Cameras to manage anxiety?

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reading about cameras. So much so, you might assume I’m planning to buy one in the immediate future, but actually no. I’m reading about cameras because, well, it’s calming. For some reason I can’t quite identify yet, reading about all sorts of different DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and some of the newer mirrorless cameras helps me manage anxiety. I *am* interested in cameras, because well… photography is part of who I am. It’s a hobby I’ve claimed since I was a child. However I’m not pining after the latest and greatest camera right now. I just read about cameras when I get anxious. Why is that? All I know is that if I find myself browsing pages on Ken Rockwell’s excellent site, I know I’m likely unsettled.

I can trace some of this back to when I wanted to learn more about my current primary camera – a Nikon D90 – after years away from using an SLR regularly. After that I started reading about the newer models which replaced it over the following 12 years, then I read up on some of the film cameras of my youth, and then some of the ones that had been in my dad’s collection. Things got a little scary down that dark alley, so I shifted back to modern digital cameras. Now rarely a day goes by when I’m not reading about a lens or camera or some aspect of technique even when the pandemic keeps me inside, away from taking as many photos as I’d like.

This has me thinking about Central Coherence Theory, which basically says that humans organize and process information within a context that gives it meaning, looking for the big picture. We focus on information which fits with the big picture and set aside information which doesn’t fit with it. It’s a concept I learned about when researching Aspergers and Autism after my son was diagnosed at the age of four. At the time there was a theory postulating those on the autism spectrum have weak central coherence. It proposed they have a reduced ability to coalesce information around a central idea, and discard the rest. The results is a flood of extraneous information which overwhelms and leads to reduced executive function which is typically seen in those on the autism spectrum. I’m not sure if it was ever accepted, but on a practical level the concepts helped me understand some of my son’s challenges. How does it apply here though?

Well, like most things with me, it comes back to trauma. My brain spends an inordinate amount of time avoiding awareness of memories of traumatic things which happened to me. Holding all those awful things in mind would overwhelm me, make it impossible to function. So those memories are pushed down out of awareness. To keep memories at bay, to keep my mind from pulling information back together and putting disparate pieces together thus finding the core idea, my brain tries to protects, tries not to know. It’s just part of how PTSD works.

How better to keep these memories from floating to the surface and coalescing into awareness of the terrible truth of my childhood than finding something else to focus on. Enter cameras.

Fortunately photography is a deep and complex topic. I can ask myself countless interesting questions based on my interest. What would be the best travel camera for when COVID winds down and I can visit interesting places again? (A Canon EOS M5 or Nikon D3500 are small enough to fit in my purse) What lenses make sense to purchase next that work with my longer term camera upgrade plan? (a Nikon 10-24mm DX ultra wide) Which camera will fit my hand size best? (heh.. none, though small SLRs are okish) What’s the best way to get film developed and scanned these days? (Turns out there is a lab in town) What’s the next book I should read about photography? (The Photographer’s Eye) Where should I take my next photographic vacation to? (Yosemite – my wife has never been there) The list is almost endless, engaging for my mind, and most importantly, far from my trauma memories.

Well, mostly distant from those memories. Actually, there are some crossovers with the more adverse experiences of my childhood. Stumbling across those connections when I’m trying to avoid knowing can be far, far too much. It is more destabilizing than a vivid flashback since it connects to the topic here and now… and then I have to deal with my trigger reactions, anxiety, body memories, fuzziness. Yay.

What surprises me most about this is that things I know be triggering about cameras and photography are losing their ability to invoke strong reactions in me. As memories spilled forth early on, I never thought I would be able to handle a real SLR camera again, much less a film Nikon, the camera choice of my father. Yet now I not only own one Nikon SLR, but two. One digital and one film. The sound of the shutter no longer makes me jump. As long as the camera is in my hand, in my control, I am ok.

As I read, learn, and distract, control comes back to my hands. I choose what happens now. I chose to take photography back. I choose to read about cameras when I am anxious. I choose to write about these things because this is my life. I am no longer powerless. I no longer have to suffer through triggers and overwhelm blindly. I have coping skills, including camera distraction to manage the anxiety that comes with my memories. I no longer have to white-knuckle overwhelming times.

It is a slow path to make sense of my experiences, to take my life back, but I work at it one click, one article at a time.