Hollywood is riddled with inaccurate depictions of the human experience, and mental health disorders are no exception. Characters with anxiety frequently come across as over-the-top, odd or unrelatable when portrayed in the Hollywood stereotype. Why is this so damaging? Because it teaches audiences to look for symptoms of the condition that don’t exist. In reality, anxiety can significantly impact an individual while they outwardly show minimal signs of it.
Educate yourself on the real symptoms of anxiety so you can support friends and family members experiencing this mental health condition. You certainly won’t find these indicators present in the five most unrealistic depictions of anxiety in Hollywood.
1. Barry Egan, “Punch Drunk Love”
“Punch Drunk Love” is the story of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), a shy man with social anxiety who calls a phone sex line because of his extreme loneliness. Unfortunately, things become complicated when he’s the victim of an extortion scheme and falls for his sister’s coworker, Lena (Emily Watson). In the film, Barry’s social anxiety seems to stem from the constant berating he receives from his seven sisters, who’ve tormented him since childhood.
However, Sandler’s portrayal of social anxiety is problematic in several ways. Barry seems to suffer from violent outbursts, frequently having tantrums and punching walls or damaging personal property. When seeking help, he also states that he cries a lot. This gives a very negative and narrow view of what experiencing social phobia or anxiety is really like and may make it more challenging for individuals suffering from the condition to recognize it in themselves if they’re not dealing with these highly visible indicators.
Common symptoms of social anxiety include:
- Worrying about humiliating yourself
- Intense fear of speaking to a stranger
- Avoidance of people or situations due to embarrassment
- Fear of being the focus or center of attention
Physical symptoms can include quickened heart rate, dizziness, blushing, sweating, trembling, nausea and muscle tension.
2. Dr. Helen Hudson, “Copycat”
“Copycat” is one of the many unrealistic movies about agoraphobia, a fear of being in open or crowded places or of leaving home. Dr. Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) is an agoraphobic psychologist who has anxiety about living her life following an attack by a deranged individual (Harry Connick Jr.). After teaming up with two detectives, she does a 180 and faces her fears to track down a serial killer. This unrealistic portrayal suggests that you can overcome anxiety disorders by facing your fears, especially if they’re triggered by a traumatic event.
That’s an oversimplification and fails to acknowledge the complexities of the human mind. There are various treatment options available for individuals dealing with agoraphobia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that are often more practical than the ideas outlined in “Copycat.”
3. Josh Biggs, “Nerve”
In the film “Nerve,” characters with anxiety are brought to the forefront with the portrayal of Josh Biggs, a young man with social anxiety disorder. His coworker, Aurora, recruits him to take part in her graduate school thesis “Social Anxiety in Dating Initiation.” As he participates in the experiment, Josh works through his anxiety and seeks to overcome the problem he recognizes he’s experiencing.
What’s problematic about this portrayal is that it suggests mental health is something to be experimented on and that a person with a social anxiety disorder can be used for the purpose of proving a theory. Ethically, the idea behind the film raises many questions and creates unrealistic expectations for managing and overcoming social anxiety disorder.
Most individuals with social anxiety disorder benefit from talk therapy, or their doctor may prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) if they’re interested in trying a medication to manage their symptoms.
4. Sheila Jackson, “Shameless”
There are also many TV characters with an anxiety disorder who don’t do the condition justice. In the TV series “Shameless,” Sheila Jackson notably suffers from agoraphobia and is afraid to leave her home. The character is so over the top and ridiculed by other characters on the show that her portrayal can’t be seen as convincing. Instead, it paints individuals dealing with agoraphobia as unstable, making them feel somewhat ashamed for these behaviors. It’s also problematic because not enough emphasis is placed on Sheila getting help for her mental health.
The physical symptoms associated with agoraphobia include:
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Quickened breathing or hyperventilating
- Chest pain
- Upset stomach
5. Miles Hollingsworth, “Degrassi: Next Class”
In”Degrassi: Next Class,” Season 1, audiences saw Miles deal with anxiety in relation to his abusive father. It’s always challenging when a teen show attempts to tackle such massive issues by showing TV characters with anxiety disorder. Inevitably, elements of the mental health condition are glossed over, resulting in an incomplete picture for audiences.
Though Miles explains that his chest feels tight and he has trouble breathing when explaining symptoms of anxiety, these are very surface-level, superficial symptoms that are more easily recognizable than many others. Young viewers require a more in-depth look at anxiety to understand its many forms and how they can manage it in a healthy way. Rather than depicting a downward spiral, a better way to approach the topic would be to show teens that they can start by adjusting their lifestyles. A healthy diet, regular daily exercise, meditation or yoga and getting enough sleep are all essential for managing anxiety.
Less visible symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous or restless
- Agitation — becoming easily annoyed when you normally wouldn’t
- Feeling an impending sense of danger or doom
- A rapid heart rate
- Sweating when not physically exerting yourself
- Feeling constantly exhausted
- Difficulty concentrating
Get the Help You Need at FHE Health
Many TV shows and movies about anxiety disorder don’t show the full picture. Struggling with anxiety can be an isolating and frustrating experience. Whether it’s social anxiety holding you back in your personal life or general anxiety disorder constantly occupying your mind, help is available. Contact FHE Health at (833) 596-3502 to speak with one of our compassionate counselors about your treatment options. Group therapy, one-on-one talk therapy, yoga, or breathwork therapy are just a few of the avenues to consider.