Munn's the Word

Olivia Munn speaks out about dealing with anxiety and panic attacks.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on October 16, 2015
7 min read

Olivia Munn is an expert at fresh starts.

A member of a military family, she and her four siblings spent their childhoods moving between bases in Japan and Oklahoma. "I was perpetually the new kid," she says, "and it's always hard to have to break through those barriers. But when I would come home sad about something like girls being mean at school, my mother would just say, 'Figure it out.' We were never allowed to feel sorry for ourselves.

"My mom gave us the message that when something was happening to us, we were smart enough to change it," she continues. "Whether it changes for the better or even the worse, at least you've tried. And that gave me a strong sense of self-worth."

Not to mention flexibility, an attribute reflected in her diverse career. Munn, 35, has been a correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, played a financial news reporter on Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, and held her own in film comedies like Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike. Now she's starring in the Kevin Hart romp Ride Along 2 and making a cameo appearance in Zoolander 2, and she'll get in on the blockbuster action next summer with X-Men: Apocalypse, playing the sword-swinging Psylocke.

A self-professed geek (she can turn any PC into a gaming rig) who has posed for the cover of Playboy (albeit in a bikini), Munn makes no apologies for being funny, smart, and beautiful.

Self Evolved

That sense of acceptance was hard-earned. "I didn't start out feeling comfortable with how I looked," Munn says. "I grew up with a sister who had this very voluptuous body and other girls at school were tall and thin, and I wasn't those things," she remembers.

"Then I moved from Oklahoma to Hollywood, and I was showing up at auditions in my Sunday best with high heels and a dress. I'd go in with these really tall, thin girls with their jeans and ballet flats and tank tops and they made it look so effortless. So I had to figure it out because it wasn't working for me, but wanting to feel pretty was never a crime in my family."

Critics were less kind about Munn's decisions to pose for Playboy and Maxim, railing against the actor when, in 2010, she got her first big break as a correspondent on The Daily Show. When they claimed Munn had been hired for her beauty rather than her brains, she came out swinging and has never looked back.

"I don't want to apologize for anything," she says, "and I'm never going to apologize for being a woman. Men use their physicality all the time. Channing Tatum," with whom she co-starred in Magic Mike, "is super talented and super smart and looks great without a shirt. But when women use everything we have, we're exploiting ourselves and bringing other women down. What if we use everything we have, which puts us on an even playing field with men, and we don't put each other down for it?"

Munn's rebel yell is offset by the comedic chops she's demonstrated professionally, as well as in the Dubsmash videos she and her boyfriend, Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, have posted of the two acting out scenes from The Princess Bride and channeling Mariah Carey. Then there is the way she approaches her failures, with a signature, sassy shrug. Of her role in the Johnny Depp-starring flop Mortdecai, she says, "My best work was in the poster. But you take the opportunities that come along, and you don't know what that will give you in the end."

What she's chasing, she says, is not a conventional path of success but one of happiness. "When I was coming off of Newsroom, people would say, 'You're doing Ride Along 2, huh? That's really different than working with Aaron Sorkin.' But I talked to Jon Stewart, who is like a big brother to me, and he said, 'Kevin Hart is one of the best human beings I have ever met. You don't always need to do Sorkin or Soderbergh projects. Go do something fun.'

"I'm not trying to change the world with my work," she continues. "I don't know if I have the energy to do that. What I want to do is entertain."

Panic Button

Munn's won her confidence after many false starts, beginning with unhealthy diet habits. "I was never the weight I wanted to be," she says. "In 2009, I lost 16 pounds because I came up with the rule of, 'If I don't see it, I don't eat it,' which meant I had to actually see the ingredients. But my weight has always fluctuated."

Then, 2 years ago, Munn began to have panic attacks, which, with the resulting shortness of breath, she blamed on seasonal asthma -- until she passed out and ended up in the emergency room. "Half my family is Asian, and for them anxiety, panic attacks, and chiropractors all fall into one category of 'You're being lazy,'" she says with a laugh. "But the doctor explained to me that life doesn't have to be bad to have a panic attack. Your body is overstimulated, and your brain just can't keep up with your body."

She got help from a therapist, and she also began to see a hypnotist to help her manage her anxiety and the resulting trichotillomania -- the urge to pull out hair anywhere on the body, including the scalp or eyelashes; in Munn's case, it was eyelashes. The hypnotist suggested exercise as a natural way to help combat both anxiety and depression. Three days after a session when he hypnotized her to do just that, she began to work out regularly with a trainer. Her weight became more consistent, and her anxiety level dropped.

Still, "I live with anxiety a lot," Munn says. "And I think when people have anxiety attacks we don't talk about it, because the people who don't understand make you feel like you're going crazy, even when you know you're not. But I've found that the more I can talk to people about it, the less alone I feel," she says, "and that people are more compassionate about it than you realize."

O. Joseph Bienvenu III, MD, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, applauds Munn's speaking out. "A panic attack is a fight-or-flight bodily response at a time when it's not needed, and in addition to being terrifying, people can feel like they're losing their minds," he says. "So social support is huge. And talking allows people to process things and put anxiety in perspective."

Healthy Choices

This year, Munn is focused on her overall health. The first step is discipline about exercise and accepting what works for her. "I don't understand how people run or do yoga," she says. "I'm so not Zen." And when she went on location to film Ride Along 2, "I didn't know how to work out by myself," she admits, "so I put on weight."

But when she began stunt training for X-Men, Munn -- who earned a black belt in karate as a child -- fell back in love with martial arts. She embraced the 6-hour-a-day workouts, and, a month into the training, got on the scale to see she had lost 12 pounds. What worked for her, she says, is "I wasn't thinking about getting more toned. I was thinking about getting fitter and more capable."

Now that filming is over, she practices martial arts in her home gym. Dating a pro-football superstar provides daily inspiration. "My boyfriend is so athletic and good at everything, and it's so much fun to watch," she says. "This past year he's wanting to get really healthy, so when organic is an option, we'll both choose that."

Above all, her focus is on finding joy. That means not just time with family, friends, and Rodgers, but time spent having honest conversations. "I know what I've been through in my life, and I know who I am," she says. "You have to just keep taking the hits as they come, and keep pushing forward."

Taking the Panic Out of Anxiety Attacks

Munn is one of about 6 million people with a panic disorder. Women are twice as likely to suffer as men. Panic attacks -- an errant fight-or-flight instinct marked by a pounding heart, sweating, weakness and dizziness, and chest or stomach pain -- are terrifying, but they are also treatable.

"Milder cases can be cured completely," Bienvenu says. People with severe cases, he says, "can feel normal and function well in life." The first step toward relief: "Talk to your doctor, and empower yourself by looking at the NIH and American Psychiatric Association websites, which have material on what we know and what you should do next." The most effective treatments include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy. This teaches you how to react differently to panic attacks, from practicing self-talk to deep breathing. "Even if you're still having panic attacks, with this therapy you cannot worry about them because you've taught yourself you're going to be fine."

Medications. A type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors can help prevent anxiety attacks.

"When someone is impaired by panic attacks in their everyday life, I think about antidepressants in addition to cognitive therapy," Bienvenu says.

Benzodiazepines, or tranquilizers, can help stop "the physical symptoms, reduce anxiety overall, and work as soon as they are absorbed," he says. Doctors often prescribe them in the short term before cognitive therapy or antidepressants have had time to work; they discourage long-term use because of the risk of addiction.

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