As a recovering actress, I have an interest in the mental health of actors. Over the past month I’ve spoken with several actors about their experiences with anxiety on the red carpet as part of my doctoral dissertation research. Lots of what I’ve heard in these interviews has confirmed things I already knew, but some new information came to light that put some things together for me. Now that I’m no longer in the business but am studying how it impacts mental health, specifically anxiety, I have some thoughts I’d like to share.
Anxiety is an important experience in our bodies and minds.
After doing this research, I realized that actors might not know how common anxiety is. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. Anxiety affects around 18% of the population, or around 40 million people per year (and that’s in a non-pandemic year). However, it’s important to note that everyone at some point or another has experienced anxiety even though they may not necessarily meet criteria for a diagnosis. Meaning, anxiety happens in daily life and most of the time it’s relatively manageable. However, there are situations that are particularly anxiety-provoking and that can severely disrupt one’s mental state. For example, around 75% of people experience glossophobia, or the fear of public speaking – something actors need to do regularly, whether it be when auditioning or performing or walking a red carpet. Add on top of that that actors tend to be highly sensitive people, and it follows that actors might experience anxiety more often than others. That’s okay. The important things to know about anxiety are that anxiety is totally normal, and anxiety is totally manageable.
I also found that actors are not very accepting of the fact that they are experiencing anxiety when they are. Here’s the thing: experiencing anxiety does not mean that something is wrong with you or that you have a mental illness. Anxiety is our body’s innate fear response in action. Anxiety is functional, meaning it helped our ancestors to survive and it can help us now if we understand why it happens to us. Anxiety is the warning that we may need to fight or flee a dangerous situation. For our ancestors, the danger may have been tigers or snakes – literal life-threatening situations. Today, we perceive danger in various literal and non-literal life-threatening situations that trigger anxiety. Why do we fear public speaking? Because we perceive the audience as threatening. Why are auditions anxiety-provoking? Because the situation feels threatening. Why do actors hate doing red carpets? Because there are people shouting your name and flashing lights in your face and that can feel threatening.
Actors also experience anxiety around auditions, red carpets, and press. And that’s okay.
There’s this weird, unspoken expectation in the industry that if you are an actor who has made it to the level of doing a carpet or being in the room for the big auditions, you are expected to be nothing but excited and grateful to be there. But what if you feel anxious? What if, as an actor, you actually hate auditioning or doing press or walking a carpet? You might feel like a fraud in those critical moments. That is, you might feel that maybe you’re not cut out for this industry or for acting as a career choice because you don’t feel amazing in those situations. That’s not true. All of the people I talked to – working actors who have been in the industry on average 20+ years – felt anxiety in these situations!
The real problem is the stigma within the industry around anxiety and the fact that actors’ mental health needs are not taken seriously. During my work to recruit participants for my study, I spoke to many agents, managers, and publicists. A number of them work with actors who have publicly spoken about having anxiety around red carpets, but none of them wanted to discuss even the idea of it with their clients. These are the people who are supposed to shepherd their clients through these anxiety-provoking situations and unfortunately, they find it challenging to admit that there’s a problem. This stigma causes actors to feel like they have to cover their anxiety, suck it up, put on a smile, and do it anyway, often without help. Frankly, this finding truly upsets me since coping with anxiety alone can become an issue all its own. While there are some healthy coping techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and reciting mantras, there are also unhealthy ones like smoking, drinking, and substance use. If you’ve been even peripherally involved in the industry, you know the latter are very real problems that can be personally and professionally devastating.
Some advice for actors experiencing anxiety.
Yes, actors have to be emotionally vulnerable in their work. But that does not mean actors can or should always be able to manage their emotions alone in every situation. It’s okay to need support and it’s okay to seek it. My advice to actors dealing with anxiety in any professionally related area (i.e., auditioning, stage fright, walking carpets, doing press, etc.) is, first, seek support from your fellow actors. I personally guarantee that if you are experiencing anxiety, someone with whom you work is, too. Probably more people than you think, actually. Second, don’t be afraid to go to therapy. Those of us in psychology who are particularly interested in treating anxiety have tons of tools that can be helpful in managing and minimizing anxiety. You don’t have to do this alone. Third, surround yourself with publicists, agents, and managers who acknowledge how uncomfortable some parts of this business can be and who will prioritize your mental health before anything else. And finally, and this is potentially the most crucial point: you don’t have to be ashamed of feeling anxious. There is nothing wrong with you. You do not need to quit acting because parts of the business make you anxious. You always deserve to pursue your passion. Always.
“Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.”
-Jorge Luis Borges