Shailene Woodley Gets Personal About Coping with Anxiety in the Time of COVID-19

Shailene Woodley was in pain. Scary physical pain. The kind of pain that demands attention and can derail one’s plans and even career.

“I got to a point in my life where my physical body started literally shutting down,” says Woodley. In order to heal, she pulled back from acting, let certain roles and opportunities go, slowed down. And to her surprise, it wasn’t just healing her physical pain that brought her peace, but grappling with mental and emotional pain she had been harboring for too long. She began the slow process of focusing on her mental health, which she credits with revealing how anxiety silently affected her life and giving her the tools to remain grounded and compassionate with herself. Her career, for anyone paying attention, is back in high gear.

Now, Woodley, who’s long been a proud activist—she was arrested in 2016 while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline—is talking about her mental health journey to promote May’s National Mental Health Awareness Month with the help of All It Takes, a nonprofit she cofounded with her mother, Lori Woodley, a counselor, back in 2010. Together, they’re hosting a free virtual event on Thursday, May 14 to screen Angst, a documentary about living with anxiety, and to host a panel about coping with anxiety in the time of COVID-19. The mother-daughter team will speak on the panel alongside a clinical psychologist, youth leaders, and friends such model Cara Delevingne.

“Through the panel, we want to give permission to people to know it’s okay to be anxious in this moment. It’s okay if you’re not okay,” says Lori. “And then to tap into creative tools that all of us can develop and define for ourselves in order to navigate the truth of what we’re in the middle of.”

Adds Woodley, “I hope that people take away the fact that they’re not alone.”

Here, Woodley and her mother get personal with in an exclusive interview about discovering, identifying, and treating their own mental health challenges; their approaches to therapy; and what tools they’ve developed to combat anxiety both before and during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

You founded All It Takes as a youth leadership and social-emotional literacy program. What made you decide to add mental health as a central focus?

Shailene Woodley: First, I just want to point out that I think it’s really easy when it comes to an organized charity, philanthropy, or nonprofit to divide various forms of healing. But I think everything is intersectional. You can’t address bullying without addressing mental health. You can’t address domestic and sexual abuse without addressing mental health.

Lori Woodley: That speaks to why we changed our mission after 10 years, because we found that everything we were doing, whether it was social or emotional literacy and learning, came down to developing solid mental health. We’re not going to be an emotionally stable person if we don’t see our value or worth in the world. And if we don’t feel confident that what we have to say matters, then we don’t feel good about ourselves. And when we don’t feel good about ourselves, we step into an emotional pain point. So we want to equip people with the skills to navigate through all that, and through all the victories and setbacks and joys and heartbreaks of life in a healthy way.

A lot of people experience an inflection point in their lives, when they have to deal with a mental health issue head-on. You’ve both been open about struggling with anxiety. How did you arrive at a place where you could acknowledge and address it?

LW: For me, it began by acknowledging that there was even an issue in my journey through life. I was what I refer to as a “silent sufferer,” because in my childhood, there was no acceptable model other than perfection. So when I felt anxiety or felt like I was falling apart at different times of my life, I couldn’t understand that it was okay. It took me a long time to grasp that I could give myself the permission to not be okay and the permission to seek support. And I learned that in fact it’s powerful to seek support, whether it’s by talking to our family or talking to a therapist.

SW: For me, I never realized that I had anxiety until my physical body started breaking down and I had all of these very, very scary health complications arise. And through the process of having to slow down to heal, I recognized that the root of so much of what I was physically experiencing stemmed from extreme anxiety, from not feeling safe.

I had extreme social anxiety—I never felt safe, I never felt like I could trust people, I never felt like it was okay to not be in control.

The way that anxiety and mental health is addressed in society, I feel that too often we try to fit it into a very specific experience. I think there are a lot of people out there who think, “Well, I don’t have anxiety in the way that most people define anxiety. When I’m in a group, I don’t have social anxiety in the way people describe social anxiety. I’m not anxious about my job. I’m not anxious about A, B, C, or D … .

I now understand that I had extreme social anxiety—I never felt safe, I never felt like I could trust people, I never felt like it was okay to not be in control, that there were other people who could take care of me. I felt like I was my own protector, like I was on my own. And to a certain extent, that’s true. We’re all stuck in our own bodies and our own minds. But there are people who can provide for us, there are people who can make us feel safe. It wasn’t until I started recognizing those habits and addressing them that I was able to change my perspective on mental health to a point where my physical ailments went away. I realized that most of my adult life, I didn’t sleep because my mind was continuously overwhelmed. Now I can sleep at night. I feel much more grounded and rooted in my body, and I show more compassion and kindness towards myself.

You’ve talked about a period of time, when you were shooting the Divergent movies, during which you were struggling with a “deeply personal, very scary physical situation.” Is that what you’re referring to now?

SW: It goes farther back and deeper than that. I think a lot of it probably stems from childhood. I think a lot of what we deal with as adults come from the stories that we create for ourselves when we’re children. It wasn’t the experience of the Divergent series that gave me anxiety, but I think the end of the Divergent series allowed me to pause and look at my life. Because whether it’s while filming Divergent or while filling up my car at the gas station, so many moments in our lives can trigger traumatic experiences from our childhood. And if you don’t address those traumatic experiences, you’re letting a broken four-year-old run your adult life. That’s when we battle with ourselves, we beat ourselves up, we point the finger at ourselves and subject ourselves to such extreme judgment. We can be our worst enemy.

LW: We do a forgiveness [exercise] with All It Takes, and what brings up the most emotion even with 14-year-olds or 11-year-olds is the act of self-forgiveness. Even at a young age, we’re holding so much against ourselves. And that’s a hard thing to look at, but it’s also a healing thing to look at. The most healing thing we can do is learn to accept ourselves and to love ourselves and to let go of those things that we perceive as having done wrong.

Shailene, you started seeing a therapist a year or two ago and said that it “dramatically altered” your life. For some people, there’s still a misplaced sense of shame in seeking out therapy. What was your impetus for seeking help?

SW: I’m not going to share what it was, because it’s deeply personal, but I had a lot of childhood traumas that I never worked through. I got to a point in my life where I realized that it was holding me back, and I had to seek help so that I could work through that trauma in a safe way. I grew up with two psychologists for parents. Therapy was not a foreign concept to me and my brother. But as an adult, it really just came down to timing.

You have to make therapy a priority and I hadn’t made it a priority. I was on an airplane once a week. I was working in different parts of the world. I couldn’t rationalize it. How could I ever have a therapist? How could I ever maintain a weekly check-in? But then it just got to a point where I felt like my life was stunted and I needed help. I decided to rearrange my life so that therapy was a priority. No matter where I was in the world, no matter what my career looked like or required, therapy was going to be something that I was committed to week after week after week.

If you don’t address those traumatic [childhood] experiences, you’re letting a broken four-year-old run your adult life.

LW: I’d love to see the normalization of mental health to the point where we can treat it the same way we treat physical health. If we’re not feeling well, we go to a doctor. If we could look at mental health the same way, nobody would question anybody who says they need some support. If it’s happening above the neck, it seems to be taboo. Why?

What mental health “tools” have you been taking out of your toolbox to cope with the anxiety of self-isolation amid this COVID-19 pandemic?

LW: I speak to the little voice in my head, I tell myself that all this is real, but it’s temporary. Recently, I had a complete panic attack, and in that moment, I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t think straight. I wanted to curl up into a ball, but I decided that I was going to go out for a walk. That’s not really what I wanted to do—I just wanted to be in a puddle on the ground. But I was able to talk myself into knowing I could be in charge of getting myself to the other side of that panic. So I decided to go for a walk and I thought, I’m not coming back until I feel calm, until I feel creative, and until I can acknowledge that we’ll be okay and there’ll be answers. I walked for six and a half miles, and then I came home.

SW: A lot of people talk about meditation, sitting still and quiet, breathing and feeling grounded. My therapist has said to me, “Look, some people meditate with their legs crossed and their hands by their heart. And some people meditate by standing out on the balcony. And some people meditate by blasting music when they drive their cars down the freeway.” And I thought that was a really beautiful way of looking at it. Just because one tool works for one person, it doesn’t mean it works for everybody.

I think that there’s a lot of pressure to do everything by the book or the way the internet says. But what it comes down to is: What provides you with the extra support you need right now? Give yourself permission to take a break. Check your productivity meter. How do you gauge productivity? In what respect does your idea of productivity aid your mental health right now, and in what respect does it hurt your mental health?

For people working remotely, struggling with expectations of productivity can be a source of a lot of anxiety. I imagine that working on a film set—where your actions can potentially ripple out to hundreds of other actors and crew—is a high-pressure work environment. How do you deal with workplace anxiety generally, and how do ask for what you need?

SW: I just do it. For me, when I’m on a film set, I’m at work. I put my phone away, and I’m present, and whatever’s happening in my personal life, I put it on hold. Because as an actor, it’s important to kind of disassociate a little bit in order to be a different person during the [acting] process. So it’s a little bit different than other professions. That being said, if I’m having an incredibly emotional day, I have no problem saying to someone, “I need an extra 10 minutes. I have to be by myself right now.”

It’s okay to give yourself permission to turn off the media and take a break from monitoring the news sometimes.

Another way I cope with anxiety when I’m working, whether it’s on film sets or at Fashion Week or part of an activist movement somewhere in the world, is that I’m really, really good at saying no. I think that we’re taught not to say no. Our society doesn’t accept no for an answer. But at the end of the night, a lot of people like to have dinner, a lot of people like to talk, a lot of people want your attention, and if I can’t give it to them, then I don’t give it to them. I say no thank you, and I go to bed at the time I need to go to bed.

One other crucial tool for me to combat anxiety is to stay off my phone. My mom can attest to this. I guess I believe that if something is going to happen, it’s going to happen whether I’m on my phone that second or I’m not on my phone. So at the end of the day, I can put my phone away and take time for myself instead of feeling that I have to go through hundreds of text messages or scrolling on Instagram or listening to every voicemail or replying to every single email.

I’m sure it’s very frustrating for a lot of people in my life. However, I’ve come to accept that the people in my life who I actually want to be surrounded by will not be offended if I don’t respond to them right away because I have to take care of how much energy I am constantly consuming and putting out.

LW: And speaking to that, with what’s happening in the world right now, it’s okay to give yourself permission to turn off the media and take a break from monitoring the news sometimes. It just wraps our brain around everything that’s wrong, and sometimes we need to put it all away and pay attention to what’s working inside ourselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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