A Little Bit of Adrenaline is my Favourite Medicine: Horror, Healing and PTSD 

This essay has been a long time coming. I started drafting it eight months ago, to be precise. I intended it to be something very different, but in the end, it was a tool for catharsis. It’s funny, I always used to tell people I wrote creatively to help process my trauma and to make sense of an often unkind world. I’ve used “writing for wellness” for almost 35 years, assuming I begin the count from when I first began keeping a personal diary. Add in the years of stereotypical “teen-angst” poetry, some clumsy and poorly-planned attempts at copying my favourite horror authors in my twenties, fast-forward through motherhood when raising children took greater precedent over writing, and we reach what I thought of as the Comeback Period where I finally seemed to hit my stride. And then… disaster struck, and I found I couldn’t write for wellness anymore. 

Strap yourselves in, folks. This could take a while.

Everyone knows what PTSD looks like. We’ve seen it played out plenty of times in the movies. The hyperventilating, hallucinating, flashback-driven character garnished with a-side-helping-of-auditory-fuckery commonly introduced in Horrors and Thrillers. The ‘Nam veteran (or Gulf, or whichever war seems applicable). The (usually female) sexual assault victim. The grieving parent who lost their child too soon, often because of their own actions. The problem is, PTSD is not really like that at all. These characters show fictional PTSD with little thought given to the reality. But how else can a filmmaker show someone in mental health crisis if not through a selection of over-exaggerated tropes? 

It’s all bollocks, of course. And I should know, having spent the last eighteen months dealing with the reality. Oh, and using Horror to get me through it. 

I’m T.L Wood and you may know me from previously published essays such as: ‘What You Need Right Now is a Nice Soothing Horror Story,’ ‘Staring Down the Darkness: Horror and Mental Health’ and ‘The Tao of the Black Dog.’ In case it isn’t obvious, I really like writing about Horror and mental health. In fact, maybe a little too much … 

I shared a bit about what happened during the time, but to keep it simple, the TL/DR version (as the geek kids might say) is that in 2022 I experienced medical and dental trauma that caused a significant amount of drug-resistant nerve pain and ultimately resulted in the removal of all my adult teeth. I will also say upfront that while I hated having to make the choices I did, I do not regret making them, only that I wish I could have done so under better circumstances. Speaking from a place on the “other side” of trauma, I am happy with my decision and it has actually improved my life for the better. In fact, in some ways, I wish I’d had the knowledge and support to do this many years ago. But I would be lying if I said this was easy or had eliminated any residual mental distress. Unlike in the movies, there is rarely a handy fix for PTSD. 

A few years ago, a friend shared a blog post with me. It expressed the idea that grief is like a ball in a box. As it bounces around and hits the sides, it causes a great deal of mental anguish. When the grief is fresh, the ball is massive, and it hits the box almost all the time, but as time passes, the ball gets smaller and the hits much weaker. We learn to cope with how that ball feels, and we learn not to upset the box. Sometimes we get the urge to give the box a shake, to remind ourselves of those feelings. Yes, humans can be quite complex creatures, and often do things that seem counterintuitive, but actually help us grow stronger and process our emotions. Just like when we immerse ourselves in Horror fiction when we’re feeling vulnerable or upset. To quote from one of my earlier essays: Horror, by its very nature, is confronting while showing us where the boundaries are. Horror lets us shake that box in a safe and controlled environment. It gives us space to feel uncomfortable but know we’re still in the driving seat. 

I have to admit, I really liked the ‘ball in the box’ metaphor. I even liked a later re-telling of it that says the ball does not get smaller, but that the box grows bigger, implying that we grow around our grief rather than do things to make it shrink. They’re both fantastic, visual ways of understanding some deeply complex and painful feelings, and had helped me many times previously. I thought PTSD would also be like that. That eventually the pain would get smaller, or I would get bigger, and shaking the box would be a controlled way to process my experience. But I made a mistake.

Real talk once again: I genuinely think medication is a useful and valid tool to support people with finding and maintaining good mental health. I also respect and understand why some people don’t like it, don’t want it, or find it inappropriate for them. That said, my personal experience is that when it worked for me, it probably saved my life, but when it stopped working, it was a real bummer. So once again, in the interests of moving forwards: I tried it, at first it worked, things changed, and then nothing seemed to work at all. 

I needed new tools. 

I am almost at the top of the climbing wall when I feel the strength fade in my fingers and the muscles in my forearms start to spasm. My grip slips and I whimper, scrambling to gain purchase on the ledge. I hold on, balanced precariously, trying to support my weight, but I know I can’t stay that way forever. Gravity will always win. 
I look down at the ground. It’s a hell of a long way. I will myself to carry on, to hold on for as long as I can. But the palms of my hands are slippery with sweat and terror has finally set in. 
Oh, shit… 
I have no choice but to succumb. I let go and embrace the fall. 
The floor comes up to meet me fast, but the impact never comes. The rope and harness do their jobs and keep me safe from harm. Above me, I hear the rumble of the auto-belay as it lowers me to the bottom. The descent takes mere seconds, but still I whisper a silent prayer — to who or what, I don’t know. 
“Please don’t break. Please don’t break. Let me get down safely.” 
And then my feet touch solid ground and I feel like a character in a superhero movie; all I’m missing is a scarlet cape. 
My whole body thrums with adrenaline, and my heart threatens to pound out of my chest. 
I turn and climb again. 

Adrenaline is fucking amazing! 

Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is both a hormone and a medication that works to regulate visceral functions. It plays an essential role in our fight-or-freeze response by basically dialling specific bodily functions up to eleven, such as: increasing blood flow to the heart and muscles, influencing our pupil dilation, and even affecting blood sugar levels. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) 

When you experience a significant amount of stress, your body releases adrenaline to help you manage it. It helps you focus so you can deal with the situation. It provides a cover or distraction for any pain you might be feeling so you can cope with it. Your body knows when you are feeling a heightened sense of emotion and does whatever it can to shield you from harm. 

I’m not a doctor, or a psychologist, or even a scientist. I’m a Horror writer, mostly. I cannot speak in detail about the full effects of adrenaline, or even explain exactly how it works, but I know what it does to my mind and body. And I love it.

I was forty-one the first time I went up an indoor climbing wall. My first thoughts were, “Oh, this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” followed by, “This is exciting!” and “Wow, I’m really high up…” and immediately after that came The Wobbles. My entire body started vibrating like I was being shocked with a low-level electric pulse. My legs trembled. My arms shook. My fingers simply stopped working. Before I could fight it or get my feelings under control, I experienced what I can only describe as an emotional power cut. I understand now that this was a freeze response — an automatic and involuntary response to a threat. In a split second, my brain had decided that freezing, rather than trying to fight or run away, was the best way to survive what was happening. Unfortunately, when you’re balanced on a ledge a long way from the ground, this is a rather unhelpful response.

When I was a kid, I had a toy called a wall climber. Made of rubber, it had sticky hands and feet. The idea was to throw it at a wall or window and it would “climb” down in a sort of rolling backflip. Eventually, as it picked up more cat-hair and carpet fluff, it lost its stickiness. It would hang for a moment, as each pad peeled away, before dropping ungracefully like a dead fly to the floor. 

And that was how my first indoor rock climb ended. Good job I was wearing a harness. 

The Wobbles didn’t stop when I got to the ground, but weirdly, I didn’t feel scared. No, I was more exhilarated, excited, and rather damn impressed with myself for doing something I didn’t know I could. I’ve always loved things that terrified me physically, like rollercoasters, gravitrons and drop slides, but this felt different and new. I was thrumming with energy as if I’d gained a really awesome Power-Up just like Sonic the Hedgehog collects gold rings. 

Like I said, I’m a Horror writer, so I know a thing or two about fear, or at least I thought I did. I realise now that it comes in many forms and doesn’t always manifest as dramatically as the movies might have you believe. I’ve experienced genuine fear quite a few times in my life, with a couple of those times feeling like it was the end for me. Oddly, those events didn’t cause my heart to pound or my whole life to flash before my eyes. No, it was in those moments that everything simply… stopped. 

Despite building my career on manipulating words, I could never find the right ones to describe those emotions. How rubbish does it sound to say that in the moments before your apparent impending demise, there is no great fanfare or affirmation of your successes; your mind grows small, and you simply cease to be you. How boring. How illogical. No one would read that. We need fear in our fiction to be visceral, perhaps even violent, or frantic. We need to feel confronted by the tension, to feel our hysteria rise with the threat. 

Sometimes, that is exactly how it happens; the body and brain work together to emit a resounding Luke Skywalker, “Nooooooo!” and to fight back the terror that overcomes them. But a fear response, unlike laughter, is not a universal language. 

I think one of the best depictions of PTSD in the movies comes from one of my long-time personal favourites, ALIENS (1986). Ripley’s trauma shows up in sweat-coated nightmares and sudden, vivid flashbacks, punctuated with the banality of carrying on with her life as best she can. She smokes a lot and drinks too much coffee, and spends most of her time talking to her cat rather than people, and (aside from the smoking­–I quit almost 20 years ago) that was pretty much me too. What works for some didn’t work for me, and the first therapist I saw was so desperately wrong a fit for me they set my healing journey back by months. During everything, it seemed easier to not talk about it. Not think about it. To compartmentalise it as much as possible, take the meds and just Carry On. 

It was quite easy to stuff those memories into a box and shut the lid. To stay busy and focused on work. Although my experiences had stripped a hell of a lot of creativity out of me, I could still do well in my job and do a damn good impression of a functioning human being. Until I couldn’t. 

Fight. Flight… Freeze.

I don’t really remember when it first happened, that sensation that everything had ground to a sudden halt, and I was merely outwardly observing myself, moving in excruciatingly slow motion. That “power cut” I felt when I first climbed, my body shutting down. Suddenly, it was happening when I was doing my shopping. In the shower. While driving my car. It was not only terrifying, it was also downright dangerous. My GP explained it was a survival response. My poor, battered brain, that I thought had been doing quite well until now, believed it needed to protect me from any further harm, and so it was perceiving everything, everywhere, all at once, as a danger. Except, rather than flooding me with adrenaline to get me the hell away from the threat, it was making me play possum at the most inconvenient moments. 

People describe the symptoms of panic attacks in various ways. Most commonly, they have an elevated heart-rate and/or a tight chest, sweaty palms or feeling lightheaded, a dry mouth or shortness of breath. Yes, all of these things are down to our old friend adrenaline again, flooding our bodies with a fear response and getting us ready to fight or flee. A panic attack happens when this response is triggered, but there is no danger about to happen. Thus, a person can experience these symptoms in apparently stress-free situations, such as watching daytime television or while doing their grocery shop. 

I’ve had panic attacks before, and I knew what they felt like. This was not that. Was it?

The common denominator across all panic attacks is: a strong feeling of impending dread, danger or foreboding.

“How did you feel when it happened?” my GP asked.
“Like I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it,” I replied.
“And what did you do? How did you make it stop?”

At this point you’re probably thinking, “Hey, T… I thought you said this was going to be about Horror?” 

Yes. It is. 

“So where’s the Horror?” 

Funny thing about PTSD is that along with putting you in a state of what the psychologists call “hyperarousal” (which, contrary to how it might sound, is not about feeling really horny, but is a way to describe your body being constantly on high alert) it also dulls the parts of yourself that experience joy and excitement. Everything becomes very grey, dull, and boring; a bit like a damp February afternoon in Middlesbrough with fuck-all to look forward to and it’s always cold. (Apologies to my lovely Northern England friends. I spent 8 years living there after university, and my memories of the place ain’t so sweet. The Levellers sang it best with ‘Hope Street’.) When everything is boring, everything is boring. Literally nothing can bring even a spark of interest and concentrating on anything for any amount of time (even things you usually love doing) is incredibly difficult. 

When you’re a writer by trade, that’s not a good thing. Goodbye words, hello writer’s block! (To any fellow writers reading this, I hope you never know that great disturbance in the Force, the pain it can inflict on a creative mind.) 

The meds weren’t working. Talking wasn’t working. Time was marching on, but I wasn’t feeling any better. In fact, I was feeling much worse. I couldn’t make my brain work how I wanted and needed. I had no choice but to quit my job, and my creative thinking was completely blocked. I was resentful and angry and a very difficult person to be around, so I stopped being around people as much as possible. I felt so stupid and useless all the time; sometimes wondering if it would be better to give up and other times furious at myself for even considering such a thing. 

That day when my GP asked me how I pulled myself out of the “impending doom” feeling, I wasn’t sure how to tell her that, frankly, I got so fucking angry at the thought that this was it for me, that I had no more time left to do all the millions of things I still wanted to do, that rage seemed to reboot my brain and somehow I could keep going. I felt that spark of being alive again. Just like when I conquered a climbing wall. 

If you’re a fan of Star Wars (I’m not, but my kid is, so we’ve been rewatching them recently, hence all the references) you’ll probably remember Yoda’s wise words to Luke:  

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” All well and good, but what Yoda didn’t tell us, and John Lydon did, “Anger is an energy.” 

Anger, like fear, is also an adrenaline booster. It gives us that hit-the-NOS-boost we need to get the fuck on with things, get the fuck away from things, or get really fucking scary, so things leave us alone. Anger can be really, really powerful, and can make you feel like you’re beating the awful shit that’s being sent your way, but it’s also extremely destructive. Like NOS, it’s only good for short, controlled bursts. Use it too much and you’ll burn out your engine. As I mentioned earlier: Horror … gives us space to feel uncomfortable but know we’re still in the driving seat. It lets us let go while still staying in control. 

In a time of great uncertainty and emotional upheaval, I needed to find a way to maintain control over my fluctuating moods while unpacking everything that had happened to me. Finding space to process the past while forging a new future. Rage would not be the power I needed, especially not if I wanted to keep my friends and family rather than alienating everyone. 

To paraphrase a popular 90s movie quote: “I chose not to choose rage. Who needs rage when you have Horror?”

Despite everything being, to put it mildly, A Bit Shit, I could still find the energy for three (very influential as it turns out) things: going for walks in nature, having hot bubble baths, and watching movies / TV shows–although these often had to be watched in short bursts, over time, and most often in the bath. (Rather than seeing this as a bad thing, it was probably the most ideal combination my poor, battered brain could offer me.) 

Most people, when faced with something uncomfortable, will reach for the things that are familiar and comforting. It’s logical and comes from our brains knowing exactly what it is it wants and needs: a tried and tested method that will make us feel good. Sometimes that’s things like using drugs or alcohol. If that works for you, it’s not for me to judge. It might also be listening to a certain kind of music, or reading a favourite book. Whatever it is, it will be something we know is 100 percent guaranteed to bring us out of the funk we’re in. For me, that’s creepy, clever, middling-on-the gore, psychological or emotional Horror-slash-Thrillers with a nice dose of Big Bad Monsters and/or a sci-fi twist—bonus points for humour too. My preference lies in things that can’t easily be pigeonholed, or that straddle genres in interesting ways. 

You want a list? Okay, I’ve included one at the end of this essay. Take a peek if you want. I’ll wait… 

I am fully aware that some of my very favourite Horror movies are not traditionally considered part of the Horror genre at all. Also, I can write a separate essay on each of them explaining why they are Horror. Horror has a special relationship with those who consume it, primarily using emotion to illicit reaction. It can be confronting while showing us where the boundaries are. It awakens hidden fears and desires and is often the most unsettling when it imagines danger in “safe” places. For me, all of my favourites do exactly that, and that’s what makes them Horror. (And if we’re talking about movies that elevate your pulse rate, my Apple Watch tells me that PHONE BOOTH is the one that throws it right off the charts!) 

It was THE MIDNIGHT CLUB on Netflix that got things rolling first. When I read that the Guinness Book of World Records recognised the premiere episode as having the most jump scares in a single TV episode (twenty-one to be exact) I knew I had to watch it. PTSD makes you jumpy, usually when you don’t expect it. It’s a pisser as you can go from being perfectly fine to a gibbering mess in moments just because someone slammed a cupboard door. I wanted to know what would happen if I did expect it. 

What happened? A great deal of hysterical laughter happened. 

It turns out that the controlled adrenaline burst was absolutely what I needed, and suddenly my brain wanted more. Over a period of roughly six months, before and after my surgery, I watched as much Horror as I could, starting with my comfort faves, and moving on to some of the really gnarly stuff which I usually avoid because I find it boring. In my Bad Brain times though, gnarly slashers and extreme body horror were the tonic that helped (although I still can’t deal with finger-breaking scenes. What even is that all about?!) The more blood, the more gore, the better! I couldn’t face looking in the mirror at the aftermath of my dental surgery, but I could happily chow down popcorn to gory cosmetic body modification (CRIMES OF THE FUTURE), someone shoving a metal rod in their thigh (TETSUO: THE IRON MAN) or even an eyeball being sliced in two (UN CHIEN ANDALOU). I set aside some time every day to watch something my loving grandma would describe as “unpleasant” and slowly… slowly… my brain came back online. And I started writing again.

I wrote a blog post in January entitled, “Bite-size chunks of positivity” It was about searching for the positive in amongst the shit, even though I was really struggling to find it. 

It can be hard to get back into the swing of things that used to be so easy but have now become difficult. Hard to reclaim who we are after we have lost a part of ourselves. I spent a lot of time feeling sad and angry about what I’d lost, and the worst part of that was feeling like I couldn’t write anymore. I felt like something that really made me who I am had been taken away, and it terrified me. Especially as I was no longer sure about who I was. Giving myself that tiniest nudge to just scribble down a few thoughts and ideas, or make goals that mean I have to think beyond the immediate and believe in a future, has helped my brain feel so relieved. I know now a lot of the loss and despair was the trauma talking, and while that’s okay, being able to see what lay beyond that was important too. 

When you’ve been through a terrible situation where you felt like you had no control, Horror can give that back to you. Real trauma is so much more complicated than fictional trauma, but in a controlled setting, we can  process our fear, trauma, and anger in ways that can be therapeutic. A friend who is also a counsellor suggested I was using Horror as a form of exposure therapy; the more gore I watched, the less sensitised I became to real-life scary stimulus. Sure, I still jumped when someone slammed a cupboard door, but my reaction and the after-effects had far less negative impact. 

Remember that flood of adrenaline hormone your body releases when you experience a threat? What I forgot to mention is when the threat is over, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, sending a range of calming hormones to the brain to help you feel safe and relaxed. (It’s also one reason some people need to sleep a lot after a traumatic event.) This helps regulate your emotions and ensure you don’t remain in an elevated fight/flight state. For some people, it’s the come-down that is the addictive bit. The warm, fuzzy feelings of being safe, of the monster being banished once more. 

If you were expecting some grand conclusion where I explain exactly why Horror helped me, I’m sorry, but I’m going to disappoint you. I don’t really know other than to assume that giving myself permission to become immersed in the darkest of fictions helped me to see the light present in my real life. Even when that light was about as bright as a 99-cent pen-torch from an op-shop bargain bin, it was still there. I just had to find the best way to revive it. 

Ripley, my idol, overcame her trauma by returning to LV-426 to confront her greatest fear. She strapped herself into a P-5000 Powerloader, said that iconic I’m-done-with-this-bullshit line, “Get away from her, you bitch!” and threw the Alien Queen out of the airlock. She fucking won!

I don’t have a Powerloader, and I suspect I’d get into trouble if I started throwing people out of airlocks—no matter how awful they might be—but in my head, in the creative part of me that was important, that’s exactly what I did. The things that should be terrifying ultimately became empowering. Despite how much to the contrary it might seem, Horror heals. 

To finish, I think John Wick said it best. Hopefully, now I’m writing again, it’s true for me too:

“People keep asking if I’m back, and I haven’t really had an answer. But now, yeah! I’m thinking I’m back!”

T.L.Wood’s Top Comfort “Horror” watchlist includes (but is not limited to):

  • Alien / Aliens (of course!) 
  • Jacob’s Ladder
  • Flatliners
  • Pitch Black
  • Last Night in Soho 
  • The New Mutants
  • Near Dark
  • The Lost Boys
  • Blood Red Sky
  • Fright Night (the remake, sorry not sorry)
  • Nightbreed
  • Stir of Echoes
  • Get Out
  • An American Werewolf in London
  • Dog Soldiers
  • Saw
  • Signs 
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • 12 Monkeys
  • Donnie Darko
  • What Lies Beneath
  • The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 
  • Night of the Hunter 
  • Children of Men 
  • Phone Booth 
  • Moon
  • The Mike Flannigan Netflix collection (I have deliberately excluded The Fall of the House of Usher as I found it very weak):           
    Midnight Mass
    The Haunting of Hill House 
    The Haunting of Bly Manner 
    The Midnight Club