Jennie Runk certainly isn’t afraid to put body positivity in the spotlight. In fact, she recently Instagrammed a photo of her unapologetically squishy belly. But for the 26-year-old model, pursuing a life in the fashion industry also means dealing with a similarly taboo, but less visible, subject — social anxiety.
“I realized I had a much higher level of anxiety than most people,” she tells R29, “and it just happens to play out in social settings a little differently.” We talked to her recently about how that anxiety makes her job difficult, how she deals with it on set, and what she wants you to know about the disorder.
When did you first realize something was different?
“When I moved to New York full-time and moved away from my family, good friends, and support system in Missouri. I was navigating my own way around the city and figuring out my own life away from everyone that I know. I just started noticing that I always have this sense of impending doom, this weird irrational fear.
“Like, I used to live in a building near the Empire State Building. Every time I would leave to go on a work trip, I would visualize something happening to the city, like the city being attacked and the Empire State Building falling on top of my building and killing my cat. I would visualize these very specific and very awful things, and I would be convinced that they were really going to happen — that it was just a matter of time. I started to realize that this probably isn’t normal. People go on work trips all the time, and I don’t think everyone feels this way.
“Then, I would notice: New York is such a crowded city, [and] if I’m walking on a sidewalk with a lot of other people, my heart starts beating really fast, and I get this sense of I need to run away, I need to get away, something bad is going to happen, there’s too many people. It’s completely irrational, but I never really realized that until I started getting into therapy more often.”
Has having anxiety affected your career in any way?
“It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that I have this weird irrational fear of strangers. But in my job, I’m meeting new people almost every single day. It’s not like in a normal office setting, where you see the same people every day — the people that I know through work I might see once or twice a year. So I’m always surrounded by strangers.
“And it’s a very close work environment: Stylists’ job is to pin my clothes, tuck something under my leg if there’s a weird wrinkle, roll my pants up, and sometimes if my nails are wet, they might have to zip my pants for me. Makeup artists and hair stylists are constantly touching me. So at work, I’m not really allowed to have a personal-space bubble because it’s a team effort to get a photo shoot going.
“It’s a little complicated because on the one hand, I get really anxious about people being too close to me and touching me, and meeting new people, and being around strangers. But on the other hand, this is a very normal part of my job. For the most part, I can compartmentalize it, like, In my work life, this is okay. This is what’s supposed to be happening. This is normal. This is my job, this is their job, I’m fine, everything’s fine.
“Outside of work, it’s a little harder. Because if, like, somebody’s standing too close to me in an elevator, I think there’s no excuse for that [laughs].”
What do you do now to manage your anxiety?
“Most of the time, it’s okay, because I’ve been doing this for 13 years and I have a routine now. I get to work, get my coffee, sit down in hair and makeup, and I know that people are going to be touching me, and I’m totally fine for the most part.
“The only times when it gets a little tricky at work is when I’m on set and there’s a lot of people touching me at once. I have to stand perfectly still; there’s like four or five people touching me, and everyone in the room is looking at me at the same time. That’s when I kind of start to feel [anxious].
“But I’ll just close my eyes and think about things that make me happy. I think about people that I know, and I think about my cat, Jasmine — she’s so great, she helps me relax. [At home,] she just sits on me and starts purring and I completely relax. If nothing else can settle me down [at work], I think about what she looks like when she’s sleeping, because it’s such a peaceful image and it’s so cute. I think about that until I forget about everything else that’s going on. And when everyone’s done touching me and we’re ready to shoot, I feel totally fine and centered.”
What, if anything do you wish more people knew about social anxiety?
“The biggest thing is that a lot of times you feel crazy — you feel like a crazy person. And it’s important to know that you are not the only person who feels this. I know that there are other people who panic when they’re in a crowded space like I do, but people don’t talk about this stuff because it’s pretty stigmatized.
“It’s kind of hard to admit to the world that you feel crazy sometimes — especially if you’re already a little cautious around people. But it really helps to just know you’re not alone, and other people are struggling with it too.”