“If we collaborate in secrecy or shame, it keeps us stuck.”
Whether you know her from The X-Files or from her BBC thriller The Fall, actress Gillian Anderson has been in front of the camera for over 20 years. But she's not someone you can peg as "just" an actress. The Emmy winner is also a published science-fiction author, a director, and an activist.
Her latest venture is the publication of the book We: A Manifesto For Women Everywhere with her close friend, lawyer and former journalist Jennifer Nadel. The self-help book lays out nine actionable principles designed to provide young women with the tools to tackle life's greatest emotional and spiritual challenges. But it also is a call to action, urging women to unite together and use what they've learned on their quest for self-improvement to create positive change in the world around them.
Amongst the other lofty aims of the book, they hope that their frankness about their own experiences will help other women not feel alone with their own struggles. Amongst other revelations, Gillian and Jennifer write candidly about their own struggles with mental illness: Gillian with anxiety and panic attacks that started while she was doing The X-Files, and Jennifer with clinical depression that peaked during her journalistic career. "Honesty is the only thing that can really set us free," Gillian told Women's Health.
We spoke with Gillian and Jennifer about their new book, and how they've coped with their own challenges with wellness and mental health:
Women's Health: Mental health continues to be something that is stigmatized and misunderstood. Based on your experiences, what do you want people to understand about mental health issues?
Jennifer Nadel: I think that we’re all vulnerable and that none of us have got it sorted. And that the more open we can be about what is really going on for us, the greater will be our emotional and mental resilience, and the less stigma we will have.
Gillian Anderson: And I think very often we expect ourselves to be perfect. We’re taught in society that we need to aim toward levels of perfection. When we actually get comfortable with ourselves, and honest about what’s really going on for us—and that includes anxiety and depression and other more serious forms of mental health—that can be a starting point for getting better. If we collaborate in secrecy or shame around it, it keeps us stuck and it keeps the system stuck in not protecting us, in a way.
JN: Women are taught to be selfless. We’re taught to care about everyone else instead of ourselves. It’s only when our mental health goes that we realize how fragile we, in fact, are. Where instead if it becomes legitimate to take care of ourselves, if we realize that taking care of ourselves is essential, then a lot fewer of us will actually suffer from these issues in the first place.
Who or what have been most helpful to you both when it comes with managing and treating your own specific mental illness challenges?
JN: Two things. One is meditation. Before I discovered meditation...there were these constant messages I gave myself about how I wasn’t enough, how I wasn’t thin enough, how I wasn’t fit enough...and learning how to meditate and ensuring that there was space to meditate gave me so much more emotional resilience. It created almost a moat around me so I would have a few more layers of skin. I’m someone who gets hurt incredibly easily and meditation made me a bit more resilient.
And another is gratitude. It really is a thing where whatever is going on, if I can just try to find some positive things to focus on, I will feel a lot happier. And that focusing on the problem isn’t really where the solution is. Solutions arise when we let go of obsessing about a problem and allow something else to enter the equation into our thinking.
GA: For me, self-care is such a huge, radical act for me. I’m so used to running and pushing and pushing myself to my limit. But making the time to do things that I know create space gives me a chance to catch my breath—like when I don’t immediately go to my phone. Whatever those things are, are very small but very vital acts of self-care. Otherwise my brain is going full-steam ahead, and I can start to believe my negative thinking, I can start to react in ways that aren't appropriate, I can start to get used to that level of distraction.
Another form of self-care is actually seeking help! Seeking the necessary help... If you’re struggling, it’s OK to get help. It is not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength because by seeking out help, you’re actually being courageous enough to face the things that otherwise we find unfaceable. And by being able to actually get in the zone of real honesty about what’s going on, [that] is one of the most healing things we can do for ourselves and for our families and our loved ones.
JN: And just picking up on that, similarly with medication: so many of us are resistant to taking medications when they’re offered to us. But actually, we are incredibly lucky to live in a day and age where there are in fact effective medicines that can help with depression. Many of our mothers and almost all of our grandmothers weren’t so lucky. Those of us who are living now are lucky to have the solutions and we need to grab them with both hands.
GA: And again, it’s not a sign of weakness! It’s learning about our own realities and taking the actions to heal, protect, and care for ourselves. A lot of it is chemical. A lot of what is going on for us is chemical and hormonal. And it is a brave step to step towards it rather than run away from it.
Given today’s political climate (and your own emphasis on activism in the book), what are your thoughts on today’s Women’s Strike?
JN: It’s really exciting. The more we as women start to take actions together, the harder it will be to ignore our voices. And all of us are called to be activists now; it’s no longer something we can choose not to do. We’re all called to do whatever we can.
One of the things I’ve found is that it’s really important not to get burnt out. You can get burnt out from activism, and so we’ve got to be in it for the long haul. It’s not enough just to march for a whole one day of action. This is going to take a long time. And it’s really important that we sustain ourselves through self-care, through seeking out joyful experiences. We can be activists in a joyful way as well. Treat ourselves in that way, and certainly the Women’s March was an example of that—to be in an environment where there was no danger of violence and no undercurrents of potential violence. It was a wonderful, wonderful way to protest.
This interview is edited and condensed.