Q. I am a disaster addict. I watch movies and TV shows that focus on the end of the world. “Knowing” — starring Nicolas Cage — is just the latest in a long line of apocalyptic epics. Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” will be released as a film soon. It’s ultimate disaster porn for me because it is humanized and simultaneously abstract. I follow asteroid telemetry news and read up about the latest in germ warfare speculation and rogue nuclear proliferation.
My 7-year-old son has picked up on my doom vibe and has become a worrier. He is grinding his teeth, getting an ulcer and drawing pictures that his teacher says are in poor taste. How can I help my boy?
A. It is not unusual to like disaster movies and shows. An entire horror-movie industry exists. Lots of people like being scared. It stimulates adrenaline and gives a rush of excitement.
Obviously, watching a film is not the same as watching a real-life tragedy. You get the excitement without the true danger.
Some people enjoy this kind of thing more than others. The risk-taking portion of their brain is gratified by being stimulated.
Others, however, become terribly anxious by watching this kind of stuff. It feels close enough to reality that they actually have an ongoing anxiety response. It makes them ruminate and worry, just as if a real disaster occurred.
Such people are better off not watching horror movies, riding roller coasters, reading about fictional catastrophes or doing other such things that stoke their anxiety.
If you find this enjoyable and get a thrill from it, that is fine. You don’t say whether this makes you anxious. But it sounds as though you believe it makes your son anxious. And it might. (There is a family predisposition to anxiety, so if you have anxiety yourself, this might literally be a case of “like father, like son.”)
If you see symptoms of anxiety in your son, it is important not to expose him to these kinds of shows. If he wonders why, explain that these things aren’t going to provide much enjoyment for him. Do not share your disaster enjoyment with him.
I suggest a Web site, commonsensemedia.org, that gives specific details on age-appropriate shows, games, books, etc. for children, so that parents can decide what is or isn’t appropriate for their kids.
If your son’s anxiety is robbing him of joyful days, affecting his schoolwork or interfering with his relationships with friends — or if he seems preoccupied with disaster — you should consider a psychiatric evaluation for him, with a child psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in anxiety. A recent study showed that 20 percent of children have an anxiety disorder. These are very treatable.
Left untreated, however, they can have negative consequences academically and socially. Anxiety in children should not be taken lightly.
If anxiety is a problem for you, too, you should seek treatment yourself.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If scary shows and movies make your child anxious, keep this material away from him.
Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.