Shortland St star Sally Martin on how she copes with anxiety

On-screen, Sally’s character Nicole is a former party girl who has settled down. In real life, the Kiwi actress battles anxiety issues. Here, she tells Maria Hoyle some of the helpful techniques she uses to find calmness.

By Maria Hoyle
When actress Sally Martin arrives at the Good Health shoot – fresh-faced minus makeup, looking lithe and fit and exuding positive energy – the word 'veteran' seems way too, well, old to possibly apply to her.
But that's very much what she is.
Every weeknight for the past nine years, the Wellingtonian has been beamed into our living rooms as nurse Nicole Miller on Shortland Street. Which makes her the show's third longest-serving cast member – after Michael Galvin aka Dr Chris Warner and Ben Mitchell (Dr TK Samuels).
Today is a rare day off for the 33-year-old star, but she's certainly not complaining. While her character's life has been tumultuous, to say the least, a regular gig in the popular soap – while, admittedly, at the mercy of scriptwriters – gives her a degree of security.
"Having this certainty at this time is very attractive to me, the stability really suits my personality. I'm very grateful. I have a mortgage now!"
And the shooting schedule, which varies from week to week but is mostly "a day job", leaves Sally space to spend time with her partner of three years, graphic designer Dan. And, crucially, to do what she needs to keep body, mind and soul intact.
"I get time to myself, which is very important. To reboot."
She's proven her staying power over the years, but it's needed on a day-to-day basis too.
Being on set can require her to be shooting scene after scene or, depending on the storyline, she may have long waits in between.
Either way, she needs to keep her energy up, and with a bit of trial and error, has found what works for her.
"I find if I have just a few heavy meals, my energy is sapped. But if I have lots of lighter meals, pickable on-the-go things, I prefer that.
"I always pack my lunch, and it's generally something I can have a bowl of, then another in an hour's time.
"Lots of fresh stuff – vegetables, salads or soups in winter. And a coffee on the way to work – that's very important!"
While nutritious food is the fuel Sally needs to keep her firing on all cylinders, she says she's not a 'rule things out' person, with one exception.
"I don't have much sugar in my diet. My only sugar would come from fruit.
"I'm not a sweet tooth anyway but I find the spikes in energy don't suit me at all."

Vegeing out

Fresh is very much key to Sally's diet.
She has a little vegetable patch at home, but has no pretensions to being an expert gardener.
"It's like a child's approach to a garden. I grow the veges and the fruit. Dan does everything else, he's got amazing green fingers. But for me, as long as I can see a red tomato, the fruits of my labours, then I'm happy!
"It's definitely a weekend thing more than anything. It's something to potter away at. Having a project is helpful for me.
"It's a way I can be by myself. I'm really rather introverted so I need that time. I feel I need to be active.
"I can't concentrate on a book for very long sometimes. So heading out there, picking weeds and taking silly videos is a relief from stress."
It's clearly a bit of fun for her, but it also has a more serious side. Sally has talked openly about her struggles with anxiety, and she's come to learn what she needs to do to keep her emotional health in check.
And her approach to tackling anxiety couldn't be further from that of her on-screen character.
Nicole has battled an addiction to prescription drugs, which she used to deal with severe anxiety and panic attacks.
Anxiety is debilitating for anyone, let alone an actor. So the temptation for a quick fix must be strong. But Sally hasn't resorted to medication.
How then does she address it, if not through drugs?
"It's funny with my anxiety. While sometimes I can pinpoint where it's come from, more often than not it just sneaks up out of nowhere.
"My experience of anxiety is negative self-talk and I look back on days when I'm feeling better and think, 'Now why can't you talk yourself through that? Why would everyone be angry with me? Why are you the worst actor?'
"But if I could read my self-talk, it's all over the show. It's nonsensical emotions and feelings. There's actually no rationalising with it, so exercise is a massive one for me."
Working out gives her not just an endorphin boost, but the sense of having accomplished something. Whether it's 10 minutes or an hour and 10 minutes.
"I've done it, and there's nothing negative about it.
"It's time I'm distracted and not focusing on this self-berating monologue. Instead I am just focused on being able to breathe!"
She prefers to work out at home by herself. Sally isn't a fan of the gym, and prefers the flexibility of exercising in her own time, for however long she has available.

Helpful strategies

"I find the ease of being at home great. It's also that private time. The style of exercise I like is calisthenics and weights. I've got a couple of dumb bells of different sizes and resistance bands."
The actress is committed to exercising, but she calls the shots and doesn't let the regime dictate to her.
Just as she'll only do 10 minutes if she's feeling low on energy, she also won't sacrifice her sleep.
While Sally usually exercises in the morning – "if I don't exercise in the morning, I don't get it done" – she adds "there's no way you'll get me up" for a workout if she has a 6am start.
Another anti-anxiety strategy she's found useful is meditation. She uses the Headspace app – recommended to her by a fellow Shorty actor.
"It helps me because a) I like being told what to do and b) My attention span is shoddy on a good day, let alone on an anxious one.
"You can do as little as five minutes, which is generally what I do. It takes you out of your head, in the breathing sense. I find it very helpful, at work too."
Dan doesn't meditate, but according to Sally he's quite emotionally sorted.
He's "probably the most emotionally astute person I've ever met.
"He's so sensitive to others' emotions and can read lots of things. He's very patient and calm, and been an incredible help for me."

Playing a character whose life is such an emotional roller-coaster must surely also take its toll.
Among Nicole Miller's personal dramas have been a lesbian affair that nearly ended her marriage; a series of financial disasters, a sick son, and being run over by a drunk Dr Finn Warner (Lukas Whiting).
"Certain things have affected me more than others.
"I struggle as an actor to cry on cue. I'm an actor who tries to mimic a look and a feeling as opposed to digging deep and finding something that's going to upset me.
"I find that unhealthy. It's not worked for me. It's definitely worked for other people. But when it's the same storyline and you're rocking through, and it's very upsetting when there's tears or yelling – it's hard not to feel drained.
"I definitely need a cuddle by the end of the day. A glass of wine and a piece of chocolate too!"
One saving grace is that she's surrounded by other actors who all have to go through the same emotional process. They're all very supportive of one another, says Sally.
"They're an awesome group of open, friendly people. A real family – both cast and crew."

Finding calm

During one particular conversation about processing the fallout from emotional scenes, a fellow actor mentioned something his health practitioner told him.
"Apparently, when you act and behave in a certain way, your systems don't know the difference between real and fake.
"So your nervous system can be tweaked by the fake emotions, you can actually bring on anxiety, that 'fight or flight' thing, from simply pretending.
"It sounds pretty nuts to me. I thought, 'Really?! I can trick my body like that?!'
"But it made me think I should definitely get more into meditation. Especially as we go quickly through scenes and there's not often time in between to regroup and get calm."
And then there's that other modern mixed blessing – social media.
Sally's Instagram – pictures of her at the beach, with Dan, in fitness gear – is upbeat and positive, nothing contentious to see here. Ah yes, but with 70,700 followers, there's bound to be at least a couple of haters in there.
How does she deal with negative comments?
"A lot of the negative stuff can be towards my character. That's totally water off a duck's back for me.
"As much as other people are confused about who I am, I'm not!"
Sally always tries to respond, and to be light-hearted about it; and she tries to work out the motivation – whether it's just someone attention-seeking.
One unspoken rule, among the cast, is to never go on the Facebook Shortland Street sites – as nothing good will ever come of that – "People can be very cruel."

Last year Sally took advantage of Instagram to do something that was the very opposite of cruel – to give a shoutout to the nursing profession.
In a post on July 12 – when nurses were striking for better pay and conditions – she wrote, "Today I stand with the country's nurses; the real ones, the really wonderful ones."
When Good Health mentions it, she says, "Oh yeah. Yes, it's terrible. I know a few nurses… I put that up because I feel the same with teachers and things – but I felt it was more relevant for my following knowing that I play a nurse.
"I so appreciate nurses, for the times me or my family have been in hospital."
Gratitude is something that seems to be a theme with Sally. Grateful for her job, for her fellow crew members, for Dan, for the simple things in life that make her happy.
And her ultimate happy place?
"It would be by the ocean in the sun. With a book, a couple of my favourite people and my imaginary dog.
"It will happen one day!"
Over summer, she'll be visiting her family in Lower Hutt (her sister is a huge fan of Shortland Street, her dad watches from time to time).
"They are all very proud of me."
She's also keen to get to Goat Island and do some snorkelling. And she'll potter around the house.
Sally seems settled, content with her Auckland life.
Does she have ambitions to go overseas, do the LA thing?
No, she says firmly. While she admires the drive and ambition of those in her profession who do head to the US, she's quite happy where she is thank you.
And she admits she'd struggle to "put up with the hardship".
Hearing her say this, it strikes you as not a weakness but very much a strength.
She knows who she is, what works for her. She's had to figure that out.
"I definitely think it's an age thing for me.
"I'm in my thirties and I think, 'Well this is how it is. This is what I like, how I feel and what I am, so let's go with it!'"

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