Positivity Out of Adversity
Performance psychologist Dr Jane Oakland gives stress management advice and explains how uncertain times can help you grow as a person and as an actor.
By Dr Jane Oakland
List your worries and concerns then prioritise those which you feel are within your control to manage. Regaining even a small amount of self-control serves as an anchor when events around you seem out of control.
Like many of you, as a self-employed professional musician and performance psychologist, I have seen my work and future income reduced to virtually nothing. This is a scenario seen throughout the performing arts industry. Shock and disbelief of the speed at which life can change is felt by all of us.
In this article I identify four areas that you may not find covered in general advice about stress management but which are likely to pose specific psychological challenges for actors. I also emphasise the potential for these uncertain times to help you grow and develop as a person and an actor.
Actors are defined personally and professionally by their work. Loss of work not only has a huge financial impact but also puts into question an actor’s whole sense of self and self-worth. It begs the question ‘Who am I without my work’? Because all performers rely, to varying degrees, on the positive acclaim of others for self-esteem it is easy to neglect personal qualities and characteristics that give you value as a person in your own right.
Try making a list of the qualities and skills you have, particularly those which might be of use to help others in your community. How innovative can you be in using your creativity in different ways to draw people together or create new work opportunities? In difficult times, being able to help others or share experiences and talents increases self-worth.
The emotional bank account
An important part of building resilience is the belief that you can cope with adversity. One way of doing this is to start what I call, an ‘emotional bank savings account’. This is a place to store all your past experiences of dealing with adversity, no matter how insignificant, and to draw on that account when you need strength and the belief that you can cope with new adversity.
A good place to start is to write down all past experiences of adversity and how you coped. Keep this list to hand so that you can refer to it if times get tough.
A further way to top up your account is to remember past work and the positive things that people have said to you, both professionally and personally. I have recently come across actors and musicians who, after a considerable amount of time spent trying to get their first break, finally get a contract only to see it cancelled shortly after. Devastating as that may be, these contracts should not be forgotten but placed in your bank account. They represent a positive endorsement of your professional abilities.
Worry and Anxiety
It is completely natural to experience worry and anxiety in times of uncertainty. If you think of anxiety as the body’s arousal system preparing for action (as with performance anxiety) the anxiety can be put to good use to help you focus or take important decisions.
Use skills similar to those you may use to control pre-performance anxiety such as breathing or mindfulness. Find an anxiety ‘sweet spot’ which allows your brain to function optimally. Watch the Inverted-U curve theory of Yerkes-Dodson explained in this TEDx talk; 'How Stress Makes Us sharper'.
List your worries and concerns then prioritise those which you feel are within your control to manage. Regaining even a small amount of self-control serves as an anchor when events around you seem out of control. Anthony Giddens* (1991) claimed that we are what we make ourselves and if we cannot influence external environments, we can learn to fit with them. This requires flexibility and self-reflection.
An actor’s performance will always be informed and enriched by real-life experience, both good and bad. What you are experiencing now will become a resource to tap into at a later date
Post Traumatic Growth
There are various schools of thought to suggest that experiencing trauma or crisis can lead to psychological growth, depending on how an individual perceives that crisis. Payne and her colleagues** (2007) produced a paper that used the metaphor of a broken vase to show how crisis information can be processed. If a beautiful vase is broken there are three options:
- The pieces can be thrown away
- The pieces can be glued back together in an attempt to revert back to the way things used to be but the repair makes the vase fragile
- Something new, in the form of a beautiful mosaic, can be made from the pieces.
The sentiment here is that successful adaptation to change requires our past to take on different meanings if we are to grow and fit with a new environment.
An actor’s performance will always be informed and enriched by real-life experience, both good and bad. What you are experiencing now will become a resource to tap into at a later date. Why not keep a diary or blog to document your experiences and emotions. It is a way to deepen self- awareness and personal development, tools which are essential for your work.
Finally, a vital part of being an actor is learning to manage the downtimes and cope with the isolation you may experience when a show ends and the friendships you have made also come to an end. These challenges make you ideally placed not only to weather the current crisis and come out stronger but to help others in your community who may not be so well equipped.
Consider developing an online community within the profession where you can share personal experiences, developments in the business and humour.
Create a daily routine that can give structure to your life. Although you need not stick to it rigidly, it is a place of reference to return to if life gets difficult. Each morning list the tasks you hope to achieve that day.
Try not to think too far ahead. Approach each day and each week with an open mind.
The Chimp Paradox is a more theoretical book to help you take control of your emotions and act in your own best interests. The principle is used by sport and performance psychologists.
Do not forget the range of charitable organisations on the Spotlight website that are there to help and listen to your concerns.
* Giddens, A. (1991/2004) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
** Payne, A.J., Joseph, S. & Tudway, J. (2007) Assimilation and accommodation processes following traumatic experiences. Journal of Loss and Trauma. 12: 75-91
Jane Oakland is a lecturer at UCL on their Performing Arts Medicine MSc, Performance Coach at Birmingham University and a BAPAM trainer and practitioner. She runs a private practice giving psychological support to all performing artists. Prior to this Jane worked as an opera singer for 35 years in the UK and Holland. For more information visit www.stresspoints.co.uk
Image by Imani Clovis via Unsplash.