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Opinion: Why Anxiety from ‘Inside Out 2’ is such a relatable character to me

Opinion by Noah Berlatsky

(CNN) — I’m not especially malevolent or intimidating, so I didn’t expect to be the villain in the new Pixar kids’ film, “Inside Out 2.” But as it turns out, the antagonist in the movie is the personification of Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke). And while I would not say that I am the personification of anxiety, if you looked inside my head at the control board of my emotions, anxiety would be in charge more than I’d like to admit.

Many people who live with a lot of anxiety would agree that anxiety is not a lot of fun. But I don’t think it’s a villainous emotion. As such, I appreciate the way that “Inside Out 2” gives its anxious antagonist a heart and some positive characteristics amidst its frantic quivering.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though (one of the things that happens when you have anxiety.) So to back up slightly — the first “Inside Out,” released in 2015, introduced us to Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s actions are controlled by her five emotions — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Joy (Amy Poehler) is mostly in control, but over the course of the film, she learns that you can’t just be happy all the time — Sadness (Phyllis Smith) has an important role to play in Riley’s life, too.

In “Inside Out 2,” Riley (Kensington Tallman) is now 13, and as puberty hits, she gets a whole new slew of uncomfortable emotions — Ennui, Embarrassment, Envy, Nostalgia and, of course, Anxiety. The new crowd ships Riley’s old emotions off to the back of her mind and then tries to navigate Riley through hockey camp on the cusp of freshman year. The results are — like adolescence itself — a mess.

Despite my wife’s urging, I have not gone to a doctor for my anxiety, and therefore do not have an official diagnosis. Nonetheless, many of Riley’s experiences with anxiety are familiar to me.

Among the familiar bits is the fact that anxiety is not all bad. Director Kelsey Mann and writers Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein get that anxiety can serve a useful function, since part of anxiety’s role is imagining setbacks and planning out possible ways to overcome them. As a freelance writer, with no boss to set my schedule, anxiety keeps me pitching to new editors to make sure I have enough work and neurotically checking my calendar to make sure I meet deadlines. (This essay was turned in on time. Thanks anxiety!)

The downside is when you can’t turn the anxiety off and end up leaping out of bed at 3:00 a.m. to check that you didn’t forget to send an email… and then, while you’re up, you might as well just write the essay due the next day…and maybe start that other essay…and then it’s 9 a.m. and you haven’t slept and your wife asks you if you’re really, really sure you don’t want to talk to the doctor about anti-anxiety meds.

Along these lines (though without the spousal commentary) Riley imagines herself failing miserably at hockey in a range of scenarios. Then she’s up at some ungodly hour practicing on the ice because big, toothy, orange-mouthed anxiety is bouncing around her head like a carrot-colored hurricane.

Anxiety doesn’t just keep Riley from her sleep, though. Anxiety is the antagonist in “Inside Out 2” because it separates Riley from her core self. Before Anxiety’s arrival, Riley was self-confident, kind, devoted to her friends and generally a good person.

But anxiety changes all that. Suddenly, Riley is riven with self-doubts and loses her core moral imperatives. She turns her back on her friends to get in with the cool kids. She doesn’t like herself anymore; she doesn’t know who she is. That makes her unpredictable, unpleasant and even, to some degree, dangerous. “Inside Out 2” is a gentle film, so no one gets seriously hurt, but there is a suggestion that Riley’s anxiety causes her to lose control of herself on the ice in ways that could injure others.

Psychologists have, in fact, found links between anxiety and aggression in adolescents. Although I am (for better or worse) no longer an adolescent, I know that when I’m very anxious I can get prickly myself (I’m not always great fun to be around when I’m driving). When you’re pulled taut by stress, the rubber-band can twang off in random directions and hit random people. It’s not ideal.

At the same time, anxiety and aggression aren’t always intertwined. At least in my experience, anxiety is often a form of caring. When I’m anxious, it’s often because I’m worrying about my loved ones. As most parents know, nothing makes you as anxious as a threat to your child.

Riley isn’t a parent. But her emotions are another story. They’re parts of her. But they’re also sort of her caregivers. Joy, especially, is a maternal figure, and expresses that mothering through what looks a lot like anxiety — she’s worried whenever Riley forms unhappy memories, and she tries to encourage her to forget and repress them. Which is not, the movie makes clear, an ideal coping strategy.

Anxiety keeps Riley from being her best self. But at the same time, (and this is the way in which anxiety is not a villain) Anxiety really does care about Riley, just as anxious parents care about their kids. And her maybe obsessive attention and investment gives her some insights that Joy doesn’t have. Worrying about the worst consequences can help you avoid some of those worst consequences. Sometimes you need to sit with fear, misery and self-loathing so you’re not completely unprepared when they show up unexpected, as they almost certainly will.

I wouldn’t say I love my anxiety; I’d rather not have had a mini freakout in the middle of writing this, for example, if only because it would have been nice to have gone to bed sooner. On the other side of the emotion console, though, I feel like anxiety also kept me writing all the way to the end.

Similarly, Riley sort of overcomes her anxiety and accepts that it is part of who she is. She’s anxious, but not anxious about feeling anxious. Sometimes that’s the best you can do with a bad feeling. And sometimes, in its place, the bad feeling isn’t so bad after all.

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