How the Stars Keep from Burning Out

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The actor who walked into the Los Angeles office of David Grand complaining of feeling low and having trouble with his wife was suffering from what, in Hollywood, is an occupational hazard. Grand, a therapist and acting coach, discovered after a little probing that six months earlier his patient had played the part of a man trapped in a cave, slowly starving to death. Although he wasn't aware of it, the actor was still stuck in the role. Grand decided he had to work with both the actor and his alter ego to help them get out of that cave and come back to life. "Actors go deep into their mind and their body to express a role," says Grand. "But being so finely tuned, it is also very easy for them to get blocked."

The cruel paradox of Hollywood actors is that they work in a fickle, money-obsessed industry in which reputations rise and fall overnight, yet success in the business comes from being sensitive, vulnerable and laying one's self bare before the camera. The resulting meltdowns—from Marilyn Monroe's to Robert Downey Jr.'s—are legendary and have created a booming aftermarket in therapists and therapies designed to help actors maintain peak performance in the face of depression, anxiety, stage fright, creative blocks, narcissistic disorders, substance abuse and all the other ills their profession is heir to. In the 1970s, actors queued up for est seminars. In the '80s and '90s, others signed up for Scientology. The latest vogue in Hollywood is mind-body therapy, which encompasses a variety of techniques from hypnosis and meditation to guided imagery and biofeedback. Grand treated the actor stuck in that cave with a therapy known as emdr (for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), in which the patient re-enacts a traumatic experience while continually moving his eyes from left to right and back again.

Although such techniques may sound far-fetched, many therapists—and their patients—swear by them. And recent advances in brain-scanning technology suggest a mechanism by which they might work. "With fmris [functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain], we are starting to locate centers of creativity in the left prefrontal cortex, in the same area that lights up for heightened meditative states and the capacity for optimism," says Ron Alexander, a therapist based in Santa Monica, Calif., who specializes in treating creative blocks.

Alexander uses guided imagery to help clients get back in touch with their creativity and reduce performance anxiety. "I help them visualize a comfortable, safe place," he says, "and we explore a forest, a meadow, a desert or the wide-open sky — symbols of the white page of a script or an empty screen. What locks people up is the feeling that they have to create something, which comes from the narcissistic need to be affirmed."

Many actors are deeply insecure as a result of a troubled childhood, and they often draw on their painful background to intensify their performances. But, says Marion Solomon, a therapist based in Los Angeles, they run the risk of getting trapped in their pain, fearing that if they escape their past they will lose their creative spark. Solomon's clients often say their feelings are too painful to reveal. "I say, 'Feel those feelings, experience them with me, be aware of where you feel them in your body, and we can dive into them and then come out and find we haven't been destroyed by them.'"

The key, says Judith Orloff, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author, is for actors to learn techniques they can use to immerse themselves in their characters and then withdraw. "I have a client who is playing a character in a TV series who has cancer," she says. "When she came into my office, she looked like she had cancer herself." Orloff developed breathing exercises and meditation routines to help the actress move fluidly in and out of character. "Creative people need to work at remaining sensitive, while shutting out negativity," says Orloff.

But even success in Hollywood brings perils, given that it often comes in a flash, from one big hit rather than from building gradually. Suddenly the actor or actress is hot. Everyone wants to be seen with him or her. Clubs and restaurants fling open their doors. Life becomes a celebrity-magazine fantasy, divorced from reality. "It is very hard for someone like that to connect with how they became successful," says Solomon. "You aren't what everyone thinks you are, so you don't believe in yourself. Or you do believe it, and then you have a whole load of other problems."

Hollywood, the land of make-believe, will probably always produce tormented characters dazzled by the lights and cameras. And just as surely, it will produce new generations of therapists finding new ways to reclaim reality from the glitter of stardom.