Source: Lauren Shippen
By Tara Santora
Lauren Shippen has long struggled with anxiety . Her panic attacks can be miserable—but they have also sparked her imagination. What if an attack triggered something even more startling—say, for example, time travel?
This line of thinking led Shippen to create The Bright Sessions, a science fiction podcast about therapy for the “strange and unusual.” Therapist Dr. Bright counsels characters with special abilities, like the capacity to time travel, bend others to their will, or hear others’ thoughts and feel their emotions. Over the course of four seasons (which concluded in 2018), Dr. Bright and her patients deal with the fallout of their powers. Teenage empath Caleb, for example, learns how to control his anger after getting into a fistfight. Time traveler Sam, voiced by Shippen, practices techniques to manage her anxiety so she doesn’t pop out of the present when she feels overwhelmed.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Shippen hopes the podcast makes her listeners feel less alone—that they can find someone recognizable and relatable within her fantastical version of the therapist-client relationship. She is set to release her spin-off podcast series, The AM Archives, later this month, a young adult novel based on the original series this summer, and a television adaptation down the line. Earlier this year, Shippen also co-founded Atypical Artists, a podcast production studio focused on telling stories by diverse creators.
HowdoesThe Bright Sessions relate to your own mental health experiences?
I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life, and I wanted a way to express the experience of having a panic attack. I always loved sci-fi, so I thought it would be interesting to have a world where when you have a panic attack, you time travel. When I thought of how to tell the story of this anxious, time-traveling girl, I didn’t want to use monologues or audio diaries—I didn’t want to listen to my own voice that much. Then the idea of therapy came up, and it opened the floodgates.
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Mental health is something I’m passionate about, and therapy felt like a natural way to tell this story. Like everybody else, it’s something I struggle with. My sister is a psychologist, so she helped me figure out exactly how therapy sessions run. And then I went to therapy myself and used some of my real-world experiences in the story as well.
What do you think makes a good story?
The most important thing is that regardless of the circumstances of the world—whether there are supernatural abilities or it’s set in a particular country—the story has grounded, real-feeling characters. They can make any story work.
But I’m not creating a fully well-rounded person at the beginning. I build, pulling from real life—people I know, identities that I have or that I’ve encountered—and represent the world as I move through it. To make characters feel real, it’s about being open to the process of discovering the character and representing their world.
Is it important to you that fiction goes beyond serving as an escape to have a deeper impact on our reality?
Fiction that is just an escape is very valuable. It’s important to turn off your brain sometimes and enjoy a rom-com or an action movie—but even those types of stories can have enormous societal consequences that can either be positive or negative. Pop culture is often looked at as a frivolous undertaking when in reality it drives a lot of the conversation around politics and culture and society.
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One thing that falls along the line of escapism is catharsis, like the TV show This Is Us, which is designed to make you cry every week. I think that has value. Sometimes you want something that will let you feel your emotions or connect to something and feel less alone. The Bright Sessions is not a fun romp in the sun all the time. It has light moments, but it is a fairly emotionally heavy show.
I never approach writing by trying to send a message. I’ve been accused of that by some listeners, but I don’t think having multiple characters of a specific identity is pushing a social agenda. That’s just the way life is sometimes. But there are things I’m passionate about and have strong opinions on that are going to find a way into my writing.
Even though I’m not trying to create a big change in the world, I know that The Bright Sessions has had real-life effects on people. There are fans telling me it helped them get out of an abusive relationship or go to therapy or come out to their parents , which is a wonderful, crazy, scary thing to hear from a listener.
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What is the importance of having diverse story creators?
For me, it’s about having multiple perspectives because even if you're the greatest storyteller in the world, you can still only write from your perspective. This doesn’t mean you have to write only what you know, but it does mean there are certain things you’re not going to connect with or fully understand. So if you want to tell the most engaging stories and challenge yourself as a storyteller and push the envelope, you have to get other perspectives.
Talk about what it means to be a good person. Start early: When you read bedtime stories, for example, ask your toddler whether characters are being mean or nice and explore why.
Diversity is a hot button issue. Some people think you’re just hiring someone for brownie points, just to have them in the room. There are some who do that, but for me, it’s about having a diversity of perspectives—whether that means different genders or sexualities or races, or having another queer, brunette, white girl like myself who has a different perspective than I do. It’s important to have that because your stories can get stale if you’re constantly surrounding yourself with people with the same perspective.
Treatment for Nightmares and Bad Dreams
You were previously a professional actor. Why did you break from traditional acting and enter the podcasting arena?
It honestly came from a desire to create a complex, interesting, dynamic female role for myself. Hollywood still has a huge female character problem. It’s getting better each year, but, especially when you’re coming up, it can be pretty slim pickings. I was frustrated with the roles available to me, and I wanted to learn different aspects of putting together a story. Podcasting seemed like a way to tell a story that would be manageable for one person, not like a web series that costs thousands of dollars to develop. I have a background in music, so I knew a little about sound editing. Then I experimented and fell in love with the format.
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What are some of the strengths of podcasting as a way to tell stories?
Podcasting is much more personal and intimate than other modes of storytelling. Most people listen on headphones, so the story goes directly into their ears. I love the personal connection you can have with a book through a solitary experience, and audio stories level it up by giving you voices and sounds.
And the fact that there isn’t a visual component engages your mind—there’s a bit more active participation. The setting of The Bright Sessions, especially in the beginning, is therapy, so you can imagine you're a fly on the wall or you're listening to a tape because that fourth wall created by watching on a screen doesn't exist. With a podcast, it feels like you're there.
Tara Santora is an Editorial Intern at Psychology Today.