Anxiety has a tendency to ramp up at the most inopportune times, so it’s helpful to have on-the-spot strategies to help you deal when that happens. Ryan Reynolds, who has previously opened up about living with his “lifelong pal” anxiety, recently shared an inventive trick that helps him cope with severe anxiety in high-stakes moments.
In a Sunday Morning interview on CBS News this weekend, Reynolds revealed that he is able to access a different part of his persona when he is battling heightened anxiety triggered by performing or public speaking—a much more smooth and confident version of himself. “I’ve had anxiety my whole life, really,” Reynolds said. “I feel like I have two parts of my personality. One takes over when that happens.”
This other part of Reynolds’s personality has taken the reins for him right before talk show appearances or film shoots. “When I would go out on, like, Letterman, back in the day, I would always be nervous,” Reynolds recalled. “I remember I’d be standing backstage before the curtain would open, and I would think to myself, ‘I’m gonna die. I’m literally gonna die here. The curtain’s gonna open and I’m just gonna be a symphony of vomit.’ Just, like, something horrible’s gonna happen!”
A moment later, when it’s showtime, a more calm and composed version of Reynolds emerges. “As soon as that curtain opens—and this happens in my work a lot too—it’s like this little guy takes over,” Reynolds explained. “And he’s like, ‘I got this. You’re cool.’” The actor said he even experiences a shift in his physiological state. “I feel, like, my heart rate drop, and my breathing calm, and I just sort of go out and I’m this different person.” (A racing heart and shortness of breath, both signs of a revved-up sympathetic nervous system, are two common physical symptoms of anxiety, as SELF has reported.) “And I leave that interview going, ‘God, I’d love to be that guy!’” Reynolds joked.
Reynolds may be onto something. Certainly other public figures battling anxiety have described using a similar strategy in high-pressure moments. Adele, for instance, talked about using an alter ego to overcome her pre-concert anxiety in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone. (She said she was inspired by Beyoncé, who has used a stage persona named Sasha Fierce to help her shift into a bold, fearless version of herself.)
There is some research to explain why this might be a helpful psychological tool for some people. Embodying an alternate version of yourself can be understood as a dramatic form of self-distancing, as the BBC has explained—or taking a step back from your immediate subjective experience in order to gain a greater sense of objectivity, clarity, calm, or conscious control in a stressful situation. Other ways of self-distancing, for instance, might include talking to yourself in the second person (like when Reynolds tells himself, “You’re cool”) or the third person (“Ryan is feeling confident about this interview”).