Your question: Can I be an actor if I have social anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is a universal experience. To a greater or lesser extent, we all feel anxiety at various times in our lives. Anxiety is necessary because it triggers an alert in our body, indicating that we must take action to avoid a potential threat. However, when anxiety becomes very intense and recurrent, it causes problems.

There are several types of anxiety, one of the most common is social anxiety, also known as social phobia. This problem is characterized by a persistent avoidance of social situations. People with social anxiety feel excessive embarrassment, fear and worry when they are in social situations, almost always because they are afraid of the judgment or assessment that others make of them (1).

If you are someone who is dealing with social anxiety, although you may feel alone and misunderstood, social anxiety is a fairly common problem. Approximately 12% of adults experience social anxiety (2), and although it is most common in young people between the ages of 18 and 29, it occurs indiscriminately regardless of age, gender or any other variable.

Social anxiety becomes a problem because it causes people to isolate themselves or avoid contact with others, leading to loneliness and self-criticism that leads to depression. Therefore, social anxiety should not be confused with normal shyness. While in shyness people are quiet and introverted, but can function without major problems in social spaces, people with social anxiety feel an overwhelming panic in situations such as making a school or work presentation.

The world is a place that demands us to socialize, therefore, having social anxiety can be an obstacle for many everyday situations. Among these situations is the search for a job, a partner and friendships. It is therefore necessary for people with social anxiety to learn strategies to alleviate their symptoms and develop social skills.

You are probably wondering if you can have an acting career if you have social anxiety. The answer is yes, since social anxiety, and any type of anxiety, is not an impediment to achieving your goals, but an obstacle that you must face with the right emotional tools.

Research has shown how social anxiety is also related to the judgment and perception that an audience may have of social situations. This means that people whose job is to perform in front of an audience, from commercial presenters to theater actors, may feel an insistent concern about what the audience will think of them (3).

Being an actor involves social work, since regardless of the area in which you perform (film, television or theater), you will be surrounded by other people and you will have to communicate constantly with others in order to stay active in your work. Therefore, if you want to be an actor and you have social anxiety, you need to work on building psychological tools to help you cope with your anxiety, and not let it define you. You have the strength and capacity to do this.

What does it feel like to have social anxiety?

Social anxiety occurs exclusively in social contexts, such as being in a crowd, on public transportation, when giving a presentation in class or at work, trying to socialize to make new friends, at a job interview, even simple everyday activities such as talking to a cashier at the grocery store.

The symptoms of social anxiety are both physical and emotional, and are generally characterized by the fear of being judged or criticized negatively by others. Other common symptoms are:

  • Muscle tension.
  • Tachycardia and shortness of breath.
  • Anticipation of social activities well in advance, e.g., fear of a college presentation weeks before it occurs.
  • Feeling of extreme embarrassment in social settings.
  • Avoidance of social activities for fear of feeling anxious.
  • Feeling of dizziness.
  • Avoidance of eye contact.
  • Feeling panic when a stranger asks you a question on the street.
  • Difficulty making friends and dating.

How being an actor can cause you social anxiety?

Social anxiety appears in social situations in which the person feels judged or criticized by others. For the most part, the concerns you have, related to social anxiety and fear of negative criticism from others, are dysfunctional thoughts and therefore not entirely logical.

Acting is a naturally social job. You are surrounded by directors, cameramen, lighting crew, other actors and other acting-related workers. In addition, actors must maintain constant communication with the media to make sure they get new jobs, as well as go on auditions. 

These situations, inherent to the world of acting, can trigger your social anxiety, as your mind begins to imagine that everyone around you is criticizing you, from your fellow actors to the audience. In social anxiety, and any form of anxiety, you experience overwhelming thoughts of self-criticism that are almost never true.

You need to understand that acting is an art. Like any form of artistic expression, it requires practice and commitment, understanding that it has specific frustrations and problems that you must deal with as part of the job. Being an actor involves dealing with audiences, which can be very critical, or with strict directors who can sometimes be rude and humiliating.

Therefore, you need to work on controlling your symptoms of social anxiety before you begin to dabble in the world of acting, as this could affect you emotionally in a very negative way.

Developing coping strategies that allow you to face the acting world with confidence and determination is ideal, both to protect your mental health and to ensure that you will do a good job.

What can you do to be an actor even if you have social anxiety?

No problem has to define your life, and social anxiety is no exception. More than an impediment, your social anxiety is an obstacle that you must overcome in order to have a productive and satisfying life. There are strategies to consider so that you can work effectively with social anxiety.

It should be noted that social anxiety can only be diagnosed by a professional, and it is advisable to see a psychologist or psychiatrist if you feel that your social anxiety is consuming your life and worsening over time.

Social anxiety has been shown to be treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy. People learn strategies that improve their quality of life, and manage to cope with overwhelming social situations through questioning their irrational thoughts and socialization and communication techniques.

For people with social anxiety who aspire to the acting world, improvisational theater is a form of theater that has proven to be therapeutic for people with anxiety, depression and PTSD. This therapy must be delivered by a trained therapist and involves improvisational acting out personal or other people’s experiences, either in front of an audience or in front of the therapist (4).

This therapy focuses on body language, tone of voice, and improvisation skills, and aims to develop confidence in people with anxiety about their own abilities and to identify aspects of their personality that they need to work on in order to have a more satisfying life.

There are other useful strategies to deal with the symptoms of social anxiety.

Breathing and relaxation

When anxiety symptoms occur, relaxation exercises are quite helpful. Close your eyes, inhale slowly for 3 seconds and exhale for another 3 seconds. Rest your hands on your abdomen and feel how the tension in your body progressively decreases. While you do this, repeat in your mind affirmation phrases, such as: “you can handle this situation, you have the strength to do it”. You can apply this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Strengthen your self-esteem for the acting world

As mentioned, the acting world can be quite harsh and cruel. Therefore, it is necessary that you adapt to the potential stressful situations that you may experience being an actor. Among these, the most important is to develop confidence in your work, listening to criticism as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than as an attack or humiliation. Constantly, you must repeat to yourself looking in a mirror “you can do this, you have the strength to achieve it”, especially at times when you feel unable to achieve a goal such as going to an audition.

Question your thoughts

Negative thoughts in social anxiety can ruin your life. Generally, when you are in places of socialization, thoughts like “no one wants me here”, “they sure are talking bad about me”, “I feel out of place, I should leave” come to you. It is hard work to understand that our thoughts are not facts, but this is reality.

Just because you think this way does not imply that it is the objective reality. Therefore, when these negative thoughts invade you, whether at work or in any other social space, you need to stop and question them. A functional and positive response to the above thoughts would be, “No one has said anything negative to me, I will try to fit into the space and try to start a conversation with someone.”

Develop your social skills

Something like initiating a conversation with a stranger can be a nightmare for many people with social anxiety. However, these are small steps you can take to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety and learn to control them. In a notebook you can write down a simulated conversation with a stranger or an acquaintance. It will help to look in the mirror and practice. Preferably, you can make the conversation about a topic of your interest, for example, a movie you recently saw or a nice restaurant you went to.

When you find yourself in a social setting, approach a person to start the conversation. If the person doesn’t know you, introduce yourself. Start talking about the topic you had in mind and practiced earlier. At the moment you may feel tense and overwhelmed, but by the end, regardless of how long the conversation lasts, you will feel that you have taken an important step in developing your social skills.

In my experience…

Being an actor with anxiety is possible. Some big stars who deal with this problem are Eva Longoria, Olivia Munn and Lili Reinhart. It’s hard work, but possible. Having anxiety can be exhausting but it’s not a sentence. You can learn and unlearn things that allow you to strengthen your coping strategies and confront your social fears. If being an actor is your dream, with enough dedication and ability to learn from your mistakes, you can achieve it, even with your social anxiety.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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