August 19, 2017
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How Acting and Performing Helped Emma Stone Cope with Anxiety

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You wouldn’t think stepping on stage to perform as a shy teenager would be an effective coping mechanism for anxiety, but that’s exactly how Emma Stone dealt with her mental health.

Emma Stone may come off as a carefree person, but she wasn’t always the confident actress you know her as now.  In recent interviews for Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter, the La La Land star and Oscar winning actress revealed as a child she suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and panic attacks.

“When I was about seven, I was convinced the house was burning down,” she told Rolling Stone.  Emma vividly described how her mind always leaped to the worse possible scenario.  “I could sense it.  Not a hallucination, just a tightening in my chest, feeling I couldn’t breathe, like the world was going to end.”

“My anxiety was constant.  I would ask my mom a hundred times how the day was gonna lay out.  What time was she gonna drop me off?  Where was she gonna be?  What would happen at lunch?  At a certain point, I couldn’t go to friends’ houses anymore – I could barely get out of the door to school.”  When Emma was twelve, she gave her parents a PowerPoint presentation to convince them to homeschool her.

Emma StoneAnxiety is the most common mental health struggle in the U.S., affecting one out of every eight children and 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.  Having suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, Emma can acknowledge, “It’s just the way I’m wired.”  She started therapy at age 7, which she says “helped so much.”

As part of her therapy, Stone created a book about her anxiety that she still has today.  “I wrote this book called, ‘I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety’ that I still have.  I drew a little green monster on my should that speaks to me in my ear and tells me all these things that aren’t true.  And every time I listen to it, it grows bigger.  If I listen to it enough, it crushes me.  But if I turn my head and keep doing what I’m doing – let it speak to me, but don’t give it the credit it needs – then it shrinks down and fades away.”

Along with therapy, Emma found another powerful coping mechanism for her anxiety; acting.  “I think my parents saw that acting was the thing that made me fulfilled and happy.”  Emma believes pretending to be someone else helped her work through her anxiety and shyness.  The La La Land starlet singles out sketch and improv comedy in particular as helpful aid in her battle against anxiety.  “I started acting at this youth theater, doing improv and sketch comedy.  You have to be present in improv, and that’s the antithesis of anxiety.”

Emma StoneWho would have thought that stepping out on stage to perform for a crowd of strangers would help a shy teenager deal with her mental health?  Eventually she would give her another another PowerPoint presentation, this time convincing them to let her move to Hollywood to pursue her dream of acting.  We all know how that story ended.

Emma is not anxiety-free because that’s not how mental health works.  The fame that she received after 2009’s Easy A, her first starring role, placed her in a spotlight that she couldn’t avoid.  And with the notoriety brought the return of her anxiety, and she moved to New York in 2009 to regain a degree of anonymity she lost in Hollywood.

“Losing my anonymity after Easy A, it was like being 7 years old all over again,” she says.  “It terrified me.”  Emma also suffered something like a panic attack while filming Birdman in 2014.  “The tightrope walk of that movie, the pacing and timing – I lost my mind a bit.  I just got to the point where I snapped.”

Emma StoneInterviews can also trigger her anxiety.  “Before any interview, I have to sit with myself for five minutes and breath and get centered because I get so nervous.  Interviews are kind of like therapy, except all your answers are being written down and printed.”

The creativity and courage she found as a young child through her anxiety book is a testament to the power of therapy. The resiliency and strength she found through performing is a testament to the importance of the performing arts.

Stone’s honesty is a step toward ending the stigma associated with mental health.

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Jonathan Hetterly, LPC

Jonathan Hetterly is a therapist, writer, and pop culture addict. He’s also a contributor to The Shrink Tank podcast. Follow him at @jhetterly and @shrink_tank.

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