I want to start this article by saying I so deeply respect the vulnerability and sheer strength of commitment and character actors demonstrate every time they step into an acting class, onto a stage or set, and not least of all, in the lives which are far less than the norm. To me, it is of no wonder at all that they are more susceptible the pitfalls. Depression. Anxiety. Fear of when the next job might come in. This is the reality of even those we might perceive as having ‘made it’.
I realize it is not performers alone who suffer from developed or environmental mental health issues. I understand not all actors suffer. But as a performer, clinical hypnotherapist who has suffered depression myself, and having worked with actors training them in a healthier mind/performance methodology, it is the area I’m most passionate about and most studied in.
Let’s look at a few of the stats;
- Researchers from the University of Sydney surveyed 782 working actors and found they had significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress than the general population, coupled with dangerous substance use.
- Women actors spoke out about sexual harassment both in training and in the profession.
- More than one third of actors surveyed reported drinking alcohol to help cope with problems related to their performing careers, and 80 per cent used illegal or legal drugs.
- “Actors also reported tolerance in the face of otherwise debilitating complaints and ailments associated with their work, often choosing to keep working in circumstances in which they report experiencing serious and often long-term symptoms,” Prof Maxwell said.
- Many of those surveyed reported using alcohol and drugs to cope with the pressure and burden of their acting careers, and a quarter had experienced “debilitating performance anxiety”.
The pairing of intoxicating substances and artistic talent has long been romanticized, but the reality is that it can be an actor’s undoing — just ask Robert Downey, Jr.”
Studies show creative minds tend to naturally think more, about everything. They tend to be more interested in making sense of the workings of this world in some way. They want to understand our human behavior, how things work, how things could be different – typically wanting them to be ‘better’ in some way. Often needing to contribute to making things better.
And then, creative minds tend to think about their thoughts!
Should I be thinking like this? Is that a relevant thought or am I way off? Is there another way I could or should be thinking about this? And so on…
On the flip side, someone who doesn’t take the time to think about their thoughts regularly may have a stressful day, but when they come home from it all it’s easier to forget than not.
(Oh, what a luxury some of us can only imagine!)
We can’t ignore the odd hours actors often keep, either performing, or immersing in the creative thought that seem to pop in best when the rest of the world is asleep – the beginning of a perfect storm. Sleep and mental health have a close relationship.
Throw in the unreliable income, the judgement, comparisons, the competitive nature of the industry and offering of drugs to make sure the show goes on regardless of having the flu today. We start seeing the courage it takes to choose acting as a career. The problem is, for most – it feels like it chose them. Life tends to feel best on stages, on set, in rehearsal, and with others who understand the gig.
But there is something shared only with fellow actors which differs from other creative industries – the training to become someone else.
By necessity the actor is required to remunerate over someone else’s thought, feeling and way they might move if they had that thought or feeling in order to be able to ‘step into them’. They must try to not only make sense of their own reality, actors need to understand the reality of every character they play – and everyone around everyone they play!
I’ve had clients who have had nightmares over their characters because the unspoken and terribly damaging reality for the actor is this; the brain believes what it is told. If you tell your brain you are in trauma – albeit the trauma of the character you’re playing, all it knows is you are in trauma. Your heart will beat faster because you’ve told your brain to protect you from threat. It is real in the life you lived that day on stage or on set. And the body and brain believe it was real. That’s the deal.
I’ve attended several acting classes where the teacher(s) enthusiastically instruct a room full of 20-30 individuals to explode with instant and varied emotions, which is not always negative but is certainly common practice, so actors adapt and believe this is just how it’s done – and so it will be. However when you have no idea the real life stories these individuals carry in their conscious and subconscious minds, managing large rooms or even one person, playing in that arena can lead to confusion, anxiety and depression.
Leaving anyone a puddle on the floor – (followed by APPLAUSE CLASS! APPLAUSE! That’s what we want to see. Truth people!) is not mentally healthy for anyone. Some are more affected than others. I have witnessed how the actor would slither away, a mess. Torn between basking in the applause, and mortified with the pain they now had no idea what to do with.
ACTING IS A FORM OF THERAPY – or it can be.
Many acting practices have therapeutic names; that is they are forms of therapy used by trained professionals to help people overcome anxiety, past trauma and other mental heath issues. Used wrongly and without the individual’s mental health as first motivation can cause long term negative programming in the mind, usually unbeknownst to the actor until they find themselves needing to self-medicate to sleep, or struggling in some other way.
To bring out into the body the actions of anger, rage, distress, sorrow can be empowering if used correctly. But without any intention on healing or awakening emotion to empower the individual, it will usually have the opposite effect. It is important to have the skills to bring people back into more physically, mentally and emotionally healthy states. Otherwise it can do nothing but cause the brain to believe the individual is living this painful reality (even in bad acting!!) Trying to muster up emotion is the same as being good at it. Yet this is common practice.
I won’t mention where I got the below article from so as not to point to any one performing arts expert, but fair to say, I could have found it in a multitude of acting classes. It is common practice and I understand it is not the ONLY practice taught. This teacher is just more known and therefore at the top of a google search when asking, ‘how do actors cry on que’.
Memory Driven Tears – To cry “memory-driven tears,” actors must be able to access past emotions. During the rehearsal process, recall an intense emotional experience and then say your lines. Choose the right memory for the right part. Find ways to connect the script’s lines with personal moments.
He goes on to list such things as tapping into fear and things which you know would make you anxious. To his credit, eventually he discusses the practice of empathy, though it’s at the bottom of the list if your life has not been traumatic enough for these things to work. Oh dear.
As a clinical hypnotherapist I am keenly aware of what this practice does to the mind/body connection and therefore the individual’s emotional well-being. It in fact could be used in a very positive way if done well. This would mean you would bring up all that emotion, the memory of the first time the actor knew that emotion in their body, and use it… but then the process is to let it go in a healthy way. And if fact if done well, the actor can still call up the emotion any time from that point on, freely, but without damage because when the core of the trigger has been identified and reframed, the pain is gone – but the ability to access the emotion is in fact MORE available.
The mind has no way of knowing the difference between the first time, and this new time the person is experiencing the grief or trauma. They literally put the mind and body through this moment every time they use this practice, however at the subconscious level, once you heal the individuals trauma, AND teach them how to exit the character’s trauma once the ‘job’ is complete, you take care of the actor’s mind and emotional well-being.
Igniting pain in the mind and body may not seem to effect someone short term, but it is changing brain chemistry one thought at a time. Add a physical reaction to that thought and you have further cemented the reality of the trauma.
And like the frog in the pot syndrome it is the gradual process which makes it difficult to identify. Turn up the heat gradually and he frog doesn’t notice until it no longer has the ability to jump out. Repeating tear or fear inspiring moment in your life will most certainly program your brain toward depression and/or anxiety if you are not consciously and knowledgeably managing the process.
The Actor’s mind/body connection is not exempt from natural physiological and psychological processes all human beings function by. These people are not characters first, who we can make up some backstory that suits us. They are people with history and unique mental health challenges.
Typically performing artists share the gift and burden of feeling things deeply. It is required. Empathy, sensitivity and caring about making a difference is something most creative people share. In order to tell believable stories, a good actor knows deep compassion and letting go of their personal judgement is a necessity. So in addition to naturally overthinking, they also tend to feel more deeply. Compassion is a wonderful thing, but it can also lead to guilt, or loss of self and the right to have one’s own opinions.
Human beings are wired to avoid pain and move toward pleasure.
This wiring protects us from fires and wild animals chasing us in the bush, and it encourages procreation and the sustainability of the species. Actors tap into that pain with intent. To remain healthy they must learn to counter balance pain with pleasure, and be clear on what belongs to them for healing and what belongs to someone else, character or otherwise.
Pain will causes us to naturally recoil, to run, in some way move away from whatever is causing the pain. Traditional training and performance asks actors to do is move into pain – which in fact heightens fear – albeit fear most deny because they know they have to push through it in order to be a good actor. And they do! They learn to feel the fear and do it anyway, and those who are absolutely committed can do that brilliantly. I don’t suggest it doesn’t work. I suggest it is going against nature so it is more difficult, and causes unnecessary suffering.
Fear will inevitably cause performance blockages. But freedom from fear and pain leaves the artist open but healthy. Being aware of how to mentally and emotionally step in and out of character so the actor is able to quickly be ‘one with the character’ and then just as quickly reclaim their own lives.
For creatives, that depressive state happens to be longer-lasting and more intense, due to their innate desire to make sense of how things are, and proposing how it could be different, better.
Creativity is all about thinking, so it only makes sense that all of that thinking would lead to manic episodes of feeling hopeless, alone, or like a failure.
Can you see the complexities forming? And there are even more once the artist ‘makes it’ to celebrity status. But this is enough to demonstrate the perfect storm. Most teaching methodologies have combined nature and nurture to perfection to create sleep issues, depression, loss of self identity, anxiety
There is a healthier methodology and mind training for Actors – Actors Mind Training (AMT)
Lets play with this philosophy – Each one of us has within us the capability to become anything, without having to ‘act’ like we are that, we can actually be. And while one might say that is what method acting is all about, and I agree to an extent – there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to treat your mind, body and emotional state. One embodies the character, the other knows there is a part within themselves that is capable of thinking, feeling and behaving like that character, by choice. They then equally choose when not to think, feel and behave like that character as they get on with their own lives.
One method will lead to natural performances which can be left when the performance is over…the other will be reinforcing an unhealthy mental and emotional state which at some stage needs to be undone. Even if the role is a positive happy one, there is risk the actor can lose sight of their own reality – preferring to be someone else than themselves. Either is not supportive to longevity in the industry, flexibility in roles long term, or whole of life balance.
When asked about the difficulty of playing very different people Meryl Streep said,
Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.
What she’s talking about is deep empathy. But in order to have that, she also speaks of her very ‘normal’ life behind the scenes. She is happy within herself. She has a lanced life and speaks of how important that is.
What if it’s possible to USE the characters played in order to heal hidden emotional trauma, releasing pain and fear so that the individual is more available to the character.
I need to preface this idea with my experience doing this work, is that not all characters can be used ‘right now’, but then not all actors are ready to play all characters, right now. First we may need to look at a part of the actor that needs to have personal trauma If it brings up real life trauma that has yet to be worked through, the actor should not take the role if they don’t want to further ingrain the trauma with each reenactment – because that is exactly what it does to the mind.
The fact is, we’ve learned that suffering for the art, depression, anxiety doesn’t make you creative, per se. In-fact, the opposite is more often the case: the creative person, who spends his or her time ruminating on thoughts is likely to suffer from major depression and fear, and in fact be less effective.