For anyone who suffers from anxiety-and that is many of you as Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects around 6.8 million people in the U.S. or more than 3% of the country’s adults-you know it can be absolutely debilitating. But Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone, who had her first panic attack at age 7 points out, it can also be a great asset if you have the right tools.
Stone, who started opening up about her anxiety in the last few years, spoke with Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz for the Child Mind Institute on Oct. 1 at Advertising Week. As a child, she loved learning and reading, but the summer after first grade everything changed. “Before I went into second grade, I had my first panic attack. It was really, really terrifying and overwhelming,” the 29-year-old said. “I was at a friend’s house, and all of a sudden I was convinced the house was on fire and it was burning down… obviously the house wasn’t on fire, but there was nothing in me that didn’t think we were going to die.” She stopped being able to sleep over at friend’s houses and though she continued to attend school, she was often paralyzed by anxiety if she didn’t know where her mother was at all hours of the day.
She went into therapy which helped a lot as she learned that her anxiety was a monster that she could control. She even wrote a small paper book called I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety. Stone spoke about it in another interview, “I drew a little green monster on my shoulder 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.”
She also found solace by participating in community theater. Stone said she found “her people” there and found that her feelings could actually be really productive. Doing theater, specifically improv, was a great release from her usual state, even the antithesis of anxiety. “Well, it’s presence. And for somebody that likes to perform that combined with absolute presence and needing to listen really intently works and I believe people who have anxiety and depression are very sensitive and very, very smart because the world is hard and scary and when you are really sensitive and attune to all of that it can be crippling, but if you don’t let it cripple you and you use it for something positive or productive, it’s like a superpower.
“And so with improv, I learned that I could take all these big feelings and just really listen in the moment, and use all of my associative brain that wakes me up still in the middle of the night [with stressful thoughts] … The thing that still haunts me to this day is useful in my job, and I’m so grateful for it.” When she performed she felt totally free from anxiety and the monster just disappeared.
Now not all of us are actors for a living and are doing as something as creative and fun as improv but the emphasis here really needs to be on finding the right tools to help you manage your anxiety and channel it in useful ways. “You don’t have to be an actor to overcome anxiety, you don’t have to be a writer to overcome it. You just have to find that thing within you that you are drawn to.”
Anxiety is essential to her career
Anxiety though, in particular, has helped Stone in her line of work. “Absolutely. It’s invaluable. Along with my belief that we’re smarter — we’re just so smart, us anxious people! Just kidding. We are more sensitive. I also believe there’s a lot of empathy when you’ve struggled a lot internally. There’s a tendency to want to understand how people around you work, or what’s going on internally with them, which is great for characters. It’s great to be able to kind of dig into who these people are, what their struggles are, what their secrets are, and how they present themselves is not always how they feel inside. And that’s a great gift as an actor to be able to do that because you find so many parts of yourself that you basically get to explore and exercise on a daily basis at work.”
And though she said making mistakes is a huge trigger for her, Stone said she has learned to except “failures.” “I also have gotten really good at letting things go. That’s probably maturity, whether it’s relationships or parts or certain attitudes or feelings within yourself, you learn to, I think, let it go and release it much better than you do when you’re young and you’re really holding onto, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be.’ ”
Stone, who currently stars in the Netflix series Maniac, the new film The Favourite, and is the new face of Louis Vuitton, says her packed schedule is definitely one of her tools. “Staying busy definitely is helpful … [Otherwise] I can spin. It’s much better as time has gone on. Now that I have more tools, I don’t need to be the punching bag. But I definitely find being busy with a creative endeavor, an outlet like that is when I’m happiest…It can be exhausting. Not sleeping is my kryptonite, for sure. But that’s gotta be anybody, right?”
And just because she is now able to talk about it in an intelligent and reflective manner doesn’t mean that Stone still doesn’t get a little nervous. “I panicked this morning, y’all,” she said, with a laugh at the beginning of the event. “I wasn’t expecting to, but I definitely did.”