Interrupting our scene, my acting teacher put her hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. Soft, yet affirmatively, she told me to “park politeness at the door.”  

“Get out of your head,” she demanded. “Don’t think about your reaction and don’t manipulate your response; just express the feeling that comes naturally to you.” Feeling very uncomfortable and utterly lost, I stood on the stage rubbing the inside of my palms. It was hopeless; I didn’t know what to say, or the right way to say it.

Our class was learning the Meisner approach to acting, where the name of the game is to express authentic emotion during an improvisation by recalling your own feelings and experiences. Through a series of repetition exercises, we were supposed to learn how to react honestly to our partners’ expressed emotion rather than focusing on the lines that we were exchanging. For example, if my partner said something that made me anxious, I would say aloud to him, “You’re making me uncomfortable.”

As I stood helpless in front of the class, I was saved by yet another interjection by my teacher. “Telling someone what you’re actually feeling is hard, isn’t it?” The entire class nodded in agreement. “In our culture, we’re so focused on being polite that we’re afraid to express our feelings. We create so many miscommunications by being afraid to be emotionally connected with another person.”

After she said this, I started to reflect on my relationships. Even though I had only known my acting partners in the class for a few weeks, I already felt more connected to them than to friends that I had known for months.

Initially, I was worried about how much I would actually enjoy this class. Being a person diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I have difficulty with public speaking. I could barely give class presentations, let alone channel my innermost feelings to share openly with a class of 16 strangers. But to my surprise, by the end of my scene, the unexpected happened.

Instead of provoking stress, the activity lessened my stress tremendously. As weird as it sounds, it actually felt great to show complete vulnerability to a stranger. I hadn’t noticed it before, but after that scene, I realized that I had been suppressing my emotions in order to accommodate others, and that my suppression of emotion had been worsening my symptoms of anxiety. Sincerely exposing my feelings to my peers unexpectedly eased the restlessness and worry that normally overtook me in social interactions.

Western culture has taught us that it’s abnormal to express emotion. We live in a society where men have been conditioned to believe that suppressing their emotions makes them more masculine, and where the expression of emotional pain by women has been discouraged. It’s unfair that our culture has diminished this sense of our humanity. Even though a lot of people experience a pressure to conceal their emotions, people with generalized anxiety disorder and other emotional disorders, such as clinical depression or other mood disorders, can be more devastatingly affected by the pressure to create a façade.

People with generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to suppress their emotions because they are more worried that their emotions are unacceptable or inappropriate. There have been times when I’ve been so worried to show my emotions that my concern has caused me physical pain in the form of chest discomfort and loss of breath. In general, this burden is attributed to the development of diseases and physical ailments in people with high levels of anxiety. Improper emotional regulation through lack of expression also makes it harder for individuals to communicate effectively. This leads to miscommunications and can result in the inability to recognize the emotions of others.

Interestingly enough, none of my health care providers warned me about these behaviors and their negative consequences to my health. I have been in and out of different health systems and I have met with multiple doctors from diverse areas of expertise, but none of them suggested regulating emotional expression to help alleviate my anxiety. Instead, they all strongly recommended different types of medications. I finally gave in, and I tried one medication after another. When the medications were not effective, my health care professionals urged me to increase the dosage. Needless to say, that didn’t work, so instead they encouraged me to try creatively concocted cocktails of antidepressants. Unfortunately, none of these methods proved to be helpful.

After experiencing overwhelming anxiety relief from emotional verbalization, I realized I had found my alternative to anti-anxiety drugs. I wish I had known that communicating effectively and taking the time to connect with others would boost my serotonin levels as much as the little white pill that I took every day. I’m not saying there is a better alternative to medication for everyone, but I think that having open and honest dialogue regularly is beneficial for the improvement of emotional well-being.

The real kicker is that, in our society, it’s becoming more abnormal for a person to show they feel something than it is for them to feel nothing at all or to mask their feelings. It’s considered an insult to be described as an emotional individual. As a nation, we need to start doing a better job at acknowledging our humanity by diminishing our capitalist culture and disregarding the idea that we don’t have time for feelings because we’re so busy with work. In addition to this, we need to address the emotional detachment that often comes in the form of competitive nature. We need to reverse the discernable loss of empathy for the betterment of mental and physical health of people with and without generalized anxiety disorder or other emotional disorders.

Hannah Maier can be reached at hannamai@umich.edu.

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