What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a state of inner turmoil which almost all of us will experience to differing degrees and around different events in our lives. It’s a natural human response caused by the release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which make our heart beat faster, make us feel sick or dizzy, restless and tense. While there are physical similarities in our response to anxiety and to fear, the two are subtly different. Where fear is usually of a specific object or situation, anxiety is more a general feeling of unease or worry that doesn’t have a specific cause or trigger. Anxiety is often described as a sense of apprehension, uncertainty or dread that can be ongoing and to different degrees, rather than a momentary response.
“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”
‘Coping’ with anxiety
To counter our various anxieties, we often adopt quick coping mechanisms. Some of us might ‘eat our feelings’ with sweets and junk foods. Some of us use alcohol to drown anxious feelings or we take prescribed antidepressants to manage our levels of anxiety. While these ‘crutches’ can feel helpful, they can only be temporary because, in using them, we remove the opportunity and our ability to develop personal tools to cope, such as breathing exercises and healthy eating. ‘Crutches’ also risk exacerbating anxiety in other ways: substance abuse carries huge health risks of its own and withdrawal from alcohol consumption or ‘tapering’ from antidepressants can be complex and dangerous.
Animation and anxiety
Anxiety can sometimes feel debilitating but the good news is there are some very simple steps which can help us address it. As with any presenting problem, understanding is the first step to change – and animation can be invaluable in helping to build an understanding. Through its use of metaphor and symbolism, animation is a creative, relatable method of describing anxiety and how it can be managed. It can remove the stigma and help us avoid the ‘crutches’ which may exacerbate anxiety in the long run. Most importantly, animation can speak to us at the time of our choosing, when and where we need it, via social media.
Animation is innocuous and easy to absorb; it can use imagery to explain why anxiety occurs, a visual representation the viewer takes in without fear. In my video on anxiety, the state is depicted by a pink octopus – as viewers, we suspend our cognitive engagement and recognise our own struggles in the actions of the octopus.
The animation provides a safe space for us to explore, process and understand our anxiety, describing our symptoms and experiences in a way that is both accessible and non-threatening.
Animation is an immediate, accessible and powerful therapeutic tool, congruent with traditional approaches to treatment. It provides a controlled – and controllable – way of exploring and understanding anxiety, while also reminding us that anxiety is both natural and normal.
History of anxiety
The history of anxiety is as old as civilisation. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, called it ‘hysteria’, a woman’s illness, blaming it on ‘the movement of the uterus’. In the 1900s, Freud emphasised the role of unconscious conflicts in anxiety, believing an unconscious mind, outside of awareness, influences our behaviour. And the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of disorders, officially recognised it as a ‘disorder’ in the 1980s.
Despite efforts since the time of the ancient Greeks to understand anxiety, disorders related to this state are regarded as the largest presenting problem, affecting roughly 20 per cent of the population at any one time. Furthermore, the incidence of anxiety seems to now be rising dramatically (although the medicalisation of modern society could be playing a part in this statistical rise).
Causes of anxiety
It’s helpful to think of anxiety as originating from three general causes, and these causes can intertwine:
Existential anxiety arises from concerns about the meaning and purpose of our lives. The challenge by science (for example, by Copernicus and Darwin) to traditional ways of thinking about religion has meant God is no longer accepted as a given. While, in one sense, this gives us more freedom, it does mean a personal re-evaluation is required – how do we live ‘our best’ life?
Past or childhood experiences are a common trigger of anxiety. Familial relationships and how we are raised as children has a huge effect on how watchful we were and how hypervigilant we’re likely to become. This will inform how we manage adult relationships with work colleagues, partners and our own children, and how we care for our parents when they are older.
Practical anxiety comes out of our day-to-day worries about how we’re going to pay the rent, keep a job, find a partner, stay healthy, juggle childcare, get an MOT, afford the groceries, etc. In short, the challenges of everyday living.
In the experience of most people, these three origins of anxiety aren’t separate but merge together and modulate in a variety of ways. Furthermore, any one aspect can suddenly push aside the others and take centre stage. For example, we might be made redundant, go through a divorce and lose a parent – or we might win the lottery, all of which would alter our psychological landscape.
Alternatively, other presenting problems such as ‘social anxiety’ or ‘performance anxiety’, around a work presentation for example, can play into several themes at the same time, such as parental expectations (‘Dad always wanted me to become a CEO’), existential anxiety (‘if I have a panic attack I might die’) and practical worries (‘if I make a fool of myself I can kiss goodbye to that promotion’).
Our modern understanding of anxiety extends from general ennui to FOMO and insecurity around work and relationships. All of which can dictate how we live and feel our entire lives. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we have developed anxiety about the level of anxiety we (or our loved ones) have: ‘Why do I feel this way? Is this even normal?’
“You are standing on the shaky sands of doubt. Stand on the firm ground of not knowing.”
There are lots of practical steps to manage or control anxiety, all of which stem from a change in perspective, in understanding our own relationship with it. Understanding anxiety is the key to, if not entirely removing it, at least making it manageable. From the very start it’s best to imagine anxiety, not as a disease or as ‘the enemy’, but as an adaptive response to the challenges of everyday life. Attacking anxiety, or trying to cut it out, is attacking ourselves.
The approach is twofold – physical and psychological – and, of course, these two approaches shade into each other.
Some very practical physical steps can be summed up using the acronym ‘SHED’: sleep, hydration, exercise and diet. Each of these is crucial to physically ensure we are psychologically ‘fit’ to address the challenges of the day. By reviewing the relationship to our physical self, we coincidentally address some of the ‘crutches’ and develop healthier habits.
Psychologists agree the biggest psychological change we can make to reduce anxiety is to become more mindful, particularly of our own inner narratives. Each of us develops a habitual and self-reinforcing way of thinking about our relationship to the world, which becomes our ‘script’. This way of thinking often creates, then perpetuates, unnecessary anxiety. CBT therapists state that it’s important to recognise how we are thinking, then identify the anomalies (so called ‘snags, ‘traps’ and ‘dilemmas’). Addressing these helps to give us a sense of agency, an understanding that we are the ones in charge of our thinking. Recognising them also helps us become more resilient, as we gauge how effectively we handle obstacles and problems and realise how quickly we can recover from the setbacks we face.
“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”
- Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting over 18 per cent of the population.
- Women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder.
- 7 per cent of children aged three and 17 years have diagnosed anxiety. Because this can display as behavioural issues, it’s often misdiagnosed as ADHD and medicated.
- 40 per cent of social phobias appear before the age of 10 and 95 per cent before the age of 20.
- The number of antidepressant items prescribed each year has tripled in the past two decades.
- SSRIs are the most widely prescribed antidepressant – fluoxetine is the best known (under the brand name Prozac).
- Antidepressant medications rank third in pharma sales worldwide; the market was valued at $16bn in 2020.
Benefits of animation
- Animation is accessible, especially via social media, and completely free to air for people who require it (via mobile phones).
- Animation can reach cohorts who struggle to read and write, eg those with a neurodivergence (20% of the population) and/or SEND (15% of the population).
- Animation can be translated to reach people for whom English is not the first language.
- Waiting times for CAMHS and community mental health services is typically months – from script to screen, an animation can be created in two weeks, making it ideal for ‘disaster’ work.
- Animation voiceovers can be quickly translated and revoiced in any language at a rough cost of only £1000.
- While the initial animation can cost about £10k, subsequent digital copies are completely free (unlike print). Small amendments to ‘end slates’ to, for example, localise helpline numbers cost very little, so one trauma video can be used 10,000 times nationally at pretty much no extra cost.
- Animation works brilliantly across all social media channels so it’s instantly and freely accessible and provides a ‘language’ for the person and their caregivers to understand what’s going on.
- Still images can be taken from the animation and used within other collateral. For example, a dozen still images can be laid out in front of a child, enabling them to choose which image from the animation spoke to them (a good way to introduce tricky subjects, eg sexual abuse).