The “Yellowjackets” in Therapy: Mental Health Experts Offer Advice

The Yellowjackets suffer, hallucinate, and show a growing interest in blood sacrifice. We spoke to therapists and they have some advice.

Nobody at Yellowjackets is okay.

It seems harsh, but who would expect teenage plane crash survivors abandoned in the wild to be okay? Those who didn’t die hunted down and ate their own teammates – and that’s what we know so far.

When someone experiences shock, like a plane crash, the body goes into survival mode, said clinical psychologist Dr. Robin Gibbs to IndieWire. The “thinking brain” that takes care of problem solving and judgment “kinda goes offline.”

“It’s like the old story of mothers who can pick up a car with their child under it,” she said. “You don’t think things through; this other part of the brain kind of takes over.”

After the crash, the characters in Yellowjackets don’t really process what happened to them because it’s still happening. It’s one shock after the other, each stressor piles on top of the last. With horrifying incidents happening in quick succession, the emotions associated with those events don’t necessarily go away, Gibbs said. They are stored elsewhere in the mind, leading to “numbness and difficulty making decisions or behaving in typically rational ways.”

As the Yellowjackets continue to weather incredibly trying situations, psychotherapist Jayta Szpitalak said the nature of their fears and anxiety is shifting — and becoming more difficult to manage through traditional therapy techniques.

“It really manifests differently in your brain,” she told IndieWire. “When you have thought-based fears, it’s called ‘top down’ and it’s really effective in psychotherapy. You can rationalize, and logic appeals to that kind of fear. But if you’re afraid of a traumatic event, that’s more fear-based. They don’t actually process the information cerebrally. You don’t intellectualize it.”

A young girl, in makeshift winter clothes, keeping a diary in some sort of outdoor shed; across from her lies the corpse of another teenage girl wearing a blue and yellow school jacket; still from "Yellow jackets"

Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) with the corpse of Jackie (Ella Purnell) in “Yellowjackets”

Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Most television shows allow viewers to grasp a character’s true nature to the point where they can comfortably express how someone would or should behave. “They wouldn’t do that” or someone acting “out of character” are expressions carried by familiarity and poise, but “Yellowjackets” is the rare show that doesn’t offer either. Is adult Shauna (Melanie Lynskey) dating or In Character when she seduces her husband in the studio of the husband she murdered? Is teenage girl Shauna (Sophie Nélisse) as unbalanced with a corpse as her teammates think? Are any of them even the real Shauna, or did that person figuratively die in the crash – and practically disappear after Episode 1?

“When you think of someone who’s had to endure that kind of ongoing stress — a lot of times people don’t,” said Gibbs, who specializes in trauma. “The people who do it have some kind of internal capacity [or] Resources that allow them to cope and continue to survive.”

As IndieWire’s Ben Travers noted in his Season 2 review, “Yellowjackets” is really prone to hallucinations — a time-honored TV tradition of visual storytelling, but in this case possibly also as a way to illustrate the characters’ deteriorating mental states. In real life, Gibbs said hallucinations are symptomatic of “stress beyond what anyone can handle,” especially for wilderness teens, which Szpitalak says could also stem from depression and grief.

“Hunger wreaks havoc on psychological function,” Gibbs observed, pointing to season two’s ongoing storyline of running out of food supplies. “[Hallucination] is certainly a technique for the show, but it’s really a way of expressing what’s happening in these extreme circumstances.”

Sam McMillen, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, explained that while hallucinations occur in various psychotic disorders, they could also be a form of hypervigilance — the constant perception of safety threats based on past experiences (common in combat veterans).

“What would be addressed clinically would be: What puts them in a state where they feel insecure or overly alert to past threats or things that present past threats?” he said. “You may perceive a wolf as a bizarre hallucination of an animal, but if it represents a sense of purpose or something that was violent or aggressive, it could indicate that it is making you feel emotionally unstable – as you must be prepared to that this aggression will happen again.”

A woman in a white sweater looks in the mirror, her reflection anxious; still from "Yellow jackets"

Yellow cypress in “Yellowjackets”

Colin Bentley/SHOWTIME

Season 2 alone has heralded the arrival of winter in the wild, with Jackie’s (Ella Purnell) corpse frozen because she can’t be buried in the frozen ground. As the characters focus solely on survival – temporarily abandoning all rescue efforts just so they can experience Spring – they find unique ways to cope. Misty (Samantha Hanratty) finds a new girlfriend; Shauna talks to Jackie’s body and puts on her makeup; Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) sleepwalks into the night; and many of the others casually support Lottie’s (Courtney Eaton) growing interest in blood sacrifice.

“Sometimes when you’re faced with such an extreme trauma event, your mind can absolutely try to justify it to itself in incredible ways,” Szpitalak said. “You can manifest a whole backstory to try and make yourself comfortable with it… When people lie a lot, they can start believing their lies – it’s similar. When you have a trauma event and it’s that extreme…you fill in the blanks of that story to make you feel better.”

Not only are the girls starving and malnourished, but the underlying uncertainty of their everyday lives is manipulating their bodily systems. “Even the toughest and healthiest of us,” Gibbs said, cannot sustain living like these young athletes.

As the show progresses, more and more characters seem to seek solace in Lottie’s rituals that reflect religious or spiritual practices (and show up in the cult she pursues as an adult).

“It feels like it came out of a need for hope,” Szpitalak said. “When you feel a sense of loss and you don’t have answers… Creating rituals and creating that community can help you understand the situation, which is nonsensical.”

McMillen agreed, noting that traumatic experiences are, at their core, unexpected and Lottie’s growing influence may stem from a need for trust in the trauma’s post-acute state. “Mysticism and things that come from it can help ease that heartache of the unexpected,” he said. “You would want it somehow [make] making yourself vulnerable and trusting someone else just to restore that interpersonal dynamic,” he said.

A teenage girl places her hand on an anxious teenager's chest, a reassuring gesture; still from "Yellow jackets"

Courtney Eaton and Kevin Alves in “Yellow Jackets”

Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME

Viewers don’t know much about how the Yellowjackets coped after being rescued, other than that Lottie was institutionalized and electroshocked by her parents. Treatment varies by person, but Gibbs said she’d likely start with a trauma patient like this by breaking down the events they experienced – like focusing on the plane crash itself, the first night, Doomcoming, etc.

“If you do it in big chunks, it overwhelms their system and they shut down,” she explained. “It’s like a traffic jam. Of course, if you clear a path, the system can take over a little and do some of the work to digest it. Then you do a little more, and then you digest that, and then you do a little more – and over time you can really see things that were so present and triggered so strongly settle down a bit.

This may be part of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which both Gibbs and Szpitalak specifically mentioned. For stressful situations, Szpitalak pointed out breathing exercises that are often recommended for people who are afraid and restless because they automatically calm the body.

“If you have a calming breath, you’ll invite a calming feeling,” she said. “If you can deepen your breath mindfully and strategically, breathe deeply from your diaphragm and slow that process down, then invite the appropriate emotion into your system as well.”

The problem, of course, is that none of the “Yellowjackets” characters follow a typical wilderness mental health protocol (“I hate that,” Gibbs said) — whether it’s breathing, movement control, or keeping a log of specific incidents and triggers — which makes the psychological distress of her adult self even more believable.

Ahead of the series premiere in March, the cast told IndieWire that audiences should be worried about everyone, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

New episodes of “Yellowjackets” will be streamed on Fridays and aired on Sundays.

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