It’s a common trope in films and TV shows, where someone has an elastic band around their wrist or they’re told to have one and snap it to stop bad thoughts. Sounds good, right? Wrong. Keep reading to find out why snapping rubber bands is a bad idea.
This article will talk about self-harm, which might not be evident by the title of this article. Thus, please be careful if this topic might be triggering for you.
Is It A Trope?
I’ve seen the use of snapping rubber bands so often on TV shows and in films that now if I see anyone with a rubber band on their wrist I know it’s to indicate that they have a mental health issue or learning disability of some sort.
Snapping rubber bands probably isn’t recognised as a troupe, and if it’s not, it should be, because it’s a lazy device used to say theirs something different about a character. How’s that different to bad cowboys having black hats and good cowboys having white hats in old westerns?
To illustrate my point, I thought I’d list a few films and TV shows I’ve seen where snapping rubber bands on a character’s wrist or arm features in them. After you’ve read this, let me know if you think this should count as a trope in the comments section below.
In Mile 22, Wahlberg’s character Silva is introduced as being some sort of bipolar genius whose brain moves so fast that sometimes he can’t cope. On a practical level, what this means is that, throughout the film, Silva has a rubber band on his right wrist that he’ll compulsively snap in order to help him focus.
I’ve watched this film, and it’s a good film, but I’m not sure what they were trying to go for with the rubber band snapping in Mile 22. James Silva, played by Mark Wahlberg, apparently wears and snaps a rubber band because he’s gifted but with issues (some kind of high functioning Aspergers maybe?), as a way to help him focus. Someone even asks what James Silva’s psychological problem is and then later on his team speculate on his mental health problem. However, throughout the film, he just seems to be snapping the rubber band out of nothing more than habit.
Have you seen Mile 22? If so, what are your thoughts on James Silva and his rubber band snapping?
In the third (and last?) instalment of the Taken franchise, they introduce a character, Franck Dotzler, played by Forest Whitaker. The Franck Dotzler character has a couple of quirks, the first being that he carries a chess piece around and the second being that he constantly snaps a rubber band around his wrist. However, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for these quirks. Maybe the quirks were inserted because Franck Dotzler needed to be marked out as being different, unique in the way he thinks and behaves. At least, that would be my guess.
In Amazon Studios Honey Boy, the lead character who’s in rehab uses a rubber band. In fact, you can see him with one on each wrist. The lead character is meant to be snapping the rubber bands for therapeutic reasons.
The Suite Life on Deck
The Suite Life on Deck also used snapping rubber bands as a way to stop Cody from having thoughts about Bailey in “My Oh Maya” (episode 4 of season 3). This is a show aimed at teens, which seems an odd behaviour to introduce as an unhealthy way of coping with thoughts you don’t want. Especially as self-harm is an issue among 14-year-old in the UK, with 22% of girls and 9% of boy engaging in self-harm (BBC News).
In episode 14 (Whose Appy Now?) of the third season of E.R, snapping a rubber band features in Dr Greene‘s love life. Also, someone is advised to snap a rubber band to overcome their rituals and is considered as a way to stop someone else sucking their thumb.
Snapping Rubber Bands: The Myth
The basic premise of snapping a rubber band to help with your mental health is that someone with anxiety, disassociation, or other intrusive thoughts wears a rubber band around their wrist. Then, when they feel like they’re not able to cope with their issues, they simply pull the rubber band away from their wrist and let it go so it snaps back into their wrist. The idea is this action and the pain it causes will distract the person from their intrusive thoughts, disassociation, anxiety, etc.
However, the snapping rubber bands method has been suggested for other uses too, such as a way to manage a diet. Kelly Osbourne’s clinical therapist recommended snapping rubber bands when you wanted to eat chocolate.
The Problems With Snapping Rubber Bands
The problem with snapping rubber bands is that you’re training yourself to use physical pain to distract yourself from emotional and psychological pain and discomfort. In short, you’re teaching yourself to self-harm. By that I mean you’re intentionally hurting yourself to cope with other forms of unpleasantness. If you engage in this behaviour long enough, this behaviour will become automatic and could extend to more harmful ways of causing pain to cope with similar or worst situations and feelings.
The reason why snapping rubber bands can lead to the development of self-harming behaviours is the same reason Pavlov was able to train dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell: association. We all start to salivate when we’re about to eat because it’s part of the eating and digestive process. Pavlov took advantage of this natural response by ringing a bell every time he presented the dogs with food. With enough pairings of the sound of the bell and food, the dogs learnt that the sound of the bell meant food was coming. Thus, you could then ring a bell and the dogs will start to salivate in readiness for food, but without the food being presented. This is known as classical conditioning.
Thus, it’s possible the same process of relying on pain to distract us from our negative thoughts and feelings could be subjected to the same classical conditioning response. The result of which is the person learning that the only way they can cope with negative thoughts and feelings is to use pain, or any difficult situation, for that matter. Pain becomes associated with relief.
On the whole, most people might be alright using this snapping rubber band method, but for those of us with mental health issues, especially depression, are at risk of turning pain into an unhealthy way to cope with their issues.
What TV shows and films have you seen with someone snapping rubber bands in?
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to share your experiences with snapping rubber bands in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Harmless – A self-harm and suicide support organisation.
LifeSIGNS – Self-injury guidance and support network.
Alumina – Self-harm support for 14-19-year-olds.
Self Injury Support – Support service for women and girls affected by self-injury, trauma, and abuse.
Global Crisis Lines and UK Crisis Lines – Two mental health support information pages listed on this site.
60 thoughts on “Snapping Rubber Bands: The Ills Of Old TV Tropes”
This is all so true! I was once suggested to use the rubber band method by a therapist and I immediately left them as ai have a history of self harm. It’s absolutely not a healthy way to deal with things. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m actually surprised to hear a real therapist offer it as a strategy, especially if you have a history of self-harming
I never really thought much into this, kind of just looked at is as harmless self teaching but it makes sense that it is teaching us to replace emotional pain with physical pain. Probably making it harder to cope when bigger traumas happen and we aren’t able to cope by hurting ourselves enough to make that pain go away. I never used a rubber band but I definitely scratched myself raw at times trying to distract myself from the emotional pain. Also at times I’d punched a hard surface just to get that burst of pain through my hand and arm, hoping to distract me as well. Self harm never the right way and it only hurts us in the end. Glad I learned that early on and I wish a lot of the younger kids in this world would realize it too
Now you mention it, the rubber bands thing is something I’ve seen A LOT in films and TV shows – especially from the US. I never knew how it could be represnted and how detrimental it could be. You’re always opening my eyes to new ways of thinking!
Thank you ?
This is very interesting to me and honestly I can relate to this one. I never used a rubber band but as a teen my anxiety was through the roof. I would feel as though I was going numb and it would scare me so I would slap myself on the hand or cheek to try to get the feeling back. Of course it didn’t help and this rubber band method is similar although not helpful to encourage. Over the years I started to manage and control my anxiety naturally and with other helpful means. Great read!
Thanks for sharing your experience and I’m glad you’ve been able to find healthy ways to manage your anxiety
Wonderfully thought provoking post!!
I have noticed band snapping on movies but I haven’t thought into it too much. It just seems so obvious that it could train self-harm now that you point it out.
Great post, I look forward to reading more of your work!
Thank you ?
This is all true, I think the point is that it is preferable than actually harming yourself which may cause a danger to life it it goes too deep or requires stitches. I think it’s good to be used as a short term coping method paired with therapy or something else.
There’s certainly an argument to be made for snapping rubber bands to be used as a harm minimisation strategy for someone who is trying to give up more harmful methods of self-harming, which I talk about in an article I’m currently working on
I never realised to be honest in movies and shows, but now that I think about it i did see it but never really knew what it stood for. I think as you said it can lead to the idea of using physical harm to replace the emotional one, which surely doesn’t help. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for commenting
You open my eyes to something new, each time I read one of your posts.
That makes me happy ?
I remember watching something on tv with a character using the rubber band and thinking what is that. I remember being younger and having to ask my parents what is that. I remember when they told me and I was shocked. I never felt like it was right and glad you are talking about the way it’s portrayed in media. The media really needs to think about these things before putting them in shows.
I’ve never considered how damaging this trope can be for those struggling with mental health concerns- and it certainly belittles the issues people face in their day to day life. Thank you for sharing 🙂
Thanks for commenting
I never thought about how damaging is this. Thanks for writing this post
Thanks for commenting
Wow, this is an interesting outlook on snapping rubber bands. Personally I never thought of it this way, it was always something kids done at school for fun. I definitely agree it’s not something people should do as it might increase their need to self-harm. Very interesting and important post, thank you for sharing.
Thanks for reading and for commenting
When we were in high school, my best friend struggled a lot with self harm. She tried the rubber band thing for a while, it helped a bit but she said no where near as much as tv shows portray. She said at the worst moments its simply not enough because she was still searching for a greater pain after she snapped the rubber band. I have used it a bit to stop myself from spiraling, and it has worked a bit just to “snap” myself back to reality but I never had self harm issues. I think its benefits are also really often overstated in TV and its harms are never explored.
You’re right, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them mention the negatives of snapping rubber bands when they included it in a TV show or film
This was really interesting to read. That being said, I can’t say that I have ever watched for that in shows and movies. Looking back at my own therapy journey, I did have a therapist suggest this approach when it came to my eating disorder behaviours at one point. I didn’t end up overly committing to the idea and moved onto the next approach, however, I can’t say that the potential risks of doing that ever crossed my mind. I guess I’m glad that it wasn’t an approach that I stuck with. Moving forward, I’m definitely going to be watching for this in shows/movies.
You’re the second person who’ve send it was something that was recommended to them, I’m actually quite surprised it’s that common in the real world
I’ve never looked at it with the perspective of it being self-harm and that makes total sense. It is treated as a “character quirk” instead of with the seriousness it deserves. Using it to encourage the behavior should be avoided, but if this was used with real context and as a way to show its potential harm then I’d be open to it.
I doubt they’d explore the potential harm of snapping rubber bands in a film, but it could probably be done in a TV series should someone want to take that up
Really interesting idea for a post! I’d noticed that rubber band snapping trope in an episode of Bones where a character uses it for anger management. I agree that it can’t be a healthy coping strategy to cause physical pain to stop a habit etc. I’ve also seen it suggested as a self-harm management minimisation technique. With the aim being to de-escalate self-harm to something more minimal and less harmful but with the end result to stop the rubber band snapping eventually too.
I actually discuss the harm minimisation strategy for using the rubber band method in an upcoming article
I don’t remember seeing rubber bands on TV or in movies, but I don’t watch much TV or movies. However, I do remember it being in a book–Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich. A character who got a job as a school bus driver started doing it as a way to condition himself to stop dropping F-bombs in front of the kids. It didn’t feel like an effective or healthy way of changing behavior patterns to me, and I didn’t think it worked as a joke at all. It’s terrifying to think a real therapist might suggest this to a patient.
That really interesting that it appeared in a book you read, it never even crossed my mind to consider it’s use in a novel
Training techniques for SO many things, from parental discipline to self discipline to puppy and cat training almost always findssome way to incorporate a need to use physical pain to teach someone the meaning of ‘no’, and I think the use of pain and violence to teach others and ourselves ‘no’ has accounted and helped shape for many of the violent troubles in the world. A little thing like rubber band snapping, while it may just be a sting, ends up sinking into consciousness and saying “pain is a good way to stop someone from doing something”.
Thank you so much for highlighting your thoughts on this as an unhealthy practice!
Exactly. The reason we’re told not to hit child and why laws have been put in place to protect them from being hit is that hitting a child doesn’t help them to learn anything when you’re telling them off, instead it can cause fear and trauma
<3 Beautifully put!
This is so interesting. I remember this being recommended to me when I was young to stop bad habits. I never knew it was a movie troupe, too. Thank you for sharing this – I think your perspective on how it relates to self-harm is very important.
Thank you. I’ve been surprised by how many people have had this recommend to them
It’s a strange coincidence but a friend just told me to put a rubber band around my wrist and when I have a negative thought, to snap it. Negative reinforcement! A double ouch. I’ll need to think of a new method to stop my monkey brain! Thanks.
Negative reinforcements rarely work out
Huh, I hadn’t realized it was a trope. But I have also not seen any of those titles you shared! I can absolutely see how it could act as sort of a “gateway” into more harmful behaviors. Important warning!
It probably isn’t a trope, it just seems like it to me
I suffer claustrophobia and was pretty bad with it at school. My mum suggested the rubber band technique to help manage the dizziness, but no matter how many times I snapped it, it never worked.
Definitely not a way of dealing with anxiety!
Graded exposure being done with a therapist and safe environment would be a far better strategy to tackle claustrophobia
I remember using a rubber band when I was 18ish and going through everything. But you’re so right, it just trains you to distract yourself with pain, and when I started getting counselling it was one of the first things she weaned me off of!
Katie | katieemmabeauty.com
I’m glad you were able to over come your rubber band snapping habit
I never made that connection with snapping rubber bands and mental health. But after reading this article I won’t be able to un-see it.
I had a couple friends who self harmed in middle school. From what I understood of their journeys, self harm is a slippery slope. I was surprised reading through others comments that any therapist still recommends the rubber band snapping practice. While I understand the need for a physical, outward expression of inner mental pain there are much healthier ways to achieve this.
The only reasonable use of snapping a rubber band would be as a less harmful replacement behaviour for someone who’s already self-harming
Great post. It helps to realize that is an important warning in the use of rubber bands.
A lot of people I know wear rubber bands on their wrist and snap it every time they have problem. I thought that snapping rubber band is a good idea. It helps you with nothing.
I’m surprised by home common it seems to be among the people you know
Very interesting. I hadn’t realized how prevalent this trope is.
Thanks for commenting
Is snapping rubber bands the same as playing with fidget spinners in this context? Never really thought of this as a trope or stigma, but I thought it’s one of the many ways movies can portray them. I also appreciate how you listed movies or TV shows that depict this kind of behavior; it makes it more compelling — good job. I also like how specific you are with the discussion — from the problems to the science behind it itself, and its relation to other mental disorders. Very informative and educational article as always! Whenever I read your content, I learn something new. Love love love. Thanks for sharing!
I don’t think I’ve ever seen fidget spinners uses in a film or TV show, nor would there be the risk of it leading to self-harming. However, fidget spinners could be a good way to keep your hands busy to deal with conditions like skin picking and trying to give up smoking
This is informative! It is important to learn to communicate emotions in a healthy and appropriate way rather than discharging it with a physical act.
Indeed it is
Such an interesting read, never thought about how damaging this trope can be yet seen it in so many TV shows and heard so many people suggest it – it’s belittling and patronising.
In my opinion, it should only ever be used as a harm reduction method for people who already self-harm