What Acting can teach us about Emotional Self-Regulation

Actress in front of camera

Actor can be very dispassionate people*. Analysis is a crucial part of each actor’s preparation process for the character.

The Preparation

We teach our students that they have to research:

A. The character’s personality, which is based on:

  • the character’s deeds: what the character does in the play; and what other characters do to or do with this character;
  • The character’s words: what the character says about themselves; what they character says about others, and what others say about the character
  • The character’s thoughts about themselves, others and the action of the play. These are usually revealed in monologues.

B. The story of the play: what happens in the play; the theme(s) of the play; and the significance of the character’s scenes in the play;

C. The geographical, social and cultural settings (the ‘world’) of the play, and their impact on  the character and the action of the play.

This process may be long (e.g. when playing a character that develops through 8 seasons of Game of Thrones); tedious (e.g. when impersonating the voice and mannerisms of a historical figure); and physically challenging (e.g. when getting in shape to play a superhero). However, it has to be done before the actor even takes a single step in front of the camera, or into the rehearsal room.

The Action

The actor then engages their voice and body in order to ‘be’ the character for the duration of the play. Amongst these, emotions are the coin of the realm in the drama.

To ‘e-mote’ means ‘to move out’. Emotions begin as thoughts (which are neural processes in any case) that manifest hormonally and physiologically, in order to change the body in universally recognisable ways corresponding with set patterns that people associate with a certain state of being.

Emotions are not the character. Emotions come from the character’s personality but do not constitute that character’s personality. Emotions are temporary states of feelings that arise and change. The ebb and flow of emotions in a speech (microcosm); or the play (macrocosm), is known as the ‘emotional journey’.

When we are faced in with negative emotions, think like an actor. These feelings come and go. They are physiological states. Be the observer and watch how your body reacts. Do not engage with the negativity. Instead, use rational thinking (which helps to reduce the impact of negative emotions anyway) and question: ‘why am I feeling this way?’ Be still, stay inquisitive and see if you can get to the cause(s) of the negative emotion.

How to Practise Being Still

Pick any item with a repetitive movement or sound. This could be a dripping tap, a beeping car alarm, the sound of the air-conditioner or fan, a ticking clock or watch. Focus on that sound or movement exclusively.n

The longer you watch (or listen), you will find that your mind starts to wander. Memories start to come up; to-do lists appear; the cliffhanger from yesterday’s episode of the TV show you watched begins to bug you. Watch these thoughts. Acknowledge them. Then let them go. The longer you do this, the more you’ll realise that you can observe your thoughts without engaging in them.

More Tools

All the world’s a stage

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages.’ -William Shakespeare, ‘As You Like It’ (Act III Scene VII Line 139)

When encountering negative situations and/or negative emotions, ask yourself:

  1. Role-playing: What role am I playing in experiencing the negative emotion? Am I playing the victim? If so, why do I think that I am being bullied?

Is my reaction a consequence of a role that I have unconsciously taken upon myself e.g. gender role; familial role (sister, mother, ‘good child’ etc.); societal role (protector, leader etc.)? If so, why have I taken on that role? Are those reasons valid?

2. Dissociation

Level 1: If I were standing outside myself watching myself experience these negative emotions, what would I tell myself? How would I do things differently

Level 2: if I were the director of the play watching myself experience these negative emotions, how would I direct the action of the play so that things flow a little more smoothly? What would I tell the actor?


While we have discussed negative emotions, toxic positivity is not great either. It suppresses and represses the person’s true feelings that if not let out, turn inwards and finally manifest as physical discomforts to tell us that something is wrong. Treat negative emotions as messengers whose messages need to be heard and worked on. Say ‘thank you for your message, you have revealed to me something in me that needs healing.’

The practice of Acting is dissociative in nature. With members of the profession twice as likely as the general population to manifest symptoms of depression and anxiety, it is thus our hope to provide members of the acting profession tools  from their daily practice for their own emotional self-regulation.

*this article does not refer to Method Acting where the actor physically becomes that character for the duration of the preparation and the action itself.

+ The above analysis uses Neurolinguistic Programming and Utilisation technique.

(Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/4modNup9AzI?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink)

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