Consider the squishy. The point of the squishy, a palm-sized mass of polyurethane in the shape of a fruit or a croissant or a unicorn cat, occasionally scented with strawberry, is to squish. The point of the squishy is to be held in the hand of a person with energy that needs redirecting and for them to direct it into the soft heart of the squishy, to squeeze it into almost nothing in their palm, only for it to reinflate again, asking for more. In 1988 a TV writer called Alex Carswell threw a pen at a photo of his mother after a stressful phone call with his boss. It gave him an idea.
It was the “Age of Stress” – the Daily Mirror (among other newspapers) had identified it as “a killer” – and so the perfect time for Carswell to launch his “stress ball”. By the 1990s it had evolved from something squishy designed to be thrown into something squishy designed to be squeezed, and to be squeezed mainly by kids, who collected them in small scented families in their rucksacks. In a 2015 study of patients undergoing varicose vein surgery, those that handled stress balls reported feeling “less anxious”.
“When you’re stressed, your body tightens up,” says Dr Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute, explaining why throwing or squeezing something feels good, “so a physical release helps to let go of some of that energy.” Carswell was not the first person to link a calming of the mind to a busy-ness of a hand – in 206 BC, the Han dynasty in China trained to stay mentally focused during combat by squeezing walnuts. The croissant squishy comes from an ancient place.
That repeated action led to fidget spinners becoming one of the most popular items bought on Amazon in 2017. They were not simply triangles of plastic; they were a stress-relief toy, a treatment for ADHD, an answer to smartphone addiction, a modern rosary – and the cause of moral panic, as teachers confiscated them as contraband. They were the stars of a growing anxiety economy.
Alongside products designed purely as medical aids, such as meditation apps, there is a thriving offshoot of lifestyle goods marketed through their anxiety-relieving qualities. Product innovation oriented around anxiety (encompassing stress, mood and sleep) spans nearly 30 different categories, including chocolate, yogurt, air fresheners, fabric conditioners and skincare. There is a company called Body Vibes which, for £30, will sell you a pack of anti-anxiety stickers that “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies”. Throw a squishy ball in the high street and you’re likely to hit something to cure your stress.
If the 80s were the age of stress, this is the age of anxiety, with 30% of Britons experiencing an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. “The NHS Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, published in 2016, indicated that anxiety and depression affected about one in six people,” confirms consultant clinical psychologist Dr Nihara Krause, founder of youth mental health charity Stem4. This rise in anxiety coincides with a crisis in mental health care. And long waits for treatment often lead to more complications, and the problems multiply, a kind of silent mitosis, leading to even more pressure on the NHS as well as the patient. This has created a market for domestic anxiety cures that can be bought online, and fast.
“Because community services are cut,” says Krause, “there is little in the way of help for those who are unwell but don’t meet the threshold for acceptance to established services. And those who are severe can’t access help because specialist services are under-resourced. I am really keen on providing early intervention tools that are evidence-based and are therefore effective. Sadly there are a lot of products on the market that are not tested for their efficacy.”
Developed in the early 1990s by American engineer Catherine Hettinger, fidget spinners were designed as a calming tool, but when they went mainstream, marketers built on their medical promise simply by adjusting the aesthetics – much like adult colouring books, the publishing phenomenon of 2015 which sold millions due to their therapeutic mental health benefits; and more recently, the weighted blanket. In 2017 the sleep-health industry was worth between $30bn and $40bn. Mattresses were being marketed like iPads, iPads were swollen with sleep apps and the weighted blanket, a therapeutic aid, was redesigned as a chic lifestyle accessory.
A fleece Gravity Blanket costs £149 and is the colour of a Manchester sky. “Studies have shown that using a weighted blanket increases the level of serotonin and melatonin as well as reduces cortisol,” says its website. The company was founded by psychologist Joanna Goliszek. She ran a therapy centre in Poland, working with, she tells me, “an autistic boy with an urgent need for a weighted blanket. But most products available on the market were simply not affordable.” She started to manufacture them in her apartment and, in 2017, launched across Europe, reshifting their focus, the new customer being “everyone”. On Instagram, there are almost 32,000 posts with the #weightedblanket hashtag, including one from Tori Spelling, naked but for her blanket, explaining how it has changed her life by helping her sleep. Despite the fact that companies had been manufacturing them primarily for children with autism-spectrum disorders for many years (leading, as they went mainstream, to claims of appropriation), Time magazine named “blankets that ease anxiety” one of the best inventions of 2018, quoting figures from a sleek US start-up (also called Gravity, no relation) which had already sold $18m worth of blankets.
In early 2018, in her New Yorker essay The Seductive Confinement of a Weighted Blanket in an Anxious Time, Jia Tolentino wrote that their success “arrived deep into a period when many Americans were beginning their emails with reflexive, panicked condolences about the news.” It was no coincidence that they had become a million-dollar business when much of the world felt like it needed to be put to bed. They had co-opted a familiar coping strategy (the feeling of being held) by repackaging a product that originated to assist a vulnerable community and selling it to people who felt anxious, ie almost everyone.
Mine arrived in a large box and, when I opened it, the blanket felt extremely cold. It took some effort to unfold it and then transport it to my bed – carrying the blanket felt not like carrying something objectively heavy like bricks or bags of tins, but like carrying a very light thing when you’re coming down with flu. I arranged myself under its grey soft weight, and then I fell asleep.
In the morning I woke in the same position. Unlike other anxiety aids, which encourage movement, fiddling, this large flat beanbag prevents movement. You are gently forced into a comforting stillness. Brushing my teeth the morning after a deep, deep sleep, I swilled the phrase “self-care” around my mouth.
In its earliest iteration it was used by doctors advising elderly patients on how to stay healthy at home, but by the late 1960s people used it more often in reference to the doctors themselves, having recognised that those in emotionally wearing professions could only look after others if they first looked after themselves. With the rise of the civil rights movement, self-care became political. Women and people of colour insisted that an autonomy over one’s body was necessary to fight racist and sexist systems, and indeed to survive. The phrase has since spread and mutated to include such diverse applications as gardening, antidepressants and peeling foot masks.
Today one of the places the phrase is most visible is in online articles about skincare routines, the ritual massaging in of oils and perfecting lotions, where the user is encouraged to concentrate less on how their skin looks tomorrow, but more on the mindful motions of looking after themselves.
“I know now that anxiety doesn’t really ever go away entirely,” wrote Olivia Muenter in an article called How My Beauty Routine Helps With My Anxiety, for Bustle, “but sometimes it shuts the hell up. And, for me, it’s often the quietest during my beauty routine.” She describes the action of moisturising as if it was meditation. Her skincare routine “pushes [her worries] away and what I’m left with is the simple act of doing something that makes me feel good”.
It’s at skincare that two arms of the anxiety economy cross, with the rise of CBD beauty. Owing to the increased interest in cannabis for medicinal use, the CBD (a non-psychoactive chemical compound found in marijuana) industry is expected to reach an estimated value of $22bn by 2022, with products including (but not limited to) teas, ice cream, vapes and hair conditioner. Last year Estée Lauder became one of the first mainstream beauty brands to release cannabis-infused products, alongside a growing list of smaller companies that included it in their brightening face creams, soaps, moisturising oils and mascaras, with the promise that CBD has anti-inflammatory properties. Though some claim it to be “stress-relieving”, simply by containing CBD their anxiety-relieving side effects are implicit.
A cynic might point out that considering the pressure the cosmetic industry has maintained in pushing customers to achieve unrealistic beauty standards, their new insistence that their primary role is to reduce anxiety is ironic. Evidence of CBD’s efficacy in skincare is largely anecdotal and a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found widespread mislabelling of CBD products sold online. There is a similar issue in all areas of the CBD industry – complications around legalisation have made it hard for researchers to discover what it actually does. Small trials suggest that CBD could be effective in treating anxiety, but only in far larger doses than are usually offered. While a product can boast in its marketing materials that CBD reduces anxiety, there’s no proof that the product itself – whether oil or tea – does anything at all.
It’s something that bothers Dr Krause. Having seen how the NHS has had to “unofficially perform triage when it comes to crisis-level mental health conditions” – meaning that people with anxiety disorders are often pushed to the back of the queue – she’s aware of the brands profiting from this. “The market seems saturated. There are a number of companies that are trading on fake news to promote a whole range of products that are meant to help with mental health problems but without any evidence base to them. Given that we are dealing with a vulnerable population it is questionable how ethical producing these tools without evidence base and systematic review of efficacy is.”
The anxiety economy shows no signs of shrinking, with white noise machines, salt lamps and meditation headbands advertised alongside yoga selfies on Instagram. Aids for anxiety disorders in 2019 are branded like covetable scented candles – scrolling through the products, one starts to think of it as a small but universal ill like dry lips or shaving rash, and one just as easily treated. Which, it could be argued, threatens to normalise this mental illness; to recode it as a standard part of modern life, rather than something that requires medical attention. If one in six adults suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, that means there are five who have no need to be part of this niche market, and yet still, under the blanket-style weight of advertising, find their thumbs hovering over the button.
Is anxiety itself being commodified? This is a disorder that can stoke its own fire – worrying about anxiety can make it worse. Could it be that these products, rather than simply easing anxiety, are in fact propagating it, meaning healthy people self-diagnose an illness they don’t understand? And what about the causes? Is a £30 “anti-anxiety sticker” really just a plaster for a larger wound?
Psychoanalyst Michael Currie notes that we rarely deal with the causes of anxiety – job insecurity for example, or social isolation – when trying to treat it. Writing in The Monthly, he says: “Anxiety-as-disease is treated much like an infection, as if the symptoms were a bacterium that should be eradicated.” Buying a blanket is significantly easier than changing the world.
Closing down my emails to Dr Krause, I realise I’ve been absentmindedly squeezing the scared-cat squishy that sits on my desk. Does it work? Debatable. Does it matter? Also debatable. Ten years ago, a study was conducted with sufferers of social anxiety disorder. Sufferers were asked to take part in a stressful public speaking event, before being treated for eight weeks and then doing it again. Assessed by psychiatrists, 40% of the patients showed an improvement in their symptoms, despite all having been given placebos. The act of using a product that says it will make us feel better may actually make us feel better; for mild anxiety, the cure may not be in the squishy, but in the mind. Slowly, in my palm, the cat expands.
Anxiety has become a multi-million pound industry – but here are some ways to combat it for free
Take regular exercise Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, swimming and cycling, encourage your brain to release serotonin, which can improve your mood. It also helps combat stress and release tension. Aim for at least two and a half hours a week.
Ditch the coffee It speeds up your heart rate and disrupts your sleep. If you’re tired, it’s harder to control anxious thoughts.
Contact support groups Go to anxietyuk.org.uk and mental health charity mind.org.uk – their services include talking therapies, crisis helplines, drop-in centres, training schemes, counselling and befriending.
Download a free app Catch It is a joint project launched by the universities of Liverpool and Manchester to help users better understand their moods; Elefriends is an online community from Mind and Verywellmind is an NHS mental health and wellbeing app designed to help with stress, anxiety and depression.