Coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 may be diseases of the body, but the anxiety it’s bred and the uncertainty it’s nurtured are legitimate risks to mental health.
The stress and strain varies between essential workers who risk their lives (and those who they live with) to provide for the rest of us, those who have migrated to the cabin fever-inducing work-from-home, and those who are unemployed altogether. And yet, the lack of predictability and security—and sudden unemployment—feels familiar to many in the performing arts community, who jump from job to job and audition on the daily in the best of circumstances.
“This has been the Great Equalizer,” says John Carroll, a licensed psychotherapist and former Broadway dancer (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Follies). The practices Carroll suggests to ease anxiety for his actor clients can apply to all of us.
Dealing with constant high anxiety:
“The thing about going on auditions constantly—even numerous ones in a day—is you’re infusing your brain with constant bursts of anxiety,” says Carroll. Now, those bursts are commonplace among all of us. “It’s that hit over and over again that we’re collectively feeling a sense of fatigue. And it’s something that many performers have felt.”
A mindfulness practice is a necessity, not a luxury, according to Carroll. “That's either meditation or yoga or even [a set interlude of] calming breaths, and making it not just something we implement when we're going into the battlegrounds” but 365.
Process through, instead of push through:
Carroll says that mindfulness also helps us to process through rather than push through. “Push through is: Pull yourself up from the bootstraps, head down. Get from point A to point B. Make it happen,” he says. “Process through: I’m going to get from point A to point B, but I’m going to be insightful and mindful and implement empathy and compassion for myself.” What’s the tangible difference? Processing involves the acknowledgment of anxiety, fear, sadness, etc., and telling yourself that these are normal for a person in this situation rather than beating yourself up for feeling this way. This is crucial for an actor to keep in mind as they enter the audition room (feeling all sorts of pressure—emotional, financial, professional) and for all of us right now.
Anxiety is contagious:
When an actor walks into an audition room with every other dancer in New York City, the room fills with nerves. Why? Because anxiety is contagious. Mirror neurons pick up signals from external sources and mimic them. The same is true now at home, at the grocery store, or at the park.
Whether entering an audition room, co-habitating in more restrictive quarters, or trying to stand six feet from the person queuing in front of you, another person’s energy affects yours. Carroll advises setting emotional boundaries and grounding yourself; check in with how you are feeling. How do your feet feel on the ground? How does your body feel? What sounds do you hear? Are you breathing steadily? All of these will bring you back to your reality instead of being swept up in others’.
Coping with unemployment:
Navigating one’s self-worth when personal identity is so intertwined with work is a common task in Carroll’s office. Though actors may regularly experience unemployment, there is comfort that a job may be waiting on the other side of the door of the next audition room. Instead, stage actors are entirely out of work right now—as is 14.7 percent of the U.S. But it’s crucial that loss of work does not equate to a loss of self.
Carroll cannot emphasize enough the need for routine. “When we have structure in our day, then we know what the parameters and the rules and regulations are, and that decreases a sense of not knowing, which then decreases that sense of anxiety,” he says.
Without work, your routine may be thrown out of whack, but think about things that would enrich you as a person. “Focusing on, ‘How am I a more well-rounded human? How is my life more full and more balanced?’” also helps build self-worth that is unattached to your occupation—even if it’s an occupation you love. Find an online exercise class, teach yourself a new skill, carve out specific times to touch base with friends and family, and eat meals at consistent times of day.
You are not only what you do:
In an achievement-driven nation, it can be difficult to feel worthy if we’re not useful. But Carroll stresses that you are who you decide to be.
“Would anyone turn to Chita Rivera and be like, ‘You're not in a show right now, sorry, you’re not a dancer’? We have to push back on that mentality that if you’re not currently doing something, then you’re not doing it,” he says.
Surviving the stress at work:
If you are still working—and when we all return to work (actors included)—it’s still important for overall mental health to separate emotional stress at work and our core selves.
“A dancer would have a cool-down phase [after a show]. And for [an actor] who’s going through a lot of high emotion, it’s having a practice after the show that is extremely meditative,” says Carroll. Recall the grounding exercises. Process through.
Actors like Ben Platt and Cynthia Erivo have talked about their need to actively come down from their emotionally-charged shows. “We don’t want to turn our minds off because we don’t want to disengage from our lives and our feelings,” says Carroll. The theatre is not the only emotional working environment. While actors go in and out of a character between home and work, so can you. Separate the two, allowing yourself to feel and process all of it separately.
How employers can help:
A former dancer on the national tour of Movin’ Out, Carroll knows firsthand what it feels like to push the limits of your body. But the producers of the Billy Joel musical understood the physical toll of the work and made adjustments: all leads did only four shows a week rather than all eight, ensemblists did six and then swung out. A physical therapist was always on hand. There was a vocabulary for the physical health of the show. “What we want to do is expand that to the mental health of the show,” says Carroll. “A mental health date is OK for the longevity of the performer and therefore the longevity of the show, and producers need to understand that.” The same goes for employers throughout the working world.
Do you have a mental health question for John? Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Playbill - Dear John.”