Being & Surviving: Performing with High-Functioning Anxiety
I was recently asked to answer a few 'get to know your cast member' questions. So, like the organised, meticulous person that I am, I submitted four or five long-thought out paragraphs about myself, in the most honest and open fashion that I could muster. A day or two later, the rest of the cast's answers were released and, naturally, I was curious about the people I would be performing with - who were they outside of this performance? Are they more normal/interesting/successful than I am? Do they ever feel nervous and afraid, anxious, or as if they would like nothing more than to curl up into a ball and forget about the performance world once in a (frequent) while?
The most surprising discovery for me, upon reading the array of answers before me, was in relation to my last, seemingly irrational question: yes, they do. So many performers really, really do. Reading these answers made me realize how very not alone I actually am. Because, what became the most apparent reality to me is that so many performers really do experience anxiety - intense anxiety - on a regular basis throughout their careers, and on a deep and very personal level which they grapple with every single day of their lives. I wasn't alone!
There is a huge misconception that exists around the identities of performers - be it of a singer, dancer or actor of any kind. The generalization that is most commonly held is that we are all, of course, inherently confident and self-assured individuals who function exceptionally well under pressure. Right? Wrong. Well, at least, in my experience, this assumption does not, contrary to popular belief, hold true for a significant, and largely unspoken, group of individuals that exists within the performance industry. This isn't to say that there aren't individuals who inherently thrive in the spotlight, without much of a thought about nerves or the like, there are. And, honestly, I envy them. But I'm here to talk about a career in performance from a lesser known angle.
We are the individuals that appear to be in control and on top of things; the individuals who are constantly keeping ourselves busy with projects and training; the list-makers; the most organized; the always ready and the intensely focused - on the outside. On the inside? Anxiety. Heaps, and heaps, of anxiety, which manifests itself in all of the aforementioned qualities, and more. Some lesser known qualities may include: a tendency to overthink, obsess, be overly critical or overly-apologetic, a deep sense of being out of control, and/or, usually, a deep lack of self-worth. We are performers with high-functioning anxiety, and despite what you see, we live every day with a deep and underlying sense of pressure and anxiety.
The above-mentioned misconception about performer identities, I believe, is maintained because of the confident, capable and skilled image most high-functioning anxiety performers, literally, with or without knowing, perform on a daily basis. This performance of perfectionism, control, and busyness is, in fact, how I, and many performers I have been in conversation with, manage our anxiety on a daily basis.
This is me, saying (typing) out loud that you are not alone if you internally freak out every time a dance instructor/acting coach/casting agent/audition panel member puts you on the spot, to the point that is fundamentally detrimental to your performance ability. You are not alone if you deeply question whether you can actually do 'it' every time you're about to step on stage. You are not alone if you would rather take on more than you can physically and mentally handle because the thought of standing still with your anxiety is far too frightening to deal with, so you take on something more, again and again, to avoid it. You are not alone if you experience the constant mental exhaustion that comes with overthinking every little thing you do and don't do, from criticizing your every 'not good enough' quality. You are not alone in your anxiety as a performer, do you hear me? You are not alone.
The reality is that your anxiety may never go away, but, it is manageable. This is the fun part, you get to experiment and figure out what works for you when it comes to managing your own anxiety. And everyone is different.
Controlling things is one way of managing anxiety, but, in my experience, it isn't always the healthiest, and can often manifest in eating disorders, OCD, and unhealthily holding yourself back form certain experiences. Here are a few things I've picked up along the way that may help you if you're looking for guidance on managing anxiety:
- Exercise - many people benefit from regular exercise as a release of stress and anxiety, or in finding a space of expression. And hey! If it's already a part of your career, why not prioritize those dance classes, or that morning Pilates session? If you find dance classes stressful, counteract them with a calm yoga class or some at-home stretching
- Meditation - whatever your beliefs are, it is becoming more and more undeniable that attention needs to be paid to our individual mind-body connections. Meditation, even just five minutes of it in the morning or evening, or whenever you're feeling anxious, is, in my experience, extremely beneficial. It will help you quiet your over-active thoughts and focus yourself and your energy in the direction that you want to be going. And even if you just take five minutes a day to focus on breathing through meditation, it will work your anxious body and mind wonders.
- Writing - Earnest Hemingway said it best: "write long and hard about what hurts", or what's bothering you. Getting your thoughts and feelings out on paper can help manage those feelings. You don't have to write eloquently, or ever show what you've written to anyone, for that matter. Do it for yourself, as a form of expression, and as a way of sorting through your thoughts and feelings.
- Get outside - take yourself for a walk, preferably in a space that calms you, like the forest or along a beach. We can get so caught up in our own minds and busy lives that something as simple as walking outside does wonders for calming the mind and giving yourself the time to think and breathe.
- Art therapy - like writing, drawing, painting, or even adult colouring in, add some peaceful music or an inspiring podcast, and creating something for the pure pleasure of creating it can be extremely therapeutical.
- Talk it out - whether it be to a professional or someone you trust, being able to vocalize your anxiety honestly and openly will empower you tremendously, and play a big role in helping you manage those feelings in the present and in the future.
Despite what you feel, you still wake up every day and choose to perform. Despite what you feel. How incredible is that? It really is an enormous achievement in itself. And why do you do it? Because it is who you are. Because you enjoy it. Because a deeper, un-explainable part of you has been called to it, and is constantly, called back to performing. Because, like myself, it actually helps you manage your anxiety. Or, maybe, because it forces you to face the hard-to-deal-with anxiety-ridden part of yourself, which eventually leads to the most satisfying personal growth you could know. Whatever the reason, I see you, and you are braver than most people will ever know, and more capable than your anxiety makes you believe. I see you. You are not alone.
And, most of all, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Manage on, performers, manage on.
Jessica Köhler is a professional actress, singer and dancer in Cape Town, South Africa. Since signing with her agent in 2014, Jessica has worked professionally in both film and musical theatre, and continues to enjoy a career that involves both mediums. Her recent projects include Fox and Lionsgate's Clan of the Cave Bear and Netflix's American Monsters. Her insatiable enthusiasm for musical theatre has led to her success in securing her debut professional role in the national tour of Rent in 2017. Jessica is also currently working as a script-writer in Cape Town, in and among her continued training and projects, which include various forms of dancing, instructing and singing.