You’d never know it from the many self-assured and sometimes ass-kicking characters she plays in movies like Zombieland 2, but there was a time early on in Emma Stone’s life when she found herself living in an anxiety-ridden Zombieland of her own.
No, she wasn’t being chased by mobs of ragged hipsters with mad zombie disease. But when she was seven years old she got bitten by a panic bug and found herself part of the growing epidemic of anxious kids.
The way she learned to overcome her anxiety holds some powerful and inspiring lessons for kids and parents alike. As it happens, the basic approach she used can also be applied with equal effectiveness to a multitude of other issues, like perfectionism, self-criticism and procrastination.
Emma’s anxiety hit her hard
Like many anxious kids, Emma was born sensitive. In fact, her mom often says she was “born with her nerves outside of her body.” While there isn’t always a link between sensitivity and anxiety, in Emma’s case there certainly was. And when she was seven years old this link got so strong it nearly turned into a heavy chain that prevented her from becoming who she is.
As a second-grader, she was hanging out in a friend’s bedroom when she suddenly became absolutely convinced that the house was burning down. Rationally, she knew it wasn’t happening. But emotionally, in every fibre of her being, she believed it was.
After that, she refused to go over to her friends’ houses, she stopped wanting to hang out with her friends in general, she clung to her mom as much as possible, and she started asking her mom to tell her over and over again what was going to happen with her day.
“I’m bigger than my anxiety!”
Finally, her mom took her to see a therapist, a decision that Emma emphasizes she is “so grateful” for.
Her gratitude is well-founded. As Lynn Lyons, co-author of the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents says, “If you have [untreated] anxiety as a kid, it will likely get worse as you get older.” She also adds, “Untreated anxiety disorders in children are one of the top predictors of depression in young adulthood and adolescence.”
So what did Emma find most “transformative” about her sessions? A story book she wrote called I Am Bigger than My Anxiety!
The power of storytelling
Here’s how Emma summarizes the story she wrote: “I drew a little green monster on my shoulder that speaks to me in my ear and tells me all these things that aren’t true. And every time I listen to it, it grows bigger.”
If I listen to it enough, it crushes me.
“But if I turn my head and keep doing what I’m doing – let it speak to me, but don’t give it the credit it needs – then it shrinks down and fades away.”
It was this little tale that ultimately allowed Emma to pivot out of her distress: “Once I could externalize [my anxiety] and get more perspective, things really started moving.”
Reid Wilson, one of the world’s leading authorities on panic and anxiety, explains: “Externalization puts anxious worry outside of you, allowing you to see the worry and its messages from a different perspective. With the help of a little distance, worriers can hear and see how anxiety operates without immediately accepting the validity of its fears and demands.”
During her first panic attack, Emma said, “there was nothing in me that didn’t think we were going to die.” But learning to personify her worry as a character outside of herself helped her realize that her anxiety is “something that is a part of me but is not who I am.”
So who is she? She’s the one who can see and hear the little green monster.
She’s the one who can tell that all the fears it incessantly whispers in her ear “aren’t true.” She’s the one who understands that turning away from the monster and focusing on the task-at-hand makes the monster shrink.
Your own little monster
While Emma chose to personify her anxiety as a little green monster, kids can get creative about this to suit their own needs.
They can, for example, picture their anxiety as a cruel bully, a fascist dictator, a slick salesman, a master storyteller. Or they can personify it as Voldemort from Harry Potter, Fear from Inside Out, or a supervillian like Birdman from, well, Birdman. The options are endless.
In addition to giving them some distance from their worries, personifying anxiety in these sorts of ways can also help kids (and their parents) understand what makes it tick.
For instance, as far as characters go, anxiety is a bit of a one-hit wonder, a one-note Johnny, a one-trick pony. Sure, the content of what it says may vary, but whether it’s piping up about a scary dog, a soccer try-out, a thunderstorm, bad grades or the dark, the process is always the same.
It has one main message: you can’t handle it! It wants two main things: certainty and comfort. And it makes the same single demand over and over again: avoid!
Other tools for dealing with childhood anxiety
Understanding how worry operates in turn opens up a bunch of other ways of responding to it. While Emma found it helpful to “turn [her] head away” from the little green monster on her shoulder, other kids may find it more effective to turn toward it and actively talk back to the monster.
As Reid Wilson and Lynn Lyons explain, “Children can choose three broad ways to talk to their anxious worry: assume worry will show up this time (expect it), offer reassurance to the insecure part of them (take care of it), or if they’re annoyed by bothersome worry, tell it to get lost (boss it around).”
Another thing that helped Emma handle her anxiety was finding acting at the age of eleven. Why was this so incredibly helpful to her?
Anxiety as a superpower
First of all, after isolating herself from her peers for nearly three years because of her anxiety, acting gave her both a sense of community and “a sense of purpose.”
Second, she found the “absolute presence” and “intent listening” required of acting to be so “meditative” that, at times, it completely silenced her little green monster.
However, acting also allowed Emma to operationalize the upside of anxiety. As someone who always had big feelings, for example, she found the theatre “a safe, great place to feel a lot.”
It gave her a “productive,” redemptive and socially-useful outlet into which she could channel many of her feelings from previous life experiences. As she says, “Then it at least feels productive to have all these feelings, which is why I started acting in general.”
Fourth, it allowed her to leverage another upside of anxiety: a heightened capacity for empathy. In her view, anxiety grows out of the same soil – smarts and sensitivity – that also produces the high degree of empathy necessary to understand characters deeply.
Finally, her anxiety is the fuel that has driven her high-energy personality and her high-achieving career. Just as it ensured she got “all As” even though she never liked school, it also motivated her to nail each of her roles.
From burden to blessing
In all of these ways acting helped her flip her perspective on anxiety and shift from viewing it as a “burden” to seeing it as something “invaluable” that she’s actually “grateful for.” In fact, she says, “If you don’t let it cripple you and you use it for something positive or productive, it’s like a superpower.”
But Emma is also careful to emphasize that you don’t have to be an “actor” or a “writer” to overcome anxiety: “You just have to find that thing within you that you are drawn to.”
In fact, she sometimes calls theatre “my sport,” a nod to the fact that many other kids find a similar sense of presence, purpose and belonging in athletics. Still others may find it in music or science or spirituality or counseling.
Avoid avoidance by being uncertain and uncomfortable on purpose.
How Emma faced her fears
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after learning to externalize her anxiety, turn away from its harmful messages and leverage its upside, she began turning toward the situations she feared.
This was precisely the opposite of what she was doing when she was in the depths of her distress as a child. After her first panic attack, for example, she says, “I would ask my mom to tell me exactly how the day was going to be, then ask again 30 seconds later.”
How did her mom initially respond? Initially, Emma says, “She would repeat it over and over to me.”
Like most parents and teachers who try to soothe anxious kids with reassurance, she meant well. But Emma’s therapist knew this response was not only unhelpful but potentially harmful to Emma. So she told her Emma’s mom, “You’re allowed to tell her once and then you can’t say it anymore.”
Why? Because she knew that Emma needed to practice tolerating discomfort and uncertainty, on purpose. As Lynn Lyons says:
Letting your child be uncertain and uncomfortable is the key.
This sends worry the message that you can not only handle it, but want more of it.
Embracing the fear
This is another crucial element of Emma’s inspiring story.
Since the age of eleven, she has bravely plunged into a dizzying array of uncertain roles and uncomfortable interviews. And this is something she continues to do on the daily.
Despite the fact that she was thrown from a horse as a kid, Emma learned how to horseback ride for her role in The Favourite. Despite the fact that she finds sports “stressful,” she nevertheless managed to nail her role as a tennis player in Battle of the Sexes and even hit a ball around with Billie Jean King.
It’s precisely this spirit of willingness that has allowed Emma Stone to appreciate the many blessings inside her burdens. As she once said:
What sets you apart can sometimes feel like a burden and it’s not. And a lot of the time, it’s what makes you great.