Spotlight’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Manager, Bea Grist, shares tips for actors managing stress and anxiety.
Things like work, COVID, family situations etc. can all contribute to feelings of stress or anxiety. Of course, the problem happens when the stress becomes too much so we asked Bea for some practices performers could use to help manage those feelings.
1. Name how you feel
Emotions are more stressful when they’re suppressed. When we name how we feel it reduces stress because it separates us from the feeling and helps us be more in control.
Try writing down how you feel. If you feel sad, write ‘I feel sad’ remembering that you are not your feelings or emotions. When we say ‘I am sad’ it is much harder to separate ourselves from what we’re feeling because we make the feeling part of us. Know that the feeling will pass, just like clouds in the sky.
2. Focus on what you can control
Do the My World/The World exercise to get clarity on what you can control. To do this, take a sheet of (landscape) A4 paper and draw two big circles on it next to each other. Above one circle write ‘The World’, above the other circle, write ‘My World’. In ‘The World’ write down all of the things which you cannot control. For example lockdown restrictions, my partner’s behaviour, when theatres re-open, the weather etc.
In the ‘My World’ circle write down all the things that you can control. For example, how I react, who I connect with, what time I go to bed, how much time I spend reading the news, what I chose to eat, what perspective I have on a situation etc.
There will also be some things which you have a certain amount of influence over which sit between both worlds. The idea of this exercise to bring greater awareness to what can change so you can focus your energy on those things and give yourself permission to let go of what is outside your control.
3. Allow your values to guide you
We all have values that are really important to us. These are tied up in everything we do and in how we choose to show up each day. For example, you might have a strong value of connection. Try thinking about how you could honour connection more; it could be calling a friend that you haven’t spoken to for ages or taking 10 minutes to meditate and connect with yourself.
When we connect with what is important to us, we engage the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is associated with decision-making, problem-solving, self-control etc) we fire up neurotransmitters which then calm down the fight-or-flight response by increasing GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid). GABA blocks specific signals in our central nervous system slowing down our brain, providing a calming effect on our brain and body. In short, values are an antidote to fear.
4. Take a different perspective
We often feel stressed and anxious when we feel stuck or trapped – like we have no control. The judgement or stories we tell ourselves about the situation often only serve to heighten our stress and anxiety further. A perspective is a different way of looking at the same thing or topic. If you’re going to a meeting or a family Zoom call and you’re dreading it, you are in a perspective.
The way we look at a situation has an enormous impact on how we experience our lives. Our point of view is very often the main contributing factor to the blocked, stuck or stalled feeling. We may not always be able to choose our situation but we can always choose how to view it.
Imagine how you’ll look back on your present-day life in many years to come – how might your perspective be different then? Gratitude can be a helpful perspective. Try focusing on what you’re grateful for, or what has gone well each day. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. It can be simple or small things like noticing a smile from a stranger or feeling the sun on your face.
Mindfulness is the practice of simply noticing what is occurring in the present moment. Our stress or anxiety is nearly always associated with past thoughts (ruminating and regret) or future fears. When we focus our full attention on the present moment we are less likely to become overwhelmed or react to our thoughts or what is going on around us.
Mindfulness is a proven technique to manage stress – it’s so effective that the NHS even prescribes it! There are tons of guided meditations on YouTube so give it a try. Apps like Headspace or Calm are also very helpful if you’d like to develop a regular mindfulness practice.
6. Know your boundaries and stick to them
Our boundaries are particularly blurred at the moment as we balance home life with working and for some of us, home-schooling too. Thanks to technology, we have lots of different ways of staying connected, however, constant video calls, group chats and phone calls can be draining and difficult to say no to.
Ask yourself each day – what is it that I need today? Then try to find a way to honour what you need. If you work from home and are lucky enough to have plenty of space, try to work in a different room from where you relax or sleep. Sitting in a different area of a room or even a different chair can help your mind switch into a different mode.
Schedule regular screen breaks and try to get outside at least once a day.
7. Be mindful of how much news you consume
When we read distressing or upsetting information, it can stimulate our fight-or-flight (or freeze) response which is our sympathetic ‘go’ action. This causes our bodies to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and can have an impact on our energy levels and sleep.
By all means, stay informed but take breaks from watching, listening or reading news stories and limit the amount of time you engage with it.
Another helpful technique is to schedule ‘worry time’. Scroll through the news and acknowledge or write down anything you’re worried about, and make plans for addressing any issues that arise.
8. Take time for yourself every week
I like to call this ‘wooing time’. Put aside some time each week which is just for you and allow yourself to indulge in something which gives you pleasure. It might be taking a long bath, listening to a podcast, going for a walk or reading a book. When we relax, we increase the parasympathetic nervous system activity which reduces stress. so give yourself permission to take this time for yourself.
Be kind and gentle with yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing your best. You do not have to be at your most productive right now, and that’s ok.
9. Alternative nostril breathing (Pranayama breath technique)
This technique is a yogic breath control practice that helps to balance out the nervous system and reduces stress and anxiety. There are lots of health benefits to practising this technique – lower blood pressure and improved lung function to name a couple – and it can be particularly helpful to use at times of intense stress. Try practising it before an audition or when you need to perform at your best. Here is Adriene (of Yoga With Adriene fame) demonstrating the technique.
10. Exercise and routine
Creating a routine can be so valuable for your mental health. Try setting an intention for your day as part of your routine. Ask yourself – what is the intention I want for myself today?
Regular exercise positively impacts serotonin levels in our brains and helps to balance our body’s level of stress hormones. The mind and body are interrelated, so when we take care of the physical body, we take care of our minds too. Raising the levels of serotonin boosts our mood and overall sense of wellbeing and helps to improve our appetite and sleep. And there is nothing better than a good night’s sleep.
If you’re finding yourself suffering from stress or anxiety, there is help available. We have more advice, support and information about where to get help with your mental health and wellbeing on our dedicated hub page.
Main image by Javier Allegue via Unsplash.