False Alarm

December 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Admission: I’ve been struggling with a recurrence of depression over the last two weeks. It’s been a struggle to get out of bed, and even more difficult to remember to do things, whether it be at work, or at home. My plants are dead, my house is a mess, and I am plain lucky that I do not have any urgent work deadlines, because my depression tag teams with severe anxiety disorder.

Anyway, in an attempt to “normalize” myself I booked tickets for The Hobbit at Sathyam yesterday, and thankfully I was enjoying a 24 hour period of feeling actually good, as opposed to not terrible. So it was to be a most excellent time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first half and the excellent barrels-in-the-river-sequence.

During the interval, as I was settling into my seat, everything suddenly changed.

Multiple saree and jewelry ads are par for the course in Chennai and though I find them all atrocious, they aren’t normally triggers. This one advertisement in particular however, distinctly struck me at first as being significantly louder than the others. I was trying to speak to my partner and then instinctively push my fingers into my ears. It helped temporarily, but I could feel the reverberations in my chest and could not understand why, at all. The ad ended, and I unplugged my ears, but through the next advertisement I could still feel the shaking, which had spread to my hands. I sprinted out of the theatre and enjoyed a full blown panic attack, and the kind staff of Sathyam were happy to give me a glass of water and ask me if I needed help. As usual, someone asked me what happened. I tried to explain that this one ad was “too loud” for me, and the two chaps nodded in agreement, it was something they noticed as well, not that it was as disconcerting for them.

I don’t remember the next part of The Hobbit till I saw Bilbo running around with the Dragon, and on the way home I was dealing with the whole “I just went crazy before a live studio audience” embarrassment. That was until my partner explained to me that it wasn’t something extraordinarily strange that happened to me, and explained to me the concept of infrasound. In other words, sound is not just felt in the ears, and for some people, low frequency sounds can cause discomfort. I figured he was telling me the truth since he is a sound engineer, but I did doubt that he was trying to make me feel better about effectively ruining our day out. He was absolutely sure, however, that infrasound was employed in the particular ad – perhaps not intentionally, but even so. In any case, I think it is a common experience that cinema hall advertising is louder and grates on the nerves in general compared to the actual feature presentation. I believe that the fault is not with the theatre owners, who will just play the tracks and visuals as given to them, but with those who create the advertising. 

More reading on infrasound revealed that it is controversially used in cinema to induce discomfort in viewers, claimed to be the cause of “wind turbine syndrome“, and is even used as a weapon. Instruments like Bass Drums can also produce infrasound. 

So the reason this went from tweets to a blogpost was just because it was a great TIL, even if it was at the cost of my Christmas and waking up the next morning with severe anxiety and a headache. I realize that among the entire audience I was the only person who expressed discomfort at the incident, and that might make me a freak of sorts. Then again, when you think of photosensitive epilepsy, which affects a miniscule fraction of the population, I guess you realize that it could be a thing.

The takeaways from the incident are several:

1. If you have a friend with anxiety, pointing out that what they were experiencing as a trigger was entirely normal (if it is so) is a wonderful way to help them out.

2. If you are an advertiser, maybe you want to check on how your ads are mixed for theatre viewing. Oh who cares – like I want to hear someone say “well I mean she said she had mental problems so I mean we can’t really take what she says seriously”.

3. If you have anxiety, maybe it would help to stand outside the theatre for the duration of the interval.

PS: There’s a healthy dose of sarcasm in this piece.

PPS: The brand is irrelevant and people who are jobless enough to track it down and send me a link please remember the meaning of the word “trigger” (trauma sounds very dramatic in this case, but what can you do)

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