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Beyond Blue turns to code red

By Lyn Bender - posted Friday, 10 May 2013

The accolades are pouring in for the new Ben Mendelsohn filmic piece de resistance in the new Beyond Blue campaign. What we have done for depression we now wish to do for anxiety says its Chairman former Premier of Victoria Jeff Kennett.

"I am the tightening in the chest the snowballing worries that feel like they might become an avalanche and bury you." Ladies and Gentleman we now present the I Am Anxiety video

Anxiety the movie starts with an approach to a two or five million dollar piece of real estate, a key in the lock, echoing footfalls, an entrance into a dimly lit room, spooky music and a subtly menacing Mendelsohn. He offers his business card on which we, later see, is inscribed ANXIETY. If you don't feel any heightened suspense as you watch it you are probably not one of the one in four currently experiencing anxiety. The research cited by Kennett claims that the communities' anxiety levels have increased by forty per cent in the last four years. It is difficult to determine whether this is an artefact of the Better Access initiative, which requires a specific diagnosis in order to allow eligibility for rebates for counselling. This can become a catch all for trauma, life change loss and grief.


People experience heightened lack of safety and agitation and arousal during times of change and uncertainty. But the Medicare assessment refers to anxiety disorder in a blanket fashion, thereby diagnostically enveloping us all in a medical shroud. Ironically meant to reduce stigma, for some the diagnostic term feels shameful and a blight on their record.

Anxiety or fear, emanates from the fight and flight response, which is innate and part of the primitive brain. It is a hugely important survival drive from our earliest times as humans, enabling us to survive by fighting or fleeing. When life threatening danger is perceived, pulse rate increases, heart beats quicken, stress hormones are released, all to stimulate endurance and strength. At such times we find the capacity to run faster than we ever have, fleeing a fire or a flood, or in earlier times , a wild beast. Or if we cannot flee a kind of rage is aroused and we can fight with unaccustomed strength. Fear may also arouse a freeze or lay low response,so that a predator may not see us. These have metamorphosed into our responses to the stress of our modern world. Fight and flight response may become chronically aroused by everyday stressors or events in our life. We may also become immobilised and afraid to leave the house. This is especially likely if we have suffered abuse in childhood and of course from the terror of war experience. Those who have experienced trauma may have a short fuse or constant hyper-vigilance and become watchful and suspicious and mistrustful in particular situations.

For most of us, although we are no longer at risk of being picked off by a predator on the Savannah, we can fear losing our job, our house or our relationships. So during the Financial Crisis there was a rush to liquidate assets ,which worsened the situation. In other words our most important survival mechanism is not nuanced to modern life and its stress. So why am I so irritated by the Ben Mendelsohn Anxiety Video?

I concede that it is probably cunningly designed, to be a bit blokey in order to encourage males who are notoriously resistant to seeking help: especially for 'mental' problems. Complete with man-to-man tone, and non touchy feely characterisation of anxiety as a masculine foe, it has a kind of toughness drama and 'plain speak' that would appeal to many men. This may have been seen, as a way to engage men in a challenge, rather than make it seem weak to admit fear. In fact let's not call it fear let's just make it a thing called anxiety that happens to the best of us guys, but that can be fixed.

But for my share of the million dollars cost, I would prefer something less patronising and less simplistic.

It may well be argued that like the eighties AIDS Grim Reaper campaign and the more recent drink drive bloody idiot campaign it attracts much needed attention and paves the way for behavioural change or further help seeking. Many criticised those campaigns for being over dramatic fear arousing and traumatic, therefore risking the switch off factor. History has revealed them to be effective in prevention as one offs. But is an emotional state, linked to our most powerful survival mechanism, most usefully depicted as a sinister operator with a calling card? The medium of visual advertising and short video grabs can be hugely impactful. In that way the message sent is really important. Distortion can become its own problem and counterproductive. Oversimplification can undermine rather than bring useful change.


The Beyond Blue website has useful information on behavioural changes that can manage and soothe hyper arousal. These include exercise, diet, meditation relaxation and therapy to talk through problems. But many viewers may not access this information, only taking in the short message. The meaning of anxiety is deeper than its depiction as an unwelcome strange visitor. It still protects our lives. We should be wary of traffic. We should carefully watch over small children. We should monitor our own body and health. It's counterproductive to seek to mask fear in denial, with the defence mechanisms of alcohol drugs gambling and overconsumption. Ultimately these become the real danger.

We should also be rightly alerted to the big picture danger of climate change, uncontrolled carbon emissions and environmental damage. The fear mechanism is intended to alert us to danger so that we take appropriate measures to promote safety. It can be in overdrive or chronic, and we may unnecessarily sweat the small stuff. However it is also our human warning signal system. It is our Cassandra ,the Greek Goddess ,who could foresee the future, and should be heeded. It may be telling us that something might be amiss and needs to be changed.

We must learn to live in a way that allows us to experience joy and not to be constantly or inappropriately fearful; but we cannot afford to play the fiddle while Rome burns.

In many ways anxiety can be a powerful friend and motivator.

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About the Author

Lyn Bender is a psychologist in private practice. She is a former manager of Lifeline Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

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