Do Actors Pay a Psychological Price for Our Entertainment?

Actors are generally viewed as creative and flamboyant individuals. They tend to be able to easily shift from traditional ideals to nontraditional roles and can exhibit emotional extremes in order to fulfill the personality requirements of the character they are portraying. Many actors enter the arts because they have always possessed these unique behaviors. Others develop them over years of training and practice. Regardless of whether these attributes are inherent or acquired, they are traits that involve significant psychological shifting. Audiences celebrate actors with a wide range of emotional skills and benefit from their expertise. But it has often been theorized that these actors may pay a price for providing such entertainment.

Shifting from reality to fantasy is one attribute that can seem flawless when performed by skilled actors. But do these individuals ever blur the lines? Paula Thomson of the Department of Kinesiology at California State University recently led a study that compared the emotional processes of actors to those of nonactors. In her study, Thomson evaluated the emotional regulation, trauma resolution, mourning, and attachment behaviors of the participants using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and self-generated reports. She found that there were significant differences between the emotional stability of the groups.

In particular, Thomson discovered that the actors exhibited engagement processes when interviewed about traumatic life events. In contrast, the control group exhibited dismissing and avoiding behaviors, which suggests insecure attachment patterns. However, when both groups reviewed the traumas, the actors were more disorganized and disoriented than the nonactors. Additionally, the actors tended to refer to deceased abusive figures as still being alive. This finding could suggest that actors who take on traumatic roles could recall their own traumatic events and be more vulnerable to posttraumatic stress. Even though the actors displayed high levels of secure-autonomy, nearly half of them responded in ways that warranted further testing for dissociation, compared to less than 3% of the nonactors. Thomson added, “Our study adds to the body of research that suggests that there is a psychological cost for participants engaged in the creative arts.”

Reference:
Thomson, P., Jaque, S. V. (2012). Holding a mirror up to nature: Psychological vulnerability in actors. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028911

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  • Jane F

    Jane F

    July 17th, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    What?! Who cares. This is the life that they chose. It’s not like we ask them to get so involved in a role or whatever. They are the ones who do that to themselves. If you look at all the movies and things like that that make the most money or get the most attention, most of them have very little to do with being a good actor or the cast immersing themselves into the roles. It’s all about mindless entertainment. that’s what the majority of people are looking for. So why all the stress when really all they are asked to do is memorize a few lines and smile real pretty for the cameras?

  • chip

    chip

    July 17th, 2012 at 2:35 PM

    I have a quite a few friends whom you may classify as “artsy” types, and having been around them I learned very quickly that the ones who are serious about their craft are never giving their performances or poetry ar artwork for themselves but always for the pleasure of someone else to enjoy.

    And that can take quite a bit out of a person, always working for the enjoyment of others, trying so hard to please the crowds that they tend to forget about what things make them happy.

    This is the life that they have chosen but the good ones know that really they did not have a choice. This was more of a calling for them, something that they feel compelled to do and to share. They should not be looked down upon for that but rather praised that they are so willing to give of their time and talents for the rest of us to enjoy.

  • Miriam

    Miriam

    March 21st, 2015 at 1:04 PM

    I was in a theatre group for many years because NOW I realize I was acting out in the company of people which was a technique I used to give me a feeling of belonging. I am 84 and still struggling with infantile abandonment issues. (immigant working parents that had no understanding of closeness ) I am literally frozen and would do anything to be able to enter my body. I,m 84 What more can I do except to hibernate and connect with people who have similar experiences. RSVP miriam

  • Lori

    Lori

    June 10th, 2017 at 1:09 AM

    Do mindfulness meditation –
    It’s all about connection you to your body! :)

  • FRED

    FRED

    July 18th, 2012 at 12:14 AM

    I know a guy who was into theatre and was a professional but he took his roles so seriously and used to put in so much work and effort into learning about his role that at times he would remain depressed for days together due to having confined himself in his house researching about the role.

    Although an admirer of his, this made me quite uncomfortable and i feel so much involvement is not a good thing after all.

  • Tom

    Tom

    July 18th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    When anyone has trouble between distinguishing fantasy from reality, well. that’s a problem no matter what career you are in.

  • Brittney

    Brittney

    October 10th, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    Do people not see this as something that can be turned into a scapegoat or a defense mechanisms. Actors have the clear ability to escape through their acting, which is not similar to regular hobbies in the sense that they are washing their minds clean of who they are, and becoming someone else. If an actor is having an issue with their personal relationships, such as a spouse, the actor can retreat into their profession, and even “act” more deeply into the role of his/her next film, resulting in much more believable love scenes and more believable characters. This can be dangerous to the identity of the actor, and their true sense of reality, social norms, and acceptable behavior. We have seen this with celebrities, where all of a sudden a married actor is cheating with a costar, or a new singer, someone they bumped into during work, etc. Actors can be whoever they want to be whenever they want to be, they are the ultimate masters of disguise, because who knows who they really are. They could have spent their whole lives acting. I still believe it to be a beautiful and brilliantly evolved complex, and almost perfectly functional for the future of mankind, but still sad. It should be called the Actor’s Complex.

  • Sam

    Sam

    November 19th, 2017 at 2:27 PM

    I totally agree with everything you said here!!

  • steve

    steve

    March 31st, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    Inability to form real deep relationships is an issue with teachers and actors.
    Both are skilled at communicating to groups of people and avoiding a natural one-to-one conversation.
    So an attempt at one-to-one dialogue lacks the type of empathy needed for good communication – they may give stock answers that they know are safe but lack the content that the interlocutor was expecting. So the conversation becomes disconnected from real feelings. Subtle nuances are brushed-over or simply ignored because the actor or teacher is unable to process the nuance quickly or correctly. This leads to mental isolation in which real and genuine emotions are not expressed – even to the actor or teacher themselves. They fall into the trap of speaking ‘at’ somebody rather than ‘to’ somebody.

  • Wade

    Wade

    June 10th, 2016 at 3:14 AM

    I think we can learn a lot from the art of acting. The ability to climb into someone else’s psyche and retrieve such vivid emotions is commendable to say the least. However such ability can only come from tremendously humbling origins. If those origins are humbling there is no stress. However if there are still connected issues the humbling part still awaits that actor.

  • Karlene T

    Karlene T

    January 9th, 2017 at 4:17 PM

    I am a single women 54, I am hoping to become involved in acting, I am also a singer/ guitarist with some of my music, I have been on my own for year’s because I chose to be, prior to singing and learning guitar however my life was a nightmare, I was severely abused by both partners from my teenagers years into my early 30 s, I became an actor at times, while with them in order to prevent being beaten, I now have more skills than I ever thought I could have, especially since I started singing, I also completed my diploma in counseling last year, in order to help other’s trapped by abuse, I am planning to be able do a bit of both counseling and acting, and also my music, I think you do anything if you are confident and aware of your self worth.

  • Sam

    Sam

    November 19th, 2017 at 2:33 PM

    Although old this is a very interesting article. There is a tv show called Stranger Things (Netflix) and during the interview one of the actors (who happens to be extremely young like most of the cast) said she got such an emotional connection with her character that she literally cried in set while doing the scenes. These kids are brilliant actors and me as well as everyone across the globe is impressed with their skills especially given that their so young. However I worrying for their mental health. I’m not that older than them but I’m older and I’m now aware of how the business works and how it treats children. I also see how a lot of child actors go off the edge and act crazy afteawhile. Maybe bc if all the acting baggage they carry? I mean were people from the outside looking in and we get conneted to these fictional characters. Imagine what it’s like for an actor actually being that person/ thing that they’re not. I used to want to act but I know I’d totally lose my self Idemtitt after awhile. Idk they (these actors) chose that life and this is an amazing craft just putting my thought out there.

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