Disney released Frozen at an interesting time during my life. Having grown up a devout Disney fan, I knew every classic up through Lilo & Stitch like the back of my hand. Then came high school, 9/11, and an intensification of my mental health issues that made Disney feel less appealing.
Not to mention the fact that Disney had that whole experimental phase in the 2000s that I did not understand or appreciate at the time (Chicken Little, Home on the Range, etc., etc.).
When Frozen hit theatres it was not at the top of my must-see list. It took a tumble further down when it became a commercial obsession with children (even if you did not see the film, you knew many of the songs because children were singing them everywhere). I just kind of assumed that it was an artistically shallow cash grab by Disney.
At the end of the day I am a big Disney fan though, and 2013 was also a time when I resolved to pull myself up out of the darkness. As I began to pursue treatment for my mental health issues (generalised anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, illness anxiety, and obsessive compulsive personality disorder) I also began to rediscover my love of Disney. That meant catching up on the new Disney Classics that I had skipped and giving Frozen a chance.
What matters today is not the artistry or accomplishment of the film. We can have a whole other piece debating how great/overrated/underappreciated Frozen is. What matters today is the mental health impact the film has.
I think it’s fair to say that the mental health analogy that is Elsa’s story becomes clear to most viewers by the end of the film, but her character struck me immediately. Her apprehension and fear as a child worried about hurting her parents affected me more than I anticipated walking into the sing-along inspiration for 90% of that year’s Halloween costumes. Her parents desperate to help; Elsa backing away fearful of what her powers might do.
While I talk openly about my mental health issues now (to an extent), I very much sought to conceal them at the time and especially from those closest to me. My parents knew something was wrong but assumed, as I did, that it had more to do with a physical problem or general adolescent maladaptive behaviour that I would overcome.
“Just keep a safe distance so no one gets hurt.”
The coronation scene is when I realised that parallel was no mistake. As the priest instructs Elsa to remove her gloves for the final words we watch Elsa struggle to conceal her powers. It’s a wonderful visual and physical manifestation of what living with anxiety is like – perhaps especially social anxiety. That feeling that one is on display, is vulnerable, and can only conceal the anxiety for so long is one of the worst, most overwhelming aspects of anxiety.
(143) FROZEN – Old Norse Language (subtitled) in Elsa Coronation Scene – YouTube
“They are going to see. I’m not going to be able to conceal this much longer and then all of these people will judge me. They will know how weak and pathetic I am.”
The more those thoughts intrude, and they are both inevitable and overpowering, the harder it feels to conceal them. The harder it feels to conceal them, the more those thoughts intrude.
They finish the coronation and Elsa quickly drops the objects to replace her gloves. That’s my anxiety equivalence of getting through an interaction and then stealing away to someplace private.
One of the difficult things to explain to those who do not experience anxiety is the disorder aspect of it. Anxiety is of course a natural thing that all people experience from time to time, and that seems to disrupt the ability of a neurotypical individual to understand why it’s a problem for someone like me. They offer useless advice like “just relax,” which is the hygiene equivalent of telling an asthmatic to “just breathe” or a paraplegic to “just walk it off.” The inability to relax is the problem.
The disorder part of anxiety is that it occurs either when there is no neurotypical reason for it to occur or, if anxiety is a reasonable reaction, that it occurs disproportionate to what the situation requires.
Attempts to repress or suppress an anxiety disorder tend to send it into overdrive rather than process it.
An example I offer to people is the following thought experiment: we’re in a swimming pool and I guarantee that you will be okay. Zero harm will come to you. Then I ask you to put your head underwater and I place my hand on top. When you decide to surface, I resist. You aren’t out of air yet and still in no physical danger. I will keep my promise not to let you come to harm. Still, you did not expect resistance. You expected air by this point. As each second passes without air, you feel more panicked.
“Just relax,” I would say (if I could speak to you underwater).
A few seconds later, as you begin flailing and struggling harder, I move my hand and let you surface. You take in a big gulp of air but are conscious and safe, just as promised.
Now imagine that understandable sense of panic (and probable anger towards me) could strike any time. You’re completely safe, sitting on your couch, and it feels impossible to breathe. You want to come up for air and despite a complete lack of danger you are unable.
As Elsa scrambles out of Arendelle towards the mountains she begins to sing:
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation
And it looks like I’m the queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in
Heaven knows I tried
Don’t let them in
Don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always had to be
Conceal, don’t feel
Don’t let them know
Well, now they know
It opens as a song of literal sadness and isolation. She sings about the “swirling storm inside” that people with mental health issues understand all too well. She sings about social expectation and repressing those socially unacceptable impulses, but then pivots on the final line with the acknowledgment that everyone is aware of her issue now.
“Let It Go” transitions into a power anthem in which Elsa embraces her powers. Now, anxiety is hardly a superpower and I would not encourage anyone to “embrace” it in that sense, the idea of accepting that one is living with anxiety is powerful. In the context of mental health, Elsa is singing about accepting that she lives with an issue that is socially unacceptable and confronting it. She’s no longer concealing her ice powers, pretending that they do not exist as she was in Arendelle.
As tawdry as it may seem to some (particularly of a 35-year-old man), Disney’s “Let It Go” became something of a personal anthem. While hyperventilating at the onset of a panic attack, “Let It Go” became my tool to control my breathing when “just relax” was impossible.
“Let It Go” (breathe in)
“Let It Go” (breathe out)
Repeat until my breathing is controlled enough that I can move to a stronger breathing exercise (I became a big fan of “smell the flower, blow on the pinwheel” as a visual for controlled breathing, and they do make flower/pinwheel devices for that purpose).
Of course, the “Let It Go” sequence is not the end-all for Elsa. Embracing her ice powers does not solve the problem as she still has not managed the issue. Arendelle gets buried in endless winter because of her actions, and the remainder of the film runtime is Anna seeking out her sister and helping her towards that point.
For many dealing with mental health issues though, “Let It Go” is a huge first step in addressing their issues. It represents the move from resignation to resolution, putting one on the path towards recovery.
Whatever one thinks of Frozen in any other term, it’s an excellent vehicle to introducing anyone, children or otherwise, to the complexities of mental health just as Inside Out would go on to do for emotional health.
2 thoughts on “Let It Go: Disney’s Frozen and Mental Health”
Thank you for the thought experiment in here. Whether or not I’m neurotypical, a framework for understanding (and indeed, for clearly describing) what you and so many people experience, is an asset for everyone.
Also, the inevitability that you describe surprised me. It probably shouldn’t, given my own life experiences with anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame (see my own blog for part of my journey in Recognizing and Overcoming Guilt and Shame, if you’d like), but as happens so often, you shine a light on aspects I hadn’t considered, or at least hadn’t properly grasped, and for that, I am grateful.
Your swimming pool / couch analogy is brilliant and SO helpful, by the way! I am all too well-versed in anxiety, but apparently I do not suffer from the disorder aspects most of the time.
A first step from resignation toward resolution indeed. So well said!
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