One of the various explanations for why actors often struggle with problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse could be connected to the nature of the acting profession. Could there be a confusion between what is reality and what is acting, on a subconscious level?
Acting “As If”
There’s a famous expression called “fake it til you make it.” In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this is called acting “as if.” So for example someone dealing with depression is instructed to act in a cheerful manner ( i.e. pretending to be self-confident by walking with shoulders back, or smiling even when the inclination may be to frown.)
What happens when an actor must dive into a difficult role? Perhaps the character has an addiction or a mental disorder. A great deal of time is spent filming. During this time, the actor must get into the characters shoes. The actor feels all of the intense emotions of the character. Once filming of the movie finishes, then what? Is it easy to let go of the emotions accessed for the part? The actor can of course, on a rational level, understand that it was just a role, and not who they are in real life. But what occurs on the subconscious level? Can the brain become rewired?
Cells That Fire Together Wire Together
Hebb’s rule in neuroscience explains this rewiring. The rule is that cells that fire together, wire together. So if an individual continually tells him or herself that he/she is not a worthwile person, that will at one point turn into an automatic thought. Or if an individual repeatedly experiences the emotions connected to certain states of minds, those emotions will be felt without conscious awareness eventually. In other words, act depressed on a consistent basis, feel the emotions of hurt, sadness, etc. time and time again, and a habit can be formed. Those negative emotions will come up without trying. Emotions are a product of thoughts. An actor may think back to past frustrations, traumas and disappointments in order to get into a depressed statte of mind. The thoughts that trigger these emotions could include something like : ” I don’t deserve good things, I’m not a lovable person, I’m just going to be abandoned in the end etc.”
It’s not simple to change thoughts and emotional states.An emotional state can be addictive! It requires consistent effort. I like to use an analogy: an actor may be required to gain a significant amount of weight for a part. Once filming is over, is the weight lost immediately? Or does it require some effort to lose it with a plan that might include diet and exercise? “Rewiring” brain cells takes just as much hard work.
The Highs and Lows of Being a Perfomer
Performing can be exciting and fulfilling. It can be a great “high” to receive praise for a role well-played. But what happens if it’s not all praise? Or what about when it ends? It isn’t possible to be in the spotlight all the time. Performers are very creative individuals. They possess a gift. However, with that gift, there frequently comes a price- a level of vulnerability, a sensitvity level that is elevated. A performer may deal with issues related to self-esteem. Being an entertainer involves facing multiple stressors. And for many in the industry, the maladaptive coping mechanism becomes turning to drugs,alcohol or other addictive behavior.
I welcome any thoughts you may have on this topic.
Author: Dr. Masha Godkin, Psy.D, MFT is a professor of counseling psychology, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Ca. with an Online Therapy Practice, as well as a former child actor. One of her specialties is in addictive behavior and counseling those in the performing art professions. Visit http://www.onlinetherapywith-dr-masha.com to learn about the Online Therapy service options that are available.