“Worried Sick” – Understanding Anxiety

Updated: Aug 30

Deadlines, due dates, expectations, a fast-paced environment, and a multitude of moving parts, are highly prevalent in the film/tv industry. Yes – this comes with the territory, and Yes – we supposedly “know what we are getting ourselves into” when we enter this industry; perhaps, though, this outlook lulls us into thinking ‘it’s just the way it is” and reduces our sense of control over our situation, ultimately limiting our efforts to calm our over-active nervous system, resulting in chronic stress and anxiety.


Anxiety is a fear response created by the sympathetic nervous system – the “fight/flight/freeze” response, AKA “survival mode”. When we experience anxiety, it is important to be able to recognize the symptoms and learn to regulate our nervous system. We can we do this between takes, during a “tight five”, or while moving equipment, sets, and unpredictable/ever-changing workplace dynamics.


Let’s begin by gaining a better understanding of anxiety, and its less-distressing counterpart – worry.


Understanding Worry

Worry can be best understood as a verb, or action word. We worry by thinking about negative things that could happen and their potential consequences. It can be productive, as the brain’s means of dealing with anticipated negative outcomes in order to mentally plan and prepare for the future, which can look like building elaborate scenarios in an effort to predict what could happen and how you might deal with various situations.


Worry is our way of dealing with life’s stressors, and is generally triggered during times of uncertainty.


Worry can be considered problematic when:

  • It is experienced everyday

  • It is excessive, given the situation

  • It is difficult to control

  • It interferes with a person’s daily life or leads to significant distress

  • It results in a reduction in quality of life

There is an old saying that “Worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair – it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere”. This can be true if the worrying has already become problematic. Worry can be productive when used tactfully – a new piece of information is learned (project X is due tomorrow), worry is triggered (how will we get this done in time?), and thus planning occurs (we can work on X in groups, and divide the work so that it is completed by tomorrow) – in this scenario, the small bit of worry experienced leads to a plan of action for managing the event that triggered the worry. Without this bit of worry, X might not get completed due to apathy, complacency, or carelessness.


Understanding Anxiety

Whereas worry is a verb, anxiety is better described as a noun, or adverb – an emotion. It is something we feel when there is underlying fear. At times it is a response to a specific situation, but often one cannot identify what they are anxious about. Anxiety affects 12% of Canadians, but most people don’t/won’t seek help. Anxiety affects the entire being: physiologically (e.g. racing heart), behaviourally (e.g. inability to speak), and psychologically (i.e. thinking you are not going to make it through this).


ANXIETY = OVERESTIMATION OF DANGER + UNDERESTIMATION OF COPING SKILLS & RESOURCES


What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Worry?

Worry is an action – thoughts we all have. Anxiety is an emotion – the thoughts we have AND our physical reaction to those thoughts.

Anxiety most often results in the fight/flight/freeze response due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system which tells our brain we are in danger and primes our body for three potential scenarios:

  1. Fight – fighting off a potential threat to our survival

  2. Flight – fleeing away from a potential threat to our survival

  3. Freeze – Dissociation from our body; similar to experiencing shock, where our bodies are in so much pain that our brain decides to check out – this tends to occur in the most extreme of circumstances where our bodies expect unbearable pain, suffering, or death.

Anxiety becomes problematic when it is experienced frequently, and it impairs one’s daily life.


ANXIETY CAN BE USEFUL!

Everyone experiences anxiety, and this response was developed as a means of survival. If we did not experience anxiety, we would not be able to register danger or modulate behaviour/attention in harmful situations. Anxiety warns us to modulate or cease a behaviour that is dangerous or counterproductive, and it activates our attention to focus on a task – thereby heightening cognitive acuity. Anxiety also warns us to re-evaluate the wisdom we use in choosing one course of action relative to other courses of action. Without anxiety, our species would not have survived to where we are today. Overcoming anxiety helps us develop courage and helps us through challenging situations – which ultimately helps us to grow.


Overcoming Anxiety On Set, “In The Moment”

You’re on set, and you feel it coming on… anxiety can manifest in many ways – racing heart, uneasiness, stomach issues, difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, panic, to name a few – a helpful question to start asking yourself and observing: What does anxiety look like for me? What happens to my body? What thoughts go through my mind? Do I talk to myself – what does that sound like? Have I been in a situation like this before that ended poorly?

Becoming curious about our anxiety and learning to accept it without judgement is the foundational step to overcoming anxiety, as it builds awareness about the situations that trigger it for us and provides information that helps us identify when we are anxious. Learning our triggers can help us develop strategies for proactive intervention, and learning our symptoms can help us manage our anxiety in the moment by using techniques such as:


The Physiological Sigh (A Breathing Technique)

Sit or stand in an upright position without slouching. Take a deep breathe in through your nose, filling your lungs and belly with as much air as you can. Pause for a brief moment, and take one last sip of air in – there’s usually room for one last little bit – and then let it all out of your mouth with a big sigh. Bonus points if you can make your sigh audible! Let out that sound of relief!


Slowing It Down (A Breathing Technique)

Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 – 8, honour your edge – if you can only breathe in for 4 seconds, that is your edge. Hold your breath in for a count of 2, and then slowly exhale for twice as long as your inhale was. Lightly contracting the throat and breathing as if whispering the word “ha” is helpful in slowing the breathe out. Another option is to imagine breathing out through a straw, or actually using a straw. Exhaling for twice as long as you inhale sends a signal to your nervous system that your body is safe.


Take 5 (Tactile Sensory Relaxation)

Place your hand in front of you with your palm facing upwards toward the ceiling. Using your opposite hand, place your index finger at the base of your palm, where the wrist meets the palm. This is your “starting point”. Inhale slowly, and slide your index finger from your starting point, all the way down to the tip of your thumb, finishing your exhale as you reach the end of your thumb. As you inhale, slide your index finger back to the starting point. Repeat down each finger on your palm, inhaling as the index finger slides towards the tip of each finger, and exhaling as the finger slides back towards the starting point. Repeat as necessary. The key to this exercise is focusing on regulating the breath, watching the finger slide up and down the palm, and feeling the tactile sensation on the palm.


More posts on anxiety and tools for managing anxiety to come!

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