Hillary Brown, LICSW
Mental Health at the Movies: "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish"
Lights! Camera! Action! Welcome to your Monday Mental Health Moment at the movies, a series discussing the intersection of psychology and cinema. Some spoilers ahead…
“Puss in Boots laughs in the face of death!” Easy to say when you have nine lives to burn, right? The legendary hero is back in a sequel that has no business being as good as it is — and when Puss in Boots awakens from one of his adventures to realize he has already died eight times, his last life changes completely. Death appears to Puss in the form of a Big Bad Wolf, stalking him on his quest to find the Last Wish to magically restore his nine lives. Throughout the film, Puss is up against a reality that everyone can relate to: the fear of death.
Death anxiety, also called thanatophobia, is characterized as the intense fear of one’s own death, fear of the dying process, and usually results in an avoidance of all things related to death. It’s not irrational to fear death and it is absolutely normal, but when obsessions with death become intrusive, oppressive, and disruptive to living life - it might be time to intervene. According to the 2017 "Survey of American Fears" conducted by Chapman University, 20.3% of Americans are "afraid" or "very afraid" of dying. There are many reasons people find death scary, including:
Fear of pain and suffering
Fear of the unknown
Fear of non-existence
Fear of an adverse afterlife
Fear of loss of control
Fear of what will happen to loved ones
There are a lot of reasons to be afraid of death, but avoiding its inevitability can increase someone’s distress associated with it and make it even harder to cope with when the time arrives. Puss in Boots tries his best to swashbuckle his way out of mortality, but winds up worsening his fear of dying too. Luckily, Puss learns to deal with death in other ways:
“Who is your favorite, fearless hero?” - Puss in Boots
It takes Puss the whole film to realize that fearlessness is not heroic. He learns to embrace his fear and accept that it is a part of being alive, and facing it is what actually makes him a hero. If you’re dealing with death anxiety, consider doing some self-guided exposure for it. This is a common treatment for phobias, OCD and anxiety that helps people tolerate uncertainty better. Seek out small pieces of information on death and sit with your discomfort until your anxiety naturally rises and falls. Consider attending a virtual Death Cafe or following an influencer like Hospice Nurse Julie to increase your objective knowledge about death. Start with things that elicit only a little discomfort and work your way up to the big stuff — remember though, fearing death is not a pathology. Exposure can help reduce the fear but not eliminate it, which is why those tolerance skills always come in handy!
2. “Want to rub my belly?...Come on, rub. I need the practice - I’m going to be a therapy dog someday!” - Perrito
If you don’t have a therapy dog side-kick like Perrito to calm you down, you might need to do it yourself. Breathing techniques are a great way to give the body what it needs when you are afraid. Fear increases your blood pressure and breathing rate to prepare your body to run, but no one can run from a fear that follows them so your body needs oxygen to feel safe internally. Perrito helps Puss with his diaphragmatic breathing by placing his head softly on Puss’s abdomen and Puss’s rapid breathing then starts to slow. His breath shifts from his chest into his belly, and this induces a feeling of resolve amidst the panic. Try laying down, placing a book on your belly, and feel the weight of the book as you breathe into your belly muscles. Not only can this reduce the harmful effects of stress hormones, it can also strengthen your respiratory capacity.
3. “When you only have one life, that’s what makes it special.” - Kitty Softpaws
Acknowledging your own end is a way to practice gratitude for the time you have had so far. Puss in Boots does not make any meaning of his life until he realizes it will someday end - and he has a lot of help from his friends to get there. Maranasati Meditation is the practice of deliberately contemplating one’s own death in order to strengthen appreciation for how special life is. The Buddha also believed this gratitude practice would serve as an antidote to trivial conflict — both internally and externally. When considering that we all die, quarrels become less meaningful to us and death can become more peaceful too. This episode of the podcast Future Perfect outlines some of the other benefits of contemplating death.
Even if you don’t feel ready to deal with your fears of death, you already practiced exposure and contemplation of it just by reading this article! So pour yourself a cup of cold leche, put on your best pair of boots, and face headfirst the exciting adventure that is this one precious life.
Hillary Brown, LICSW is an adaptive and playful therapist interested in helping her clients improve their interpersonal relationships as well as their relationship with themself. Hillary is unapologetically fat-friendly, LGBTQ+ affirming, and committed to noticing the systemic stressors of our world that can exacerbate mental health symptoms. Together with her client, Hillary detects what changes can be made within them and around them, while fostering resiliency and hope during times of disempowerment in oppression. Hillary believes that priorities do not have to be competing with one another and instead can find a harmonious balance through boundaries, awareness-building and self-compassion.
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