By Samantha Simon
Oct 02, 2018 @ 1:30 pm
AFP/Getty Images

With an Oscar on her mantel and a recognizable charm that almost guarantees box-office success, Emma Stone has no doubt established herself as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. But she didn’t always see this possibility. In fact, as a kid, she struggled from crippling anxiety that almost kept her from leaving the house — let alone reaching her lofty dreams.  

“The summer after first grade, before I went into second grade, I had my first panic attack,” the Maniac actress revealed yesterday while discussing mental health as part of a panel during Advertising Week New York. “It was really, really terrifying and overwhelming. I was at a friend’s house, and all of the sudden, I was absolutely convinced the house was on fire and it was burning down. I was just sitting in her bedroom, and obviously the house wasn’t on fire. But there was nothing in me that didn’t think we were going to die. So I called my mom and — it was panic, but of course I didn’t know that — she came and picked me up. And then it just kept going for the next two years.”

During her conversation with Dr. Harold Koplewic from the Child Mind Institute, Stone offered a candid look at her own personal battle with anxiety, which she says is ongoing. As she discussed details about her childhood experiences with panic, her mom, Krista, and brother, Spencer, sat in the audience for moral support — and, naturally, Stone frequently turned to her mother to confirm specifics about events that took place when she was younger. “I’m talking about anxiety on a big stage; I’m terrified,” she said, laughing. “Let me look at my mom!”

Stone, who said that she had struggled before the panel (“I panicked this morning; I wasn’t expecting to, but I did,” she said), went on to explain the origin story of her personal mental health journey, as a kid in Phoenix, Arizona. “At the beginning, I was very serious as a baby and toddler — didn’t really laugh or smile much, took everything in in a very intense way. And then I was a performer; I was rambunctious and excitable and loved to sing and dance — up until I was about 7.” 

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Despite her love of reading and learning, making it through a full school day became a challenge. “I could attend school, but I went to the nurse every single day at lunch and I would say that I was sick and needed to go home, and I needed to call my mom,” she said. “[The nurse] could tell by the fact that — and I still do it to this day — I was wringing my hands every time that I told her that, that I didn’t really have a stomach bug and need to go home, and that I was anxious.” 

Once “it became clear that this was not just a one time thing and that this was becoming a pattern,” Stone says she went on to receive professional help. “I’m so grateful that I went to therapy,” she said. “They gave [my mom] a name for what I was experiencing, but she didn’t tell me. I’m pretty grateful that I didn’t know that I had general anxiety disorder and a version of panic disorder." Though the diagnosis helped her family support her, Stone says she's glad she didn't know what it was at the time. "At that time…I wanted to be an actor, and there weren’t a lot of actors who spoke about having panic attacks.” 

Now, Stone is determined to change that for other kids. Here are the most powerful revelations from her open and honest discussion with Dr. Koplewic.

On talking to friends about her anxiety as a kid… "I spoke more to my family about it than my friends. Friends that age, 8 year olds, aren’t really going to understand that, ‘Oh no, I can’t leave the house because if I do my mom will die.’ It wasn’t true, but that’s what I felt. Nobody really can relate to that when you’re a kid, which is understandable.” 

On what she took away from childhood therapy…“I ended up getting to write a book, and it was called I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety. It was a stapled book where I drew pictures. That was really helpful — my mom still has it — to imagine that thing as as an external [being]. That it’s not me, but it is a part of me. It’s like a little green monster that sits on my shoulder and whenever I listen to him he gets bigger and bigger, and as I keep doing what I’m doing, he shrinks and shrinks.”

On overcoming her fears and pursuing acting… “Once I could externalize [my anxiety] and get more perspective…things really started moving. I started acting at 11 and doing improv and theater at a local youth theater, and I found my people and I realized my feelings could be productive. Which any creative person can probably relate to. [Acting is about] presence, and it’s meditative in that way.

"This is just my opinion, I believe that people who have anxiety or depression are very, very sensitive and very, very smart. Because the world is hard and scary and there’s a lot that goes on, and when you’re very attuned to a lot of that, it can be crippling. And if you don’t let it cripple you and you use it for something positive or productive, it’s like a superpower. And so with improv, I learned that I could take all these big feelings and just really listen in the moment, and use all of my associative brain that wakes me up still in the middle of the night [with stressful thoughts]...The thing that still haunts me to this day is useful in my job, and I’m so grateful for it.”

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On her decision to be homeschooled… “I really wanted to do play after play after play, because that made me feel the best and the happiest and I knew I wanted to do that in life. So my parents homeschooled me in seventh and eighth grade. … Every day I went to rehearsal with people who were likeminded and we were excited about similar stuff, so I was socializing daily...In terms of kids that go through this kind of thing, when you’re able to find a team or to find people to surround yourself with and have that kind of connection so you don’t feel so isolated, it’s very healing. And it does kind of teach you to roll with the punches in a way.”

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On moving to Hollywood… “I ended up moving [to L.A.] when I was 15. We truly thought I wasn’t going to be able to move out of the house or move away ever. How would I go to college? How would I be able to do any of this? I couldn’t go to a friend’s house for five minutes...But I called [my parents] into my bedroom and had this PowerPoint with a list of reasons why I should move to Los Angeles right here, right now, in the first semester of my freshman year of high school. There was music and clip art and a Madonna song...I just felt this kind of calling, like it was time to go. They thought about it for a while, and figured out having me interview with some agencies because they were like, ‘You can’t go if you don’t have an agent out in L.A., as a 15 year old.’ My mom came out with me and switched out every other week with someone named Chrissy, who had babysat my brother and I since we were 6 and 4. So she was like a big sister, and it was wonderful.”

On how she handles pressure in making career decisions…“I think it’s a combination of two things. One is trusting your instincts and your gut, although I think gut and instincts are a bit different, because sometimes instincts tell me that I need to scream at the top of my lungs and run out of the room, and my gut calms me down. Knowing this was the thing that I loved the most, and I don’t know how that was what happened in me, it hasn’t proven me wrong yet — even though sometimes I’m like, ‘I need to quit because I totally suck.’ And then [the second thing is] the people around you...You need people that love you no matter if you are an absolute failure and have lost everything or you have the most success and everyone is like, you’re the greatest...I was so grateful and so lucky to have that.”

On whether anxiety helps her prepare for roles… “Absolutely. It’s invaluable. Along with my belief that we’re smarter — we’re just so smart, us anxious people! Just kidding. We are more sensitive. I also believe there’s a lot of empathy when you’ve struggled a lot internally. There’s a tendency to want to understand how people around you work, or what’s going on internally with them, which is great for characters. It’s great to be able to kind of dig into who these people are, what their struggles are, what their secrets are, and how they present themselves is not always how they feel inside. And that’s a great gift as an actor to be able to do that, because you find so many parts of yourself that you basically get to explore and exercise on a daily basis at work.”

Summit Entertainment

On overcoming stressors at work…“Making mistakes is a very big trigger fear for me...But I also have gotten really good at letting things go. That’s probably maturity, whether it’s relationships or parts or certain attitudes or feelings within yourself, you learn to, I think, let it go and release it much better than you do when you’re young and you’re really holding onto, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be.’”

On dealing with public perception…“I know that the world isn’t high school, but like, isn’t the world kind of high school? Forever? I mean, the outside opinion, or like, ‘I hate you but I don’t know you, and I don’t know how you work internally, but I choose to hate you because you’re this or that.’ Or like, ‘I love you, you’re amazing and I still don’t really know you.’ It’s just kind of high school still. Is that me? I’ll go home and worry about this [laughs].”

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On staying busy… “Staying busy definitely is helpful...[Otherwise] I can spin. It’s much better as time has gone on. Now that I have more tools, I don’t need to be the punching bag. But I definitely find being busy with a creative endeavor, an outlet like that is when I’m happiest…It can be exhausting. Not sleeping is my kryptonite, for sure. But that’s gotta be anybody, right?”

Michele K. Short / Netflix

On staying away from social media… “I think that would send me into a spin. I think that influx of opinion and information and the idea that I could post something and in the middle of the night, regret what I posted or want to delete everything…I already need to be out there a lot for my job, and I figure that’s enough of me. I don’t need to be doing constant updates or getting constant feedback on who I am, I guess.”

On coping with her disorder today…“When I have a panic attack or anxious day, what I need is not exactly what another person would need...Yes, I go to a therapist. And I meditate. And I talk to people very quickly now — I connect with people; instead of isolating, I reach out. And this, [talking about it]. I’m starting to do this, which is very scary for me but very healing. To try to just talk about it and own it, and realize that this is something that it is part of me but it is not who I am, and if that can help anybody that knows this is part of them but not who they are…17 million kids are affected by something like this, and that’s a lot. And if I can do anything to say, 'Hey, I get it, and I’m there with you, and you can still get out there and achieve dreams and form really great relationships and connections.' And I hope I’m able to do that.”