Watching Cartoons Has Helped Me Manage My Mental Illness

Animated series have become my unlikely ally in fighting depression and anxiety.
"Bob's Burgers" and other animated shows can provide an easy escapism.
FOX via Getty Images
"Bob's Burgers" and other animated shows can provide an easy escapism.

More than six years ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. The traditional approaches ― exercise, journaling and breathing skills ― have helped, as has medication. And I watch cartoons.

Yes, this year I discovered a surprising degree of comfort in a 12-year-old boy named Steven Universe.

Animated series have become my unlikely ally in fighting depression and anxiety. Over the past year, I have turned to cartoons again and again. My mind begins to feel at ease, my worries disappear and, sometimes, unlike in the rest of my life, I even laugh.

The joy and fun that I’ve felt while watching cartoons like Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers” and Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” left me wondering if cartoons may actually be a significant tool for mental health. And it turns out that watching cartoons when you’re feeling low can be a good idea.

“People naturally find a systematic way of coping with their anxiety or depression,” according to Jack Cahalane, chief of adult mood and anxiety services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Your form of coping would be watching cartoons. It makes sense because cartoons are very light, interesting and creative.”

Cahalane explained that people who struggle with mental health tend to neglect themselves and the world around them, using avoidance behavior to escape bad feelings. During these periods when anxiety and depression can be heightened, we’ll look for what brings us joy and pleasure, activities that are typically easy and low stress.

Cartoons don’t often rely on over-the-top action or gory drama, and this can make for an enjoyable, stress-free viewing experience. Animated shows are usually short, requiring less concentration and focus than a TV drama or a feature film. It’s easier for me to follow the hilarious misadventures of Tina Belcher on “Bob’s Burgers” rather than keep up with the characters on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“The pain and emotional turmoil of dramas can be hard to watch,” Cahalane said. “When we’re feeling anxious or depressed, we tend to find ourselves avoiding things that can add to our distress. Watching cartoons won’t have a negative impact on your mood.”

Animation’s ability to brighten both your mood and the world around you is what draws Heidi Teague, of Worcester, England, to use Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” as a coping mechanism, too. Teague, a 23-year-old writer whom I contacted through social media, said she never watched cartoons as a child but found herself drawn to animation as an adult.

“I have an ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression, and when I can’t sleep or the world seems relentlessly dark, I’ll watch “Steven Universe,” and it always makes me feel better,” Teague said. “As an adult, so much media is grim and brutal and focused on the worst of humanity, so I find myself turning more and more to this cartoon as an antidote to that.”

Teague and I enjoy that shows like “Steven Universe” use vibrant colors and compelling characters to present messages in a relatable, accessible manner that viewers of all ages can enjoy. Teague pointed out that cartoons often include soothing color schemes and relaxing music. Cartoons aren’t just for kids

Cartoons have evolved into entertainment for all ages, a trend Splitsider noted in 2013. According to Yssa Badiola, a lead animator at Rooster Teeth Animation, cartoons and animation geared toward adults have been around for decades, including TV series such as “The Simpsons,” feature films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and shows based on Japanese anime. But now changes in the way we consume media have made cartoons more accessible than ever.

“Cartoons with an older demographic have always existed in history,” Badiola said. “The biggest difference between then and now is the existence of the internet. It’s because of the internet that people with mutual interests now have the ability to filter their own experiences to their liking. People who like animation can find other animation. People who never liked animation before can find clips of it, think it’s pretty all right, and jump into an episode and come out loving it.”

Thanks to an abundance of cartoons, including international series available for online streaming, adults and children are able to fall in love with cartoons now more than ever.

While I may use cartoons as a coping mechanism for mental illness, Badiola pointed out that it’s often the intent of animators for their work to allow a viewer of any age to escape into a created world and find comfort in it.

“There’s something inherently magical about watching a world come to life that isn’t always rooted in reality, and I think it’s a wonderful way to involve the audience into using their imagination to world-build on their own,” Badiola said. “The other side of that coin is that maybe some audiences don’t have to think too much when they watch cartoons, and it’s a great reprieve from the stresses of their own life when they watch fictional characters go through their own story.”

When I think of cartoons, I don’t think of my favorite series as being geared just toward children. “Adventure Time” may be cute, with a dog named Jake and a boy named Finn exploring the Land of Ooo, but the stories and message provide a comfort and hope that few other television series have. The same can be said of “Steven Universe,” whose material is often as cute as it is hopeful. The idea of finding reprieve from the real world in a fictional one is something Teague also believes in.

“‘Steven Universe’ is world I can escape into when I need to check out from reality for a little while,” she said. “I love that it doesn’t shy away from difficult topics but presents them in an accessible and comforting way; it gives permission to feel sad but reason to be hopeful. I always share this cartoon with anyone I can because I genuinely think the world would be a better place if more people engaged with the values championed by this show.”

Though cartoon watching helps me, it may not work for you. According to the official website of Anxiety and Depression Association of America, there are numerous ways mental health disorders can be treated, but the success of treatment varies. Finding a specific form of treatment that works for you can be done with the help of a medical professional and, according to Cahalane, it also will happen naturally as we tend to gravitate toward things that make us happy.

He suggested finding small enjoyable activities that you can do when you’re feeling low, and then working your way up to bigger coping mechanisms. Begin with tasks like taking a bath, enjoying a cup of tea or even watching cartoons. You can work up to bigger goals, like taking a trip to somewhere you’ve always dreamed of going.

“As far as watching cartoons go, it’s been previously proven that laughing and dopamine lower blood pressure and release endorphins,” Cahalane said. “It’s a simple thing that people of any age can enjoy.”

Maybe the next time your anxiety seems too much to handle or your depression leaves you unable to get out of bed, try watching an animated show and see if it doesn’t make you smile.

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