My Journey with Acting and Anxiety | The Column
When I tell people that I trained to become a professional actress, conversations come to a halt. Brows raise and eyes twinkle. Then come the questions; “what have you been in? Have you met anyone famous? What can I see you in?”
To many, the concept of standing on an elevated platform in front of hundreds of staring eyes is nothing but a fantasy. The reality is much too frightening; putting yourself up for judgement whilst having to remember a plethora of lines and staged movements.
For me, it was sheer, unadulterated adrenalin. Doing the very thing that I loved more than anything else and being paid for it, combined with the tantalising applause and the unlimited congratulations, I was, for want of a better expression, living the dream.
When I left drama school, I was armed and ready to go. Having sacrificed my soul to follow my passion, I knew what I needed to do. Auditions came and went. The phone didn’t ring very often, but I knew that I was perfecting my art more and more each time.
One day, my agent called me and invited me to an audition. There was nothing unusual about any of it, a bog-standard audition for a well-known television show. It should have been the usual nerves, the anticipated anxiety.
Over the course of the next few days, my life changed in a way I never knew possible.
The downward spiral
Each day that preceded the audition, my mind was filled with thoughts of nothing else. I’d break out in cold sweats; I couldn’t eat or sleep and I was filled with an overwhelming sense of dread. More than anything else, I wanted my agent to call and tell me that the audition was cancelled. I didn’t want to go. I couldn’t go. Something really bad would happen if I did.
She didn’t call.
My heart was beating at such a rapid rate that I felt in a perpetual state of heart failure. I was filled with a mania that I’d never experienced, and wracking sobs would always follow. I felt sick to the point of almost vomiting.
On the day of the audition, I went into a large black mental hole. I felt dark and alone, consumed by the feeling of dread that had enveloped my entire nervous system. It was as though I was experiencing an out-of-body experience and couldn’t relate to myself in the first person. I stuttered when I spoke, I shook vigorously from head to toe.
Somehow, and I don’t know how - apart from the fact that my Mum was an incredible support, I drove to London and attended the audition. It went well, just like any other, and as soon as I left the room, I felt elation. Euphoria, almost.
That night I slept for over twelve-hours, burnt out from the sheer trauma of the previous days. I had suffered my first panic attack.
This quite spontaneous pattern continued for some months to the point that I started to dread my agent calling me. Every time my phone rang, I went into a state of panic and the symptoms rapidly returned. I’d fall to the ground and clutch my chest when it wasn’t her, I’d do the same if it was her. Often, I’d let her call go to voicemail so I could at least break myself in gently.
But I couldn’t quit acting. I’d trained for this. This was my dream.
So why did I dread the prospect of getting a part? Why did I really not want to get the part? Was it a case of self-sabotage induced by anxiety?
After two years of suffering from such debilitating attacks, I finally had to take a sabbatical from the acting world. My anxiety attacks had worsened and it became more and more difficult to even leave the house. I’d stopped communicating effectively and my weight had plummeted from lack of nutrition.
At first, I felt like a failure, but in time I learnt a few important lessons from my experience. It took a long while for me to consolidate my thoughts and feelings and address the fact that anxiety had become a major part of my existence. I never want back to acting properly, merely dabbled here and there. And that’s because of the knowledge that I had attained.
I realised that being an actor was more than simply learning lines. The frequent travel, the uncertainty, the spontaneity, the ‘politics’, the constant judgement….
Those things were not good for my soul and had slowly begun to destroy me.
So, what did I learn that I’d like to share?
Sometimes, anxiety is trying to tell you something
Rather than trying to fight it, have you ever listened to your thoughts and honoured your feelings? Have you ever noticed a pattern? Its easy to label someone as socially anxious if they panic when they’re going out amongst a group of people. However, that implies that we’re all supposed to enjoy mingling with groups or crowds, but a percentage of us get nervous about it.
Big disagree from me! If you feel anxious when you go anywhere, including the supermarket, there’s a good chance that you have a generalised anxiety disorder. However, if, like in my instance, it was one, specific trigger, it could be that something is telling you that you’re simply not one to mingle in crowds.
How incredibly liberating!
Quitting is not failing…
We’re conditioned to believe that quitting is for losers, that there’s nothing positive to be gained from it. I disagree. Sometimes, anxiety is our brains way of informing us that something isn’t right for us. You’ve probably heard this saying a lot….
‘Fight through the fear – it’ll be worth it!’
This applies to some situations, absolutely. We have to overcome a fear of flying and jump on an aeroplane if we want a holiday overseas, for example. But in some cases, our body is actually trying to tell us that it isn’t right for us, and that we’re on the wrong path!
That was certainly the case with me. Having walked away from acting, I couldn’t be happier!
Only face the fear if you truly desire the outcome.
Anxiety is not your enemy…
I spent a long time hating myself and feeling useless after my first episode. Some years later, I started to realise that befriending anxiety was my best option. Sadly, it doesn’t disappear as efficiently as it appeared, so we’re forced to come up with strategies to co-exist with it. I’ve learnt to talk to anxiety, to acknowledge its presence and politely inform it that it isn’t controlling me. As crazy as it can sometimes feel, it makes you feel a lot more in control of your mind.
You’re ten times stronger than you’ll ever, ever realise…
Although I wouldn’t revisit those traumatic days again, I now realise that I bravely fought on and frequently drove two-to-six-hours to an audition that I didn’t want to go to. I met high-profile individuals and performed in front of them despite a very recent breakdown.
If I can survive that, I now know that I can survive pretty much anything that anxiety throws at me. It still comes, don’t get me wrong, but now I’ve set a precedent and thus far, nothing has come close!
Think of a time that you’ve had terrible anxiety and ask yourself; “what were my thoughts? What was I scared of?” What was the outcome? I’ll bet that the outcome was vastly different to the perceived outcome.
Just remember, anxiety doesn’t have to be your enemy. Treat it with respect and you may learn a lot about yourself.
What I learnt from this experience:
Don’t fight anxiety! – Once you know that you’re living with anxiety or are potentially prone to the odd panic, try your hardest not to fight it. Much like severely panicking in deep water; panic will cause you to drown more simply than ‘going with it.’ It sounds utterly impossible and quite bizarre, but it really isn’t. Work a ‘go on – do your worst!’ phrase into your vocabulary!
If it doesn’t feel right – don’t do it! – There’s a difference between a gut feel and plain old dread. Go with the gut feel. Dread is possibly telling you something about your boundaries.
Talk to your anxiety! – Yep! He/she needs a name so that you can kindly request that he/she leave you alone for a while. Give it a try!
To read more from Sam, head over to her website: www.samanthafitzgibbons.co.uk.
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