“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”

– Jonathan Swift

When under extreme stress, individual’s responses may vary. For some, distress can be tolerated for specific lengths of time. For others, the senses can become overwhelmed. In an effort to protect oneself, the person may attempt to emotionally separate from the experience, appear in a state of shock, physically shut down and become unconscious. Once the exposure to the overwhelming stimulus(i) has concluded, one is left to wrestle with their thoughts and feelings. They must struggle to make sense of what they have seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. As the mind attempts to process what it has been exposed to, events can begin to manifest that are atypical to the person’s global functioning. At times, what is experienced can begin to interrupt daily functioning and become symptomatic. In particular, symptom criteria found within the trauma-and-stressor-related disorders in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual (5thed.), (DSM-5), the domain home to the diagnoses of post-traumatic stress and acute stress disorders, amongst others, can become present. Such symptoms include intrusion, a persistent negative mood, avoidance of stimuli that reminds the individual of the traumatic event and arousal. Within the film Arrival—directed by Denis Villeneuve, Louise Banks—acted by Amy Adams, displays changes in her emotional operations following the exposure of aliens whom arrive on earth. Specifically, Louise exhibited behaviors similar to those outlined in diagnostic criteria for the trauma related disorders of acute stress and posttraumatic stress disorders, where she became particularly vulnerable to symptoms of intrusion. 

“The experience of a traumatic event is one of the critical events that can give rise to intrusive images” (Boelen & Huntjens, 2008, p. 217). Intrusion, defined as “recurrent, involuntary and intrusive distressing memories” (DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 280), can emerge after one has been victimized, exposed to combat, natural or human-made disasters, and the sudden onset of a medical condition, for examples. Psychological distress following exposure to a traumatic or stressful event is quite variable. As such, symptoms of trauma, including intrusive symptoms, can manifest in numerous ways. Most commonly, intrusion presents as recurrent images, memories, flashbacks and nightmares. Additionally, it is not uncommon for the clinical picture of an individual to also include a combination of fear, sadness, and externalized anger (DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Intrusive symptomatology “may vary by individual but typically involves an anxiety response that includes some form of re-experiencing of or reactivity to the traumatic event” (DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 282). Thus, individuals who are exposed to trauma describe the experience of intrusive symptoms as feeling one is “[reliving] the event as though it were continually recurring in the present” (Herman, 1992, p. 37). 

When one experiences intrusive symptoms, one finds that moments “break(s) spontaneously into consciousness, both as flashbacks during waking states and as traumatic nightmares during sleep” (Herman, 1992, p. 37). These symptoms tend to have the commonality that they are felt as if the emotion or content is similar to the traumatic event. The presence of intrusive images causes physiological reactions that can be brief lasting seconds or occurring over days (DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Thus, despite being in a place of safety, within the mind of an individual experiencing intrusive symptoms, the traumatic event is very much alive. 

Louise is introduced as a linguist professor employed at a university in Seattle, Washington. On a typical day, the world learns that twelve alien transports have settled in various locations around the world. Not surprisingly, there were numerous unanswered questions and many individuals responded with fear. People believed that the world was vulnerable to an apocalyptic, catastrophic end, and the arrival of the aliens was a sign to perform extreme behaviors, such as mass suicides. When Louise’s mother inquired regarding her emotions, Louise asked her anxious mother in a calm manner, “Do I seem nervous?” 

As many, Louise remained abreast of the developments related to the arrival of the aliens. Media filmed individuals in a panic, looting in various countries and exhibiting desperation. She saw that, for some, the arrival of the aliens and their mysterious presence was interpreted as a calamitous event where she remained unencumbered; and appeared curious. Her intrigue fueled interest in working directly with the military when officials arrived at her office door requesting her services to interpret the alien’s means of communication. Louise lacked hesitation to become involved and believed that her specific expertise would be of benefit to their team. 

Upon Louise’s arrival to the camp, she observed an individual being medevaced from the secured government grounds. The military’s physician, Dr. Kettler—performed by Frank Schorpion—informed her that “not everyone is able to process experiences like this.” Dr. Kettler’s response suggested that individuals who are exposed to unfamiliar circumstances that bear stress can become overwhelmed. As a result, the senses can fail to be capable to fully integrate what is experienced in a meaningful way. These experiences can cause specific psychological and physiological responses that may cause one to require medical attention, even emergency care. 

Preparing to enter the “shell” (the alien’s habitat) for the first time, Louise dressed in the required protective gear. She listened to the mathematician on her team, Ian Donnelly—performed by Jeremy Renner—ask questions regarding the alien’s presentation in an effort to emotionally prepare for the experience. As the team drove to the shell and embarked on the mechanical lift to enter, Louise’s breath remained steady. After entering the alien’s habitat, Louise saw the inside of the shell contained a gravity-less environment. In response, she began to struggle comprehending the extraordinary atmosphere. Her breathing transitioned from deep and paced to rapid and shallow. Her eye contact initially attentive to stimuli became unable to fix upon an object and waned. Louise’s thought content, which was typically organized and goal-directed, became compromised, where she was unable to create full comprehendible sentence. When encouraged by Colonel Weber, performed by Forest Whitaker, to leave the lift and fully enter the shell, Louise was unable to provide a comprehensive response and mustered, “I think.” Rather than allow her to continue to struggle to process what was experienced, Colonel Weber took her by her suit and accompanied her into the shell to meet the foreign beings. Once the aliens presented themselves, Louise responded with saucer-eyes and took a short breath inward. Her physical response marked a sudden surprise by the alien’s presentation. This surprise and shock caused her to physically take a step back, to provide space between her and the alien figure. 

To read more, find Arrival, Chapter 1 in Best Psychology in Film….visit: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/best-psychology-in-film-katherine-s-marshall-woods/1130195664?ean=9780578429021


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (5thEdition).Washington DC: Author.

Boelen, P.A. & Huntjens, R.J.C. (2008). Intrusive images in grief: An exploratory study. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy,15, 217-226.           

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror.New York, NY. BasicBooks.