Acting out: the psychological risks and rewards of acting

Acting is perhaps one of the most rewarding careers you can have, yet it carries psychological risks

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Have you ever thought about acting (or performing in general)? I am not talking about giving it a go, although that could be a worthwhile way to spend your time. I am talking about the process of acting and the strain it can put on performers.

Actors are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and depression as the general population and they report high levels of stress, bullying and sexual harassment as well as drug and alcohol abuse. The Australia Actors’ Wellbeing Study reports that a third to a quarter of actors are likely to be on some form of medication for their symptoms.

Equity has, for some time, being concerned about the health of performers, nearly half of whom report suffering a health related complaint (physical or psychological) that affected their ability to perform. Not least is the work related stress that goes with being an actor: uncertainty in the flow of work; long and unsociable hours; irregular and often low pay. It estimates that more than 20% of actors report that even with additional work their total gross income is well below the poverty line, and nearly two thirds state that work related stress has had an impact on their wellbeing and it adversely affects their relationships. And of course, there is the issue of performance anxiety, of which quarter of performers report suffering debilitating levels.


Intrinsic Reward

Actors' lives can be rewarding

Nevertheless, a performer’s life is seemingly also highly rewarding with actors generally, and quite remarkably given the stats, reporting high levels of satisfaction with their lives. The creativity, the adulation and recognition, the freedom perhaps, provide intrinsic reward – after all many actors are following and living their passion. But nevertheless, there is a compelling picture of a highly-qualified, highly-skilled yet often extremely low paid population working under stress, uncertainty of work and unsociable hours. Given the mantra of the industry ‘the show must go on’, actors know what lies ahead in their profession; the ‘do whatever it takes’ mentality and tendency to push through even with debilitating symptoms, takes its toll. The report even suggests that actors are disposed to ‘focussing on the positive’ and maintaining good energy and outlook even when the background of their lives rallies against their wellbeing.


Acting and Narcissism

Some performers who are drawn to the profession will, inevitably, tend to be vulnerable to mental health issues. Those who seek a life as a performer may crave the praise or recognition of others, they may have higher levels of narcissism. Often people high in narcissism have lower levels of self-esteem and need the appreciation of their ‘audience’ to feel better about themselves. This may have its roots in childhood adulation or favouritism, or conversely, neglect (emotional or physical). All of us human beings have unmet needs and we all have our coping strategies. But actors who have had abuse or neglect in their history, will be far more vulnerable to anxiety, depression or even trauma that results from accessing challenging roles or simply just living the actor’s life.


 Character acting

Lance Henriksen
Me with the lovely Lance

Getting into those characters that absorb us so much, get us spending hours at the cinema or on Netflix, can take its toll. Acting is a complex process that can make it difficult for the actor to let go of a character. Perhaps one of the most extreme (and well-known) forms of acting is method acting where stars will go to obsessive extremes for their art. Consider Robert de Niro in Raging Bull or Lance Henriksen in Millennium.

The process of playing a character cannot be separated from the life of the actor. Many actors will put their life on hold to nurture their character to give it their best performance.  There is an emotional, psychological and physical effort required. Actors have to access deep and often disturbing emotions to get into character.

Mark Seton looked at the well-being of actors in training in 2004, and came up with the term ‘post dramatic stress’. If an actor uses an ‘inside-out’ approach to getting into character, they may use strategies to connect emotionally with their characters that may result in the blurring of role/self boundaries, especially if the actor has other factors, stemming from their earlier history, that make them more vulnerable to a less resilient sense of self (of course, narcissism is one of these).

This means that assuming the emotions of the character the actor is portraying, may bring to consciousness some of the actors own unconscious or unresolved conflicts and result in him ‘acting out’. So that the actor’s character may take over offstage, for example the gentle, polite male actor who becomes aggressive and bullying during the time he plays a certain character. Alternately, the actor’s personal life history may be used to get into character and evoke the emotions required to play a role. This can be traumatic if it brings up difficult experiences or memories or triggers deeper unconscious issues, leading the actor to lose control on stage (for example, trauma).

The actor’s ability to control the blurring of role/self will depend on a number of factors including their ability to debrief from the roles they play and what strategies they use to get into character. Vulnerability is often seen as a necessary characteristic of successful actors, yet this vulnerability might come at a cost to actors’ wellbeing, leaving them with an ‘emotional hangover’ after the role has finished.


Supporting actors’ in protecting their sense of self

To help protect what can be a vulnerable population, both actors and the people who train them need more understanding of psychological wellbeing and how to look after and nurture their psychological health. This awareness needs to include increasing their awareness to recognise the psychological symptoms and challenges associated with their career, and to develop behaviours and practices in response.

In addition, whilst actors are given a lot of strategies to help them get into role but perhaps not enough help to truly de-role. In order to warm down from a performance and let go of the character they have so carefully nurtured, perhaps over a period of months, actors can use a variety of psychological techniques to protect their sense of self. This includes group work, anchoring, visualisations, breathing techniques, self-hypnosis, physical releases, rituals.

And more importantly, psychotherapy should be an important support function in an actor’s life (rather than counselling or even coaching) as good psychotherapy is all about developing and nurturing a robust sense of self. Perhaps then the characters and actors that we all love so dearly will be less likely to suffer for their art.

Embodied Counselling supports people from all walks of life to develop an even more robust sense of self.


Susan Tupling

I am a UKCP registered clinical psychotherapist, certified yoga and meditation teacher and a qualified therapeutic and executive coach. My specialist areas of expertise includes; Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy Pesso Boydon System of Body-Based psychotherapy Neuro linguistic programming Clinical Hypnotherapy Mindfulness and Meditation.