Chrissy Metz occasionally has to pinch herself.
Star of the wildly popular NBC television series This Is Us, Metz is having a dazzling year (or two). Her character, Kate Pearson, a woman struggling with her weight and her past, is a fan favorite. People -- even a smattering of celebrities, including Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey -- often approach her to gush about how connected they feel to Kate.
Critics also have given her the nod. In just more than a year, Metz, 37, was nominated for two Golden Globes and an Emmy. In January, she took home a Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding performance by an ensemble.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the moment,” she says. “There were plenty of years when I wasn’t even part of the conversation.” After being passed over for countless roles, she is grateful to play a character who’s “flawed and complex and full of heart,” and Metz hopes the tide is turning as more relatable plus-size women appear on television.
A Difficult Childhood
But while Metz’s life may seem glamorous, it’s complicated.
As she explains in her new memoir, This Is Me: Loving the Person You Are Today, looks can be deceiving. “People think celebrities are on a pedestal -- and that we don’t have the same issues or thoughts or experiences,” she says. “But we do.” Like her TV character, Metz has struggled with her weight most her life and had difficulties in childhood that remain with her today.
Metz grew up the youngest of three. Her father was in the Navy, and the family moved to Japan when she was a baby. But she felt largely ignored by him -- in fact, she refers to him as “Mark” rather than “Dad.”
When Metz was 8, he went his own way. Her mother moved the family to Gainesville, FL, but struggled to make ends meet. Soon she became pregnant, had a baby, then remarried. Somewhere in the shuffle, they moved in with her mother’s new husband and his daughter -- and their lives became tumultuous. “There was a lot going on, and everyone was trying to find their footing,” Metz says.
Metz’s stepfather abused her physically and emotionally. “He shoved me, slapped me, punched my arm, and yanked my wrist,” she writes in her memoir. Displeased with everything from her weight to her chores, he constantly chastised her. Because her mother didn’t come to her rescue, Metz felt neglected. She began eating secretly for comfort. Her self-esteem plummeted.
Being the chubbiest child at school didn’t help. Kids teased her, and she felt embarrassed and ashamed. “I became hardened and defensive to protect myself,” she says. She made jokes about herself before others had a chance to and morphed into a class clown, doing and saying things that were out of character.
“It was really difficult,” she says of her childhood. “I felt alone and picked on. I always felt inadequate. I felt like an outsider when all I wanted to do was be on the inside.”
With adulthood came new challenges. In 2005, Metz moved to Los Angeles to give acting a try, but her weight was an obstacle. She rarely got auditions, much less roles. Those she booked were clichés -- an overweight friend, the butt of a joke. She auditioned for American Idol -- yes, she also sings -- but that didn’t pan out either.
While she did find work (and success) as a talent agent, and met and married a man she loved, Metz spent much of her 20s down on her luck and down on herself.
In September 2010, on her 30th birthday, Metz was in a movie theater, settling in to watch The Expendables, when something felt terribly wrong. Her heart raced, and she had trouble breathing. “I thought I was having a heart attack. I was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance,” she says. “It was one of the scariest things in the world.”
After a battery of tests, doctors told her nothing was wrong. She needed to lose weight, they said, but she didn’t have a heart attack. It was an anxiety attack.
Symptoms of anxiety attacks -- palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, chest pain -- are similar to those of a heart attack. “It can be very frightening if you don’t know why you’re having them,” says Gladys Frankel, PhD, assistant professor at Dartmouth University’s Geisel School of Medicine. “People often rush to the emergency room to be assessed and treated for a heart attack.”
Anxiety is common. About 40 million Americans have an anxiety disorder, which is different from everyday worries. Anxiety is persistent and overwhelming, and it may involve fatigue, headaches, and insomnia. It often interferes with work, relationships, and life. Anxiety tends to stick around and can get worse over time. But treatments can help, such as a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, and medication.
Some people are more prone to anxiety than others. “Children who’ve experienced their parents’ divorce, bullying, and overeating are more vulnerable,” says Frankel. Not all children who go through stressful experiences have anxiety as adults. But childhood issues have a way of coming back, especially if you don’t deal with them, she says.
After her health scare, Metz came face-to-face with what she’d been reluctant to address for years -- emotional eating. “I ate over my feelings. It was the only way I could cope,” she says.
“Emotional eating is a real thing,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York. “Eating can be a coping strategy, but it’s not an effective one. It’s like an immediate drug. Later you feel terrible.”
Metz decided to take charge of her health. “I was forced to reconcile my past. I started seeking outside help about why I ate about my feelings and how not to, so things started to shift,” she says. She ate better, walked every day, joined a support group, and learned to forgive and accept herself.
Learning to Manage Anxiety
Soon Metz hit a bump in the road. After a 5-year marriage, she and her husband divorced. They’re friends now, but as their relationship dissolved, her anxiety resurfaced.
This time, she was determined to manage it better. She read inspirational books like The Untethered Soul, found advice on podcasts and YouTube, and tapped into her spirituality. She learned to identify and accept feelings of worry, then calm and distract herself with meditation, music, and walking. “I learned to lean into the fear,” she says. “The more you resist, the more it persists, as they say.”
Metz also started a gratitude journal. “Before I get out of bed, I name at least five to 10 things I’m grateful for. It sounds silly, but it’s an amazing thing,” she says.
These coping skills have proved invaluable. Last summer, just before she was to fly to Los Angeles to be her daughter’s Emmy Awards date, Metz’s mother had a severe stroke. Now she has aphasia, a post-stroke condition that affects language communication. While she can’t use words, she communicates with gestures and sounds.
At first, Metz was shaken by this new reality. But as she learned more about aphasia, she felt empowered to manage it. She also learned to appreciate small victories. “When I saw her at Christmas, she actually held a marker in her hand and wrote her name in cursive,” Metz says with pride. “My mom is a badass. She has this willpower and strength that I could only hope to have.”
This Is Now
Now, after facing her fears and practicing coping skills, Metz has a new supply of willpower and strength -- and it’s growing.
Metz says she focuses on lifestyle changes to improve her health, like forging a better relationship with food and making healthier choices. But she stops short of judging herself. “So many of us feel like we’re never good enough -- not tall enough, thin enough, smart enough, rich enough,” she says. “But really, we’re perfect just as we are.”
Instead of worrying about next week or next month, she tries to live day by day. When anxiety surfaces -- which it often does when good things happen, she says -- she reaches into her toolbox of strategies.
She also basks in the sunshine -- like when Oprah invited her over for lunch and told Metz she’s “one of our lifetime’s heroes.” Or when her acting idol Sam Rockwell introduced himself at the Golden Globes. “I was like, ‘You know me?!’ ” she recalls with awe.
Just as it is on This Is Us, Metz’s life has highs and lows. “Just because I’m on a TV show doesn’t mean things are unicorns and rainbows,” she says. “Most days they really are. But it’s been a process. I’m still a work in progress.”
Facts About Anxiety
Like Chrissy Metz, millions of other Americans have anxiety attacks or anxiety disorders. Some facts:
- Women are more likely than men to have an anxiety disorder. About 19% of adults in the U.S. have one.
- Types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety disorder.
- Most people have symptoms before age 21. In fact, anxiety is common among teenagers -- about 32%.
- Studies suggest anxiety runs in families and comes from a combination of genetics and environmental reasons.
- Stressful life events, being divorced or widowed, shyness in childhood, limited economic means, close relatives with anxiety disorders, and parents with mental illness can make anxiety disorders more likely.
- Anxiety is linked to depression, substance use, ADHD, sleep issues, and eating disorders.
- About 31% of adults have had anxiety at some point in their life.
- Most people with an anxiety disorder have mild impairment. About 34% of them have moderate impairment. About 23% have serious impairment.
- Anxiety can be managed with tools like psychotherapy, self-help, support groups, stress management strategies, and medication.