To let the idea wash over you, not ferociously fight it, but simply sit with it. This is the crux of emotional intelligence and is clearly a necessity in any fight for survival.

Ottway also shows the capacity to focus on the present-moment. He does this throughout. When the other survivors are sitting around messily releasing dysregulated affect or speculating about what rescue scenarios might exist in the near future, Ottway is collecting firewood so that they can survive the night. He also shows strong problem-solving abilities - obviously key in the wilderness - like when he evaluates his options and concludes that the group has a better chance of surviving if they move to Point B instead of staying in Point A.

Ottway collects all of the wallets of the dead with the idea of returning them to the families at home. Throughout his trek he attends to the wallets in various ways, and this seemingly subtle inclination serves an incredibly valuable function. He is consciously constructing a sense of purpose and hope to his mission. He also does this by intermittingly reminiscing about his deceased wife, and reflecting on his childhood around the campfire. Research on mind-body link continues to suggest with increasingly force that mental variables like hope, meaning and purpose generate physical outcomes like attacking challenges with more perseverance and success, recovering from wounds faster and living longer. 

Finally, he maintains his connection to humanity. He shows a pronounced regard for the safety of some of the weaker survivors. He attends to their needs, and listens to their concerns with a curious, open heart. This isn't just simple, fleeting benevolence. Ottway is maintaining and enhancing relationships, which (figuratively and, in some ways, literally) strengthens a flow of energy between himself and others that keeps his body moving, and his mind sharply problem-solving.

 

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

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