What The Legend of Korra Taught Me About PTSD

CW: eating disorders, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder
This post discusses season 4 of The Legend of Korra; spoiler alert to those who care!

Quarantine has introduced me to both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and I couldn’t believe I had gone so many years without seeing either of these hit shows!

Korra on her recovery journey in The Legend of Korra

While I’m completely obsessed with both shows (after taking many Buzzfeed and personality quizzes, it turns out I’m a Firebender!) and their complex characters (Katara, Asami, Zuko, Jinora, Uncle Iroh!!!! The list goes on and on…), what stood out to me was how Korra dealt with a significant trauma at the end of season 3 and into season 4 of The Legend of Korra. I’ve never seen a more realistic portrayal of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder on screen before, and I found myself relating to Korra more than I ever expected to. What I appreciated about this series is that season 4 doesn’t offer us a new villain for Korra to battle right off the bat. Instead, she battles with herself.

In the post I shared about my specific eating disorder, I mentioned a long period of nightly nausea spells as a child that morphed into a full-blown phobia of getting sick. In that post I wrote that my eating disorder is defined as an “aversion to eating due to a traumatic experience.” Trauma (as my therapist defines it) is a real or perceived threat of serious harm or death, with perception being the key word. While some may have dealt with chronic nausea and grown up without any fears around it, my experience was different. Real or not, as a child I continued to think “This is scary and keeps happening, and no one is explaining it to me.” What my current therapist has helped me understand is that due to the constant spells of nausea in my childhood that left me more and more terrified each night I spent on the bathroom floor, I now experience CPTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. (The difference between CPTSD and PTSD is that complex post-traumatic stress disorder results from repeated trauma over months or years, rather than from a single traumatic event.) I can feel intense, physical anxiety when it comes to certain smells, bodily sensations, and even some bathrooms.

At the end of season 3, Korra is tortured, suffocated, and poisoned by villain Zaheer and though she survives, the experience leaves her traumatized, physically and mentally. When season 4 begins, we see flashbacks of Korra’s early recovery period, with symptoms of PTSD leaving her unable to stand, eat, or sleep. When Korra goes to see Katara, a healing waterbender, for help in her recovery process, Katara says she can help guide her healing process, but whether she gets better or not is up to Korra. She proceeds to show Korra how involved her mind is in her recovery, eventually helping her to walk again.

During a particularly frustrating healing session, Katara tells Korra “the mind can be a powerful ally or your greatest enemy,” and assures her that she’s safe even though her body thinks she’s still in danger. I perked up when I heard this, as my therapist often tells me that my anxiety is responding to a false alarm in the body, trying to protect me from a threat that doesn’t actually exist.

Korra sees a hallucination of herself in the Avatar State in The Legend of Korra

This is something Korra continues to struggle with, particularly as she experiences flashbacks and hallucinations from her trauma. It’s difficult to think you’re safe when your body feels as though it’s reliving your traumatic experience over and over again. (I’ve been told I need to read the book The Body Keeps the Score, and I look forward to reflecting on this post once I’ve done so.)

Eventually, haunted by her trauma and feeling isolated and misunderstood, Korra disconnects from her loved ones and leaves to travel the world alone. Though everywhere she goes, she is followed by an eerie hallucination of herself bound in chains. This was a beautiful (albeit spooky) representation of how it feels to be bound to your trauma, particularly during the scene in which Korra’s projected Avatar-State-self uses the chains to start “dragging her down with her” into sinking mud during an intense hallucination.

Korra quite literally battles her own mind, despite standing up to her hallucinated self and stating “You’re just in my mind. You’re not real.” Even though anxiety does lie in our minds, it can manifest itself very physically, and for someone struggling with PTSD, it’s difficult to recognize anxiety for what it is.

It doesn’t matter that Korra recognizes that her hallucinations are only in her mind, her physical symptoms are very real. As someone who has grown up struggling with symptoms of fear and anxiety, constantly being told the symptoms were all in my head—that none of what I was experiencing and feeling was real—I could empathize strongly with Korra. It took me a long time to learn that while my anxiety came from my mind, I was still experiencing physical symptoms. I still struggle with validating my own feelings and experiences, but now I know how to soothe both my anxious mind and anxious body.

After Korra does a lot of work in her recovery, she still feels haunted by her trauma. She continues to relive the torture she endured, unable to find peace and live her life as she did before the events of season 3. She decides to face her fears and confront Zaheer (now in prison), hoping that if she sees him chained up she won’t see him as a threat in her mind anymore.

In a scene I initially opposed (why would Korra return to the man who did this to her?!), Korra faces Zaheer and confronts her fears, which turned the scene into one of my favorite of the entire show. It turns out that Zaheer is able to meditate into the Spirit World—something Korra has been unable to do due to her trauma—and offers to help guide her back there himself, to show her she has “all the power in the world and the freedom to use it.”

As she begins meditating with Zaheer, Korra is confronted yet again with a flashback of him torturing her. She begins to panic, her body feeling as though she’s in danger, but Zaheer encourages her to let the scene play out. She doesn’t think she can do it, saying she has no control, yet Zaheer continues to stay with her, telling her not to fear what might have been, but rather to accept what happened to her. Soon, she falls with him into the Spirit World.

Korra and Raava reconnect in The Legend of Korra

When Korra realizes that she’s made it through the most difficult part of her anxiety and landed safely in the Spirit World, she is reconnected with Raava, the spirit of light and peace who lives within the Avatar. After being poisoned by Zaheer, Korra feared her connection with Raava had been severed, but Raava immediately reminds her, “I have always been inside of you.”

When I took Eat Breathe Thrive’s “Yoga for Eating Disorder Recovery” course, I was reconnected to my own Raava. As I learned various skills to restore my connection between my mind and body, I learned that I had the ability to control my anxiety within me all along. With ujjayi breathing that activates my vagus nerve (the one responsible for the “rest and digest” part of my nervous system), and honoring the needs of my body through interoception, I could lower the effects of the CPTSD, if only by a little bit.

I’ve also learned, like Korra, that sitting in my discomfort and letting my fear and anxiety play out won’t kill me (even when it may feel like it will). My therapist taught me that our minds search for patterns, and when I was constantly trying to numb away the anxiety or distract myself from it entirely, I was actually making it worse. I was reinforcing that the anxiety was dangerous by not addressing it, building up the fear in my head more and more. When Zaheer tells Korra not to run from her fear, to sit in the discomfort of her PTSD and accept what happened to her, she finally experiences relief. She relinquishes control, does the uncomfy thing, and it starts a new neural pathway in her brain—a new pattern—that shows her that she is safe.

As my therapist reminds me, my anxiety will always be there, there’s no stopping it entirely. But I can make it more manageable, so it won’t interrupt my life so significantly. Korra reflects on this concept, as well, as she leaves Zaheer’s prison. She acknowledges that she won’t forget the awful experience of being tortured and poisoned, but she is able to accept what happened, and that’s what will make her stronger.

While I have done a lot of work around my fears and anxiety, I’m not at the acceptance stage yet. Honestly, until I saw The Legend of Korra (and talked to my therapist) I didn’t know acceptance was a stage I could reach in my CPTSD. There’s a lot of frustration around the trauma I endured over and over growing up. But I have learned how to manage the anxiety to be able to live my life, and I continue to build on these skills with every passing day, week, month, and year. What’s more, I’m finally at the stage where I can process the trauma itself because I am able to manage my triggers and anxiety. I’m proud of my strength, and how far I’ve come in the last few years.

I’m so grateful to have seen myself in Korra, and I hope that we continue seeing PTSD and anxiety represented realistically on screen.

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