Soothing anxieties with the stage

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Blair Cunningham
Theatre Editor

Anyone who has felt their heart rate increase, their mind race around disasters, or questioned their own value when faced with social interactions, knows the pain of social anxiety. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that over 90% of surveyed individuals had felt socially anxious to a significant degree at some point in their life. Here, it is essential to differentiate the common anxiety from social anxiety disorder: a more extensive and sometimes crippling aversion to social situations which affects fewer than 5-10% of the population. Although the principle fears are the same, the symptoms and effects differ greatly.

Like most socially anxious people, I became aware of my aversions as I grew up and out of adolescence. As we mature, we realise we aren’t simply battling the natural worries and shyness as part of social conditioning, but are experiencing a defence mechanism of our personality – or even a mental illness, depending on the severity.

But there’s nothing permanent or unchangeable about social anxiety; so many performers have the condition exactly because performing is such a great tool against anxiety. From Jennifer Lawrence to Britney Spears, being in front of a camera or on a stage is not mutually exclusive with worrying, “maybe I should move my arm to a different position soon or people will think I’m a massive weirdo”. A plethora of performers have opened up about their past and/or current anxiety issues. The fact it’s surprising shows just how much progress is possible with the condition, as long as we tackle the issue head on.

I found out the benefits through acting. Every show I performed, every improv game I played, and every social I attended – especially as a young teenager – offered both the essential treatments for social anxiety: therapy and exposure. Learning to express and converse with confidence, as well as being forced into social situations (something people with social anxiety often avoid as a harmful defence mechanism) not only made socialising easier, but truly enjoyable.

When it comes to the anxieties, the script changes but the themes remain the same: “what if I can’t think of anything witty? What if I offend them accidentally? What if they actively dislike and exclude me?” These are irrational. Most humans are too concerned with how they sound and look to really scrutinise everything you say, and the rest are forgiving enough to overlook it. If they’re actually quite so fickle and judgmental as your anxieties paint them, they probably aren’t friends worth having.

By diving into a production of anything from theatre, to public speaking, to front manning a band, exposing ourselves to fear and vulnerability in front of peers tackles the root of social anxiety, and proves how irrational it is. Of course, I still find my mind racing at times, but not much further than a natural level of worry. There are many different ways to get therapy for anxiety, but this is one that certainly helped me. Giving performance a try can grow your self-confidence, not just build a louder exterior. Social anxiety and social ineptitude are not the same; we can learn to better control our fears and, even more easily, we can learn to speak and act with confidence. If you can do it on stage, a small group becomes a doddle! You probably won’t become a gregarious extrovert overnight, but there will be progress, I promise you.